Honey bees are amazing creatures, adapted to all sorts of weather and habitat extremes. I imagine that bees much prefer the warm temperatures of a mid-June day – I know that I do. On this brisk -17 degree December morning, my bees are snuggled tightly in their winter cluster, fighting the bitter cold and wind. It has been well over a week with sub-zero overnight temperatures (and even sub-zero daytime temps). On days like this, I think of the bees (read: worry about the bees) often and hope that I have done everything right up to this point as a beekeeper to give them the best possible chance at surviving this extended deep freeze.
Inside the wrapped hive, the bees gather and move as a cluster. The size of a winter cluster of bees varies and depends on the size of the colony going into winter, but generally is about the size of a basketball at this point in the year. There are no drones (males) in this cluster—they were kicked out in the fall when the temperatures dropped and days got shorter. The queen stays generally at the center of the cluster, surrounded by thousands of her workers. The bees work diligently to keep the center of the cluster warm – about 92 degrees F. They do this by “shivering” their flight muscles to generate heat.
Throughout the winter months, the bees consume the honey they gathered and stored in the summer, breaking cluster to find new patches of stored honey when the temperatures allow it. A well supplied colony probably contains about 150 pounds of honey in late fall – plenty of honey to make it through winter. On warm winter days – think 35-40 degrees – the bees will take cleansing flights to relieve themselves; otherwise, they won’t defecate inside their hive. Sometimes the bees will get too cold and will not be able to return to the hive. I sometimes will sit near the bee yard on these warmer days and watch them come and go from the hive. If you pick up one of the freezing bees, you can hold her in your hands and watch her warm back up right in front of your eyes! This is a very cool – albeit very geeky – experience. Check out these videos:
Depending on the outdoor temperature, the queen will begin laying eggs sometime in March. This is when hive management gets critical. Once the queen begins laying eggs, the workers will cluster over the young brood and will not leave them to freeze– even if they can’t get to their honey and pollen stores. I have had a colony starve to death because the temperature dropped and the cluster would not move from the brood to get honey, even though it was just one or two frames away. There was over 70 pounds of honey remaining in this colony in the spring. It was heartbreaking. When the temps are over 40 degrees, we can open the hives to make sure that the bees have access to the frames of honey. If not, we will move the frames closer to the cluster to give them a chance.
If everything goes right, the bees will have plenty of honey stores to make it through the long winter and will begin building population in the early spring. Colonies that come through winter strong will be the top producers the following season. Once the bees have replenished their stores for the following winter – three deep hive bodies full of honey and pollen – then we get to put on the honey supers to gather our share.