What do bees do in the winter?

In nature, organisms have different strategies to deal with the winter. Some migrate (e..g many species of swallows and the the monarch butterflies), some hibernate (e.g. bears – though not polar bears), some stay at home and turn the heating up (I’ll take the fifth on this one).

Honeybees are really interesting creatures in many different ways. One of the ways that fascinates me is that they are cold-blooded creatures – their body temperature changes with their surroundings – but inside their colony, in the hive, they maintain a fixed temperature, mostly for the brood (larvae and pupae), as these are really sensitive to cold. Bees warm the hive by repeatedly flexing their flying muscles and thus generating heat.

As winter approaches, the colony does a few different things in preparation:

  • Reduce the bees numbers to the required minimum. Too many bees require a lot of food, so the bare minimum is better. Around early to mid fall, the (female) worker bees also kick out all the (male) drones who are left to die outside.
  • Collect as much honey as possible, as a food source for the winter.
  • Properly seal the hive (to preserve heat energy). This is done using propolis, the main ingredient of which is tree resin the bees collect.
  • Toward the end of fall, the bees stop rearing brood. The queen stops laying eggs, such that the existing bees will need to take the hive through the winter, but the hive’s temperature can now be lowered without harming the vulnerable brood.

Once winter sets in, the bees are in true survival mode. When the temperature outside is below 50 degrees F (10 C), they cannot fly and are hive-bound. When it gets really cold, the bees form a tight cluster where they heat one another. In the middle of that cluster you can find the most precious bee in the hive – the queen. The colder it is, the tighter the cluster will be.

The bees gradually consume their honey through the winter, starting with the lower portions of the hive and making their way up until they reach the top, at which point they likely exhausted all their honey stores.

The hive is in a very fragile state during the winter: many things can go wrong. There’s a delicate balance between having too many bees and too few bees – too many means not enough food, too few means they can’t heat the hive. The bees go into the winter with certain assumptions, by which it was determined who many bees are needed. If then some disease hits and more bees die, all of a sudden the hive could find itself below its critical number of bees, and there would be very little the beekeeper can do (other than go back in time and try to treat for whatever disease the bees had, and not all of them have available treatments).

Another obvious issue is the food storage. When it’s super-cold, the bees cannot move their cluster. They’re clustered so closely and tightly that the cluster is unable to change its position in the hive. A long cold spell could cause a hive to starve to death, even if they have honey available, as they couldn’t move their cluster to where that honey is stored. Again, very little the beekeeper can do at this point.

Hives that made it through most of the winter and got all the way to March, will likely start rearing new brood to create the first foraging bees of spring time. The most common issues for colonies that made it all the way to March is starving due to depleted honey stores. Here an attentive beekeeper can supplement their honey with dry artificial feed (typically sugar-rich patties), or if the outside temperature is warm enough, feed them some sugar-syrup (we avoid feeding liquids when it’s too cold in order not to introduce excess moisture to the hive, as that attracts fungi).

So there’s your answer: what do bees do in the winter? They cluster together to keep each other warm. Not a bad idea for humans either. Stay warm!

CSA Changes in 2020 Season

Hi everyone,

I got the results of the survey that I sent out, based on some of your feedback I’m going to implement some changes to next year’s honey CSA. I’m going to present them here, I would love to hear your opinions – is it a step in the right direction, is it all wrong, whatever you feedback is, I’m all ears!

Payment changes

  • During registration, you’ll decide between paying in advance (when you register) or paying on delivery. Pre-payment does not give priority – it’s just for your convenience. If I end up not having enough honey, a refund (partial or full) will be issued.
  • Zelle will be added as a payment option.
  • As I had several people asking about PayPal, this will become an option again. I removed PayPal due to the fees they charge, for those who really prefer PayPal, a charge for PayPal fee will be added to your payment, so it will be your choice between PayPal’s convenience vs avoiding their fees. PayPal generally charges $0.30 + 2.9% of the transaction.

Pickup Changes

As most of you are aware, I’m using a cabinet and I’m asking people to choose when they pick up their honey. The reason I switched to this is that the cabinet can only accommodate so many bags.

As we all live busy lives, instead of putting all the bags in the cabinet and waiting for them to be picked up, I switched to asking people when they’d like to pick up. This allows for better space utilization, but just as importantly, the honey doesn’t sit there waiting for too long in the heat of summer, especially the honeycomb.

This is why I’m keeping this pickup method and pickup date selection, but here are some changes:

  • Some of us (me included) need glasses to see the digits on the lock – I’ve put a pair of basic reading glasses on the cabinet. Use them if you need to.
  • Instead of picking one precise date, you’ll pick the date you want the honey to wait for you. You don’t have to pick it up on that specific day, but aim to pick it up within a week or so from that date, so you can give yourself some wiggle room.
  • When placing your order, you will choose between picking it up as it becomes available (typically two separate pickups) or waiting until it is all ready (likely in mid-August to early September).
  • I will try to have one or two occasions per CSA pickup period where I’m physically present and you can come and get your honey from me in person. I’ll do my best but I can’t guarantee that. You can still pick up from the cabinet if you prefer that.

Product Changes

What I currently offer will not change, but here are some additions.

  • Cappings honey – this is honey that comes out when I melt the wax cappings that the bees placed on the comb. It tastes slightly different. I ran a little experiment this year and gave it for people to try out, next year it will be offered as a product. I still have some left – if you want some this year, please contact me.
  • Beeswax – I will have this as an option, and if enough people are interested, I’ll be offering beeswax as well, probably in 1 oz bars, so if you want to make your own candles or lipbalm, this could be useful.
  • In the past I tried to look into collecting bee pollen. No promises, but I might look into it again. If you are interested, let me know.
  • I might add a “honey in your own container” option, which I did have before.

Registration for next year will begin in January, initiatially for existing members and then to everyone else. I will likely close registration when I get to a certain amount – based on prior year, that is expected to take place rather quickly.

You can leave your comments below (publicly) or email them to me (in private). I’d appreciate any thoughts – good, bad or otherwise.

What do bees do when it’s hot?

It’s really hot these past few days, you probably noticed. The bees are hot as well, and they don’t have any AC to use.
As I explained in my last email – the one about swarms – beehives are a super-organism, but what’s really interesting is that while individual bees are cold-blooded, the hive itself acts more as a warm-blooded super-organism.

Wait, what?

Yes, the hive acts as a warm-blooded organism. Cold blooded animals essentially revert to the temperature of their surroundings, becoming hotter or colder with their environment, while hot blooded animals, e.g. mammals, maintain their body temperature within a precise range of tolerated temperatures.
Just like that, beehives do the same. The brood chamber in the hive is very temperature sensitive, and the bees tend to keep it around 95F, regardless of whether the temperature outside is 30F or 90F. How do they do that?
The control the airflow through the hive, and use water evaporation for help. But when they have to, they can also reduce the amount of heat the hive is creating. How? By reducing the number of bees, essentially sending bees to “cool off” outside. Beekeepers call that “bearding,” as it looks as if the hive has a bee-beard outside it. Here’s a picture I took yesterday, you see three small hives (“nucs”). The middle one is facing away from the camera, but you can see bees from the closer and farther ones hanging around their “front porch.”

Enjoy your summer – until next time!