Winter bees

In late summer and autumn beekeepers prepare their honeybee colonies for winter. A colony must be a good size in order to live to the spring and also disease and mite free as a build up of these could mean death of the colony.

Often bees are treated to control the varroa mites with one of a few non-chemical and chemical treatments that are available to treat the bee pests. Unfortunately some of these chemicals can be dangerous for bees and sometimes mites develop a resistance to a treatment. Beekeepers are trying to breed mite resistant bees but that will take some time.

Hives are checked to make sure they are not damaged. Preventative methods are used to make sure and that they won’t get damp. Bees produce a lot of water vapour and this could condense in the top part of the hive and drip down on the bees making them too cold.

A mouse guard is attached to each hive entrance to stop the little devils getting in and eating the stored food.

Cages are placed around each hive to prevent damage from woodpeckers which may eat the bees if they can make a hole in the hive.

Bees make and store extra honey between spring and autumn in readiness for winter because there little or no food in the UK from mid-October to February. A colony needs around 40 lbs of honey to survive the winter.

If the nectar flow has slowed up in late summer due to bad weather then the bees are fed a supplement of liquid sugar syrup during August so that the bees have time to turn it into honey and store in sealed cells before the weather gets cold. The beekeeper encourages overproduction of honey within the hive so that the excess can be taken without endangering the colony’s winter stores.

Sugar syrup feeder which is placed in the hive.

A winter bee is physically different from a summer bee.
They are bred to make sure the colony survives the winter. Cooler autumn weather triggers the rearing of stockier, stronger winter bees. The autumn larvae are fed a low fat, high protein content (summer ones high fat, low protein) which results in fatter bodies and a different blood protein profile than a summer bee and they live far longer 4 to 6 months instead of the six week lifespan of a summer bee. They will also have far less work to do.

Drones (males) are banished from the hive by workers when winter draws near. Mating season is over and they are no longer needed and they would just be extra mouths to feed. The queen will over-winter.

Honeybees do not hibernate but what they do is even more fascinating than that.
Honeybee will over-winter clustered together vibrating their wing muscles to generate heat. This cluster looks like a ball of bees that covers a few frames usually in the vertical centre of the hive. The ball size will depend on how many bees are in the hive and what the temperatures are outside the hive. The colder it is the more close together the bees will be in the cluster. The bees only heat the cluster; the rest of the hive is the same temperature as the apiary. The bees on the inside of the cluster can still walk around. Food consumption is minimal. Bees regularly switch places, with ones from the inner core taking up a position on the outer core to allow the outer bees to go inside. As food supplies dwindle around the cluster the bees will move up; rarely do they move to the sides.

The queen will start laying eggs in January in the middle of the cluster thus starting to build up the bee population in readiness for spring. By the end of winter the stores of food will become low. In the early spring, when nectar flow begins, the colony grows rapidly. Going into winter a good colony would consist of approximately 60,000 bees but at the end maybe 10,000 are left.

Hives are checked often during the winter season and corrective measures are taken immediately if the hive is in need of help.
For example if the colony is starving and needs feeding or if there are any fallen branches, dripping water, woodpecker or mice damage and snow around the hives. Sun glare on snow attracts bees so they fall into it and die of the cold.

Winter feeding will be done if the bees are on the verge of starvation or to stimulate the queen to lay.Some beekeepers place dry sugar around the hole in the inner hive cover, others use bakers’ fondant (additive and flavouring free). Pollen substitutes are sometimes given. On mild days the bees will take the feed and place it around the brood nest where it is available for them to use.

The major problems for beekeepers in the milder winters is that the bees will not form a cluster but freely walk around eating precious stores then not have enough when it is very cold and maybe starve. Also if it gets too cold for too long, the bees won’t be able to shift in the cluster to access their food.

Dwindling populations are one cause of colonies dying. When this begins to happen, the amount of bees in a cluster become less. Fewer bees place a stress on the remaining bees to maintain cluster temperatures during very cold weather.

Some bees die much before their time for other reasons which include mites, bacterial diseases etc. On milder days bees take cleansing flights as they do not defecate inside the hive. If they cannot get out for a long time then they could develop dysentery (nosema)

In March on a mild day the beekeeper will do a quick inspection of the colony to see if it has made it so far. If some bees are flying and bringing pollen in then that is a good sign. This is probably the most critical time of the year for honeybees. By the end of the month, brood (eggs, larvae, pupae) is likely to be greater than the amount of adult bees. A cold spell now would cause bees to re-form a cluster. Adults would have a larger area of brood to keep warm so some may be abandoned. Nectar and pollen may be in short supply.

Late March/early April
Full inspections are made, new hive boxes are given, old comb frames removed and replaced, varroa mite infestation checked and a new year starts for the bees and the beekeepers.

Honeybee collecting water from Sedum