What happens to bees over the winter?

What happens to bees over the winter?

We quite often get asked what happens to our bees over the winter, do they hibernate? Do they still collect honey?

Winter is the quietest time of year for the busy bees, by the end of September all of the honey boxes have been removed for extraction and the bees have been fed with sugar syrup to replace the honey that we have taken. As the days grow shorter and cooler, the male (drone) bees are ejected from the hive and with plenty of honey and pollen already stored in the hive and dwindling forage outside the population of bees starts to decline.

Our large hives have around 50,000 bees at the height of summer but this will fall to below 10,000 in the depths of winter. As the outside temperature continues to decrease the bees remaining in the hive start to cluster and work together to maintain the inside temperature of the hive. The bees at the center of the cluster eat the stored honey and use the energy to vibrate their flight muscles without flapping their wings, this generates heat to keep the cluster warm.

The bees manage to regulate the temperature in the hive very successfully and manage to keep it between 30°C and 36°C even in sub zero outside temperatures.

The bees that live in the hive over winter are also different from their summer sisters, the different work that is required of them creates physical changes in the bee that helps to extend their life. These changes and the heavily reduced flying means a winter bee can live for up to six months whilst a summer bee’s life might only last six weeks.

For us, winter is a time of repair and planning for next season. Once the bees have been fed, we place entrance blocks in the fronts of the hive to keep it a bit warmer and cover the remaining gap with a mouse guard to keep out any naughty little mice. Once the mouse guards are in place we won’t open the hives until around Christmas time when the bees will be treated with an oxalic acid solution to kill off any varroa mites before being left alone again until early spring when the bees start flying again.

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