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The Bee Keeper

How Do Honey Bees Survive Winter?

How cold-blooded insects manage to stay warm through the cold season.


winter bee hive

Photo: A beekeeper lifts a frame out of a hive. Frames hang vertically in a hive and the bees "stand" on the vertical surface. The surface is made of beeswax and is composed of "cells" that the bees fill with honey, baby bees, or pollen. When a cell is full the bees cover the contents of the cell with a layer of beeswax to keep the contents clean.

Right now beekeepers are getting their bees ready to handle winter. Insects are cold blooded, so their body temperature reflects the ambient temperature. If they become too cold they lose the ability to move their muscles, quit breathing and die. Too cold is below 50 F. So how do cold blooded insects stay warm? Good question.

First, bees are furry. And that fur keeps air from just rushing by. It provides a dead air space that insulates them. And when two bees get close together they have more dead air space and if 15 or 50 or 5000 bees give a group hug they can all stay a bit warmer for even longer, using ass that fuzz as an insulator to keep warm air in.

But that only works until there's no more warm air to hold. What then? Well, just for a moment, slide out of your chair and give me 20 pushups. Quick. No loafing. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Your doctor would approve certainly, but don't you feel warmer? Work up a sweat? Warm to the touch? Well that's what bees do. They exercise to stay warm. But if everybody was running around, doing pushups and sit ups and jogging in place it would be a mad house inside a beehive, and they would use up an awful lot of energy. But what they do is quite clever.

bees in winter

A closer look at a frame showing cells containing baby bees in the center, and honey in the corner. The empty cells will be held empty for pollen, or more honey.

First, they huddle together in a ball. Remember that to bees, the vertical surfaces of the frames inside a hive act as the floor. That's where they stand and sit and live. The first photo shows how the frames are arranged in a hive, and what a "surface" looks like when a frame is removed. The vertical "surface" is really the floor the bees live on.

But that floor is full of holes, and in those holes, what beekeepers call cells, are where the bees store their honey and pollen, and raise their young. The second photo shows a frame's surface with several things going on. In the center of the frame there are many of the cells covered with a chocolate brown beeswax. Under these coverings, beekeepers call them caps or cappings, are baby bees. In the upper corner you can see cells covered with a more golden colored beeswax. Under these cappings is honey. You can also see empty cells. These are left empty by the bees so if there is pollen to store it can go here, or more honey can go here also.

So when it gets cold, bees huddle together in the center of the hive, standing shoulder to shoulder, side to side as close together as they can get between the frames Bees will be on the surface of one frame, and their backs will be just touching the backs of the bees standing on the surface of the frame next door. Then, more bees will come along and squeeze between these two bees so they are all tucked in safe and snug.

As cozy as this is, it's still not enough to keep a bunch of bees warm. Some bees will go into empty cells, and they will be very close to bees in the next cell over and the empty cells on the other side of the frame. So the bees keep any brood in the hive warm…it has to say at about 93 degrees…and each other warm...how?

Remember that exercise you did? Well, the bees on the inside of that cluster vibrate their wing muscles...the biggest muscles in their bodies. And just like you, they warm up. And that warmth is moved up, down and sideways throughout the bunch of bees...we call it a cluster...and keeps all the bees warm.

bees in winter

Photo: These cells contain pollen that the bees have packed into the cell. They will finish filling the cell with honey, which preserves the pollen, and then cap the cell with beeswax.

Some of the bees in the cluster are standing right on top of honey. But most aren't. When a bee far from honey is hungry she begs the bee next to her for food, who then passes that message along. The bee on the honey eventually gets the message, sucks some up and passes it to the next bee to the next bee...until everybody has had lunch.

Meanwhile, the bees on the outside of the cluster squeeze close together to keep that heat in. The colder it gets, the closer they get. Bees are covered with hairs, and those hairs hold some of tha warm air, too. But eventually they get tired, hungry and cold. So they get to sit out an inning or so, and head toward the middle of the cluster for some lunch and a warm place to take a nap. They stay there until they are needed again. This is a continuous cycle, all winter long.

As winter progresses, there is usually very few baby bees so the adults can move from one spot with honey to another without letting the young get cold. If the beekeeper has done the job right there's more than enough food, and more than enough room, and the bees keep this up all winter, until it's spring and they can fly again.

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Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum is the editor of Bee Culture magazine.
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Bee Culture: The magazine of American beekeeping.
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