How do honey bees survive the winter? Typically our share of bitterly cold days in the Washington DC metro area is much less compared to other regions of the country. However, given these Arctic conditions enveloping much of the East Coast, I worry about how our bees are doing. While they are well prepared to overwinter harsh conditions, there are always unforeseen problems that can arise. All beekeepers worry about their hives possibly facing starvation, over exposure to harsh wind conditions, diseases, and pest invasions during the long winter.
Preparing the hives for winter actually begins in later summer. The bees must be fed enough simple sugar to make them strong and fit enough to not only survive the winter, but also support their spring brood rearing. They must be left with enough honey stores—approximately 60 pounds in this area. This honey must be located close by where the bees cluster around the queen to keep her warm or else they may starve to death in the winter (even if the hive has honey elsewhere). Other precautions include installing a mouse guard and properly venting the hive (to prevent moisture from building up inside, which could freeze the bees).
While people typically think of summer as a “very busy” time for honeybees, they are also quite active in winter and do not hibernate. Their metabolic rates remain constant year round and their major job is to keep the core hive temperature around 60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Worker bees will form a cluster or ball with the queen at the center. By flexing their wing muscles (instead of beating their wings), they can generate heat to warm up the hive. The bees are constantly changing their position in the cluster—moving in to the center to warm up and then moving outward. The bees maintain the cluster over their brood in order to prevent future bees from dying of cold.
When temperatures warm up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the bees will take “cleansing flights” where they eliminate their bodily waste and remove debris and dead bees that have accumulated in the hive. However, too many drastic temperature changes (which can happen in our area) may result in bees flying out of the hive to look for pollen and nectar on warm afternoons. If this happens too often, honey stores within the hive may be depleted too rapidly as the foraging bees consume extra honey before leaving the hive. This situation would place the entire hive in danger of starvation.
So while there are plenty of precautions a beekeeper can take to help ensure that his or her hives come through winter okay, it is also an anxious, waiting time. Due to fears of disrupting the cluster of bees or chilling the brood, beekeepers typically do not open the hive in mid-winter to check on their bees. It’s very hard to be patient and wait until early spring to see how the hives fared. But patience is what is needed at this time of year.