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Honey Bees in Winter

Published In: Miscellaneous

What happens to honey bees in the winter?

During winter months, it’s too cold for them to be out flying, sipping on nectar, and packing pollen on their legs, so what are they doing? Have you ever wondered why honey bees make honey? They don’t make it so that we can steal it, sell it, and eat it. Honey is meant for them – a high-sugar source for which to fuel themselves in the winter. When beekeepers harvest honey, they either leave some of the honey for the bees or replace it with an alternative like sugar syrup. Otherwise, the bees would die in the colder months.
Honey is important to their survival.
Honey bees regulate the temperatures in their hive by collecting water for evaporation, fanning their wings, and vibrating their bodies. In the summer, the bees use water and wing fanning to act as a living air conditioning system. They keep their hive from overheating and prevent their wax combs from melting. In the winter, the bees huddle together and constantly vibrate to keep themselves, their queen, and their larvae from freezing. It takes energy to keep moving, and that’s where the honey comes in. The honey is their energy source so that they can stay warm. On somewhat warm winter days, the bees go outside the hive to relieve themselves, then go back inside to resume their heat-producing duties.

Nectar straight from a flower doesn’t keep for very long, so bees turn it into honey so that it can be stored without spoiling. Bees collect nectar, which is mostly water, and store it in their second stomach on their way back to their colony. The nectar is digested with enzymes for half an hour, then regurgitated into empty cells to dry. The bees fan their wings over the nectar to speed up the evaporation process. The process eventually reduces the water content to less than 20%. Once a cell is filled with honey, the bees cap it off with wax and save it for when they need it. Although honey crystallizes over time, it does not rot, spoil, or ferment because of its antimicrobial and antifungal properties.

It takes a lot of bees to produce honey from nectar.

Fortunately, bee colonies grow to be quite large. A colony can contain 40,000 to 60,000 bees and may require 30 pounds of honey to survive the winter. Bees have to work hard to take advantage of flowering plants in the spring. If they don’t manage to collect enough nectar to convert into honey, the colony will perish in the winter. If a colony doesn’t have enough worker bees before the onset of winter, they will not be able to produce enough heat to survive. Not all bee colonies will survive the winter. The bigger the colony and the more food they have, the better off they are.

If you’re a fledgling beekeeper worried about your bees this winter, remember this: don’t open your hives on a cold day. The bees have diligently sealed all the holes. A gust of cold winter air into the colony will chill your bees and their young. They are hard at work trying to stay warm, so try not to stress them out. We reduce their chances of survival by being worried and inspecting hives at the wrong time of year. Ensure that your bees have plenty of food before temperatures drop, then let them be until the weather turns warm.

For a more detailed look at the honey bee, visit NatGeo’s full animal profile.

Don’t know the difference between a carpenter bee and a honey bee? Click here to find out.

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