I can’t speak for other beekeepers, but in winter the first thing I want to do when it comes to beekeeping is washing my suit. By the end of the season, it can be pretty disgusting and for some reason, there never seems to be time between Spring and Fall. You have to be able to grab your suit at the drop of a hat if you need something, so washing it falls to the wayside.
Wherever there are distinct seasons, you will have probably noticed a lack of bees during the coldest parts of the year. One of the biggest questions I get as a beekeeper is what is happening in the hive at this time? Do all the bees die off and the queen survives and lays new ones? Do they hibernate?
Bees live all year round. They do not hibernate and sleep through the winter season. Instead, they have three big events that are happening through the months of November, December, January, and February (if you’re in the northern hemisphere). Bees are heating the cluster of bees in their hive, eating honey, and dying. That’s it. That’s the big three!
The fact that they are doing these three things on their own leaves the beekeeper with little to do than to plan for the next busy season, wash their suit, enjoy the honey from all their labor the season before, and spend time furthering their education and knowledge.
A bee’s job in winter looks a lot different than other months of the year. Instead of managing the hive and foraging for nectar and pollen, a bee is merely working inside the hive to keep it warm enough for survival. The fact that bees are not coming and going from the hive means that a winter bee’s survival lengthens from the usual 6 weeks to as long as even 6 months. These winter bees cluster together in the hive to keep each other warm, so a winter bee’s job is simply to warm the hive. To create warmth bees engage in thermogenesis, which is actually just shivering. The inside of this cluster of bees is kept at approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
This shivering has to be fueled by some type of energy in order to keep the cluster that warm. That’s why bees make honey. The entire purpose of honey is to feed the bees in winter. In a climate like Colorado bees typically eat about 5-6 pounds of honey per month, which the amount exponentially increasing when March comes around, the weather warms, and the queen starts laying eggs again. The hive temperature has to be about 93 degrees Fahrenheit for egg laying. She does not lay eggs in winter.
As the bees heat the cluster over winter and consume their own resources they also still die as time goes on. In fact when a beekeeper measures the approximate population of bees going into winter it can typically be about 15 frames full of bees in October, with that population ending at about 5 frames in March before the queen starts laying and the population increases. Beekeepers then adjust the amount of hive boxes and space that bees use as they come out of winter.
Once spring comes, the beekeeper’s job is ready to continue and things go from quiet to incredibly busy almost overnight. Hopefully, a new season starts with a fresh clean suit!