How honey bees survive winter

After all this snow & rare freezing weather here in Cornwall, we are hoping our bees will survive here in our orchard here in St Ives.

We have been observing our bees this winter and on every sunny winter day they have been very active. There is quite a lot of gorse flowers throughout winter & some other hardy flowers around so we think they are still collecting necter. Plus they have loads of honey supplies as we didn’t take any of their honey before winter. Duwayne also added some extra insulation to the outside of the hive a couple days before the snow arrived.

On cold days apparently to keep warm, they huddle around the queen, eat honey, shiver & flex their muscles to create heat. Bees are so fascinating!!

Here’s more information on how they manage to survive the winter. 

Bees of almost all ages can heat up by either vibrating their abdomens or by decouple their wings from their muscles, allowing them to vigorously use these muscles without actually moving their wings. This can heat their bodies up to about 44° C which is about 9° C hotter than their normal body temperature.

During winter, the bees all clump together towards the middle of the hive, surrounding the queen. At this time, they allow the temperature of the hive to drop to around 27° C (81° F) on the inside of the cluster to conserve energy. Bees on the outer parts of the cluster, which will usually be around 9° C, then occasionally rotate with the bees on the more crowded inner parts, so that all the bees can keep warm enough to survive.

Most bees and wasps hibernate during the colder months. In many species, only the queen survives the winter, emerging in spring to reestablish a colony. But honey bees remain active all winter long, despite the freezing temperatures and lack of flowers on which to forage. The honey bee colony’s ability to survive the winter depends on their food stores. Keeping warm takes energy in the form of honey.

If the colony runs short of honey, it will freeze to death before spring. At the beginning of winter the worker bees force the now useless drones (male bees) from the hive, leaving them to starve. It’s a harsh sentence, but one that’s necessary for the colony’s survival. Drones would eat too much of the precious honey, and put the hive in peril.

The honey bee workers form a cluster around the queen and brood, keeping them warm. They keep their heads pointed inward. Bees on the inside of the cluster can feed on the stored honey. The outer layer of workers insulates their sisters inside the sphere of honey bees. As temperatures rise, the bees on the outside of the group separate a bit, to allow more air flow. As temperatures fall, the cluster tightens, and the outer workers pull together.

As it gets colder, the worker bees actively generate heat within the hive. First, they feed on honey for energy. Then, the honey bees shiver. They vibrate their flight muscles but keep their wings still, raising their body temperatures. With thousands of bees shivering constantly, the temperature at the center of the cluster will warm up considerably, to about 33° C! When the workers on the outer edge of the cluster get cold, they push to the center of the group, and other bees take a turn shielding the group from the winter weather.

During warmer spells, the entire sphere of bees will move within the hive, positioning themselves around fresh honey stores.