If you ever look at a beehive during the winter, you might assume you’re looking at a long-abandoned home. From the outside, beehives look dead and uninhabited in the winter. The usual buzzing and activity that people see outside hives melt away as soon as the temperatures drop. But honeybees don’t simply die out during the winter, and they don’t hibernate. The truth behind what honeybees do to survive long, harsh winters may surprise you. Read on to learn how these amazing critters make it through the most brutal conditions and come out the other side thriving just like before.
How Honeybees Prepare for Winter
To survive harsh, cold winters, honeybees exploit the summer months for honey collection. We might think honeybees make their honey so that we can spread it on our bread or sweeten our tea, but the bees have their own reasons. In reality, they need all those stores of food to keep themselves well-fed throughout the winter. When it’s too cold outside, the honeybees have no living plants from which to collect nectar, and they’ll die if their body temperatures reach 41 degrees Fahrenheit. So they must eat from large reserves of their own collected honey to survive.
How Honeybees Survive the Winter
With all this information about food storage and resource rationing, you may think that honeybees hibernate during the winter. But what honeybees do to survive long, harsh winters is actually far more interesting: they stay perfectly awake in their hives and consume the stored honey. Here are some other ways the colony survives during the cold season:
They Force Out the Drones
Since they take up too much space and eat too much food without contributing very much to the hive overall, drone bees are edged out of the hive before winter. Female worker honeybees use force to push the drones out of the hive by starving them until they’re weak. Once the drones are hungry and incapable of fighting back, the workers escort them out of the hive entrance. The drones then die from starvation or hypothermia.
They Form a Cluster
The main goal of a honeybee hive in the winter is the same as its goal in the summer and spring: to keep the queen and her eggs alive. This is obviously much easier in the warmer months, when the climate is not so hostile to the queen’s survival. When things get colder, however, the honeybees need to become a little more creative.
To keep the queen and her eggs warm, worker honeybees come together in a ball, which we call a cluster. The cluster allows them to concentrate their heat around a particular area. With the queen at the center, she can stay warm all winter longer.
Honeybees must constantly follow through on certain tasks to keep their cluster warm. These include:
- Swapping places in the cluster so that the honeybees that get too cold on the outside have a chance to warm up inside
- Unhinging their wings so that they don’t fly away when they vibrate their flying muscles to produce warmth
- Consuming honey so that they have the energy to vibrate.
- Using empty cells as sleeping bags so that they can keep warm
- Creating heat with their bodies through perspiration
- Using propolis to seal any cracks inside the hive
They Raise a New Brood
Heat production becomes especially important as late winter goes into early spring. That is when the honeybees raise a young brood. The babies must stay at a warm temperature to protect their development. When a cluster does not have a brood, it stays at 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but it goes up to 93 degrees Fahrenheit when there is a brood.
They “Hold It”
Even honeybees use the bathroom. Beekeepers call it a “cleansing flight” when honeybees leave the hive to relieve themselves. During the warmer parts of the year, honeybees can accomplish this easily enough. However, when it gets cold, they struggle a little more. During the winter, honeybees cannot leave the hive if the weather is lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. So what do they do if they have to use the bathroom but it’s not warm enough to go outside? They do what humans do: hold it.
When they need to go but are trapped inside the hive, honeybees hold their knees together until they cannot wait any more. They don’t want to spoil their hive with their waste, but they will if they don’t have the opportunity to leave.
The Role of Beekeepers During the Winter
Beekeepers have a responsibility to maintain and oversee their hives through the winter. They can give their bees extra honey to help them get through the cold and cover the hive in a special winter wrap to insulate the colony. But a beekeeper may face more than a few complications when it’s cold out. Although the first impulse of a beekeeper may be to open the hive so that they can see what’s going on inside, that’s impossible in the winter. The sudden rush of freezing temperatures could destroy the hive.
There are a few other ways beekeepers can stay current with their honeybees without opening the hive. Some of these include:
- Installing thermal cameras to check the colony for signs that it’s warm
- Tapping their finger on the side of the hive and listening for buzzing with a stethoscope
- Using a screened bottom board so that they can climb beneath and look up at the colony
- Looking for a circle of melted snow on the hive’s top, which indicates that heat is emanating from the colony
- Looking for dead drone bees around the entrance
The resilience and resourcefulness of honeybees truly are astounding. These creatures, seemingly small and insignificant to us, can achieve marvels of social engineering. Their ability to cooperate and organize allows them to survive the harshest conditions, and we still get to enjoy their delicious honey at the end of it. If you’re searching for raw natural honey for sale, take a look at Crystal’s Honey.