PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
December 27, 2016

The honeybee much prefers the warm temperatures of mild climates, but it does some amazing feats in the cold of winter. On this unusually brisk 15-degree-F night, my bees are snuggled tightly in their winter cluster, fighting the bitter windchill. On nights like this, I think of the bees and send them warmth from inside my home, but I can’t help but wonder what they are actually up to in the hive.

A winter cluster of bees is about the size and shape of an American football. There are no drones in this cluster—they were kicked out in the fall when the temperatures dropped. The queen hovers at the center of the cluster, surrounded by thousands of her workers. The bees form this shape when the weather drops to around 55 degrees F, and remain in it until ambient temperatures rise above that point.

The bees work diligently around the clock to keep the center of the cluster at 92 degrees F—they do this by “shivering” their wings to generate warmth. The work of the honeybee is truly never done! The bees take turns in the cluster throughout the winter, rotating from the center of the cluster to the outside, and back again. Throughout the winter months, the bees consume the 40 to 60 pounds of honey they gathered and stored in the summer, breaking cluster to find new patches of stored honey when the temperatures allow it. On warm winter days, if there are any, the bees will take cleansing flights to relieve themselves; otherwise, they won’t defecate inside their hive.

That’s what the bees are up to in the winter. It doesn’t seem like much, but the future of their colony depends on how successfully they overwinter.

So what’s your winter to-do list look like, beekeeper?

  • Take inventory of your equipment, and repair or replace as needed.
  • Order spring bees if you’re starting new colonies. Many orders for packages or nucs (short for nucleus colony) are filled in December and January.
  • Read up! Now’s the time to brush up on beekeeping literature and read the latest in honeybee and beekeeping research. Keep abreast of the latest beekeeping trends (for better or worse).
  • Keep going to bee club meetings.
  • Check the hive’s entrance, removing any dead bees, snow, or other debris from the hive and apiary.
  • Conduct brief inspections on warm days. Don’t remove any frames—just peek in on the cluster. Most importantly, make sure your hives have enough food near the end of winter. Late winter to early spring is the time of year most hives die, so it’s crucial to conduct heft tests, and preferably feed their own honey back to them if needed and able.

While we beekeepers get a respite from our chores come winter, we know that our bees are working hard to keep warm, raise brood near the end of the winter, and simply survive. After we’ve prepared them for the winter, the best we can do is check them regularly, read up to ensure we’re better stewards of them year after year, and send them warmth and love from our own hearths.

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