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What Do Honeybees Do in the Fall?

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

As beekeepers, our busy season comes to an end in the fall. All of our hives' surplus honey has been harvested, extracted, filtered, and stored - ready to be bottled. While we wind down from the heat and busy summer and slowly (and must I say painfully), prepare ourselves for the cold, have you ever wondered what the honey bees are up to during the fall?

In this blog, we share some surprising and important things happening inside the hive. As the days grow cooler and shorter, a few important things happen: 1. the queen bee stops laying eggs, 2. the 'winter bees' are born, and 3. the male bees, called 'drones', get forcefully kicked out of the hive.

Four honeybee beehives in October
What's happening inside these beehives? It might surprise you...

The honey bees continue making honey in the fall

A honeybee at Gees Bees Honey Company in Ottawa Ontario visiting New England Aster
A Honeybee at Gees Bees visiting New England Aster

While the temperatures are still warm enough, our honey bees busy at work in our pollinator gardens. The worker bees will continue to forage for nectar and pollen as long as temperatures are above 13 °C. This is why we encourage everyone to plant fall flowers in their garden to help feed the bees as food becomes scarce. Even after the first frost, we've observed the bees bringing pollen in to the hive, presumably from aster flowers.

In addition to making honey, the honey bees may also steal honey in the fall. A foraging bee may discover a weaker honeybee colony nearby, sneak past the guard bees, and steal some honey. She'll return to her own beehive with her honey-loot and recruit more worker bees into theft. This 'robbing' behaviour can lead a strong honeybee colony to steal all the honey of a weaker colony, completely devastating it. This is why it's important to keep all the beehives equally strong throughout the season.

In the fall, the queen bee stops laying eggs

As food becomes scarce and the days grow shorter, the queen bee will slow down her egg production, eventually stopping altogether for winter. The temperature in the winter is simply too cold for the bees to raise larva - they need to keep the brood (the beekeeper term for bee larva) within a narrow temperature range of 34.5+/-1.5 degrees C. The size of the bee population in the hive will start to decline, as the summer bees reach the end of their 6-week lifespan. This smaller population will eat less food over the winter.

The 'winter bees' are born

Before the queen stops laying eggs, she will lay the eggs that will become the 'winter bees' - adult bees that are slightly different than the summer bees. These 'winter bees' have had their fat-producing gene triggered by being fed less pollen during development. This makes these bees physiologically designed to survive the winter, with larger 'fat bodies' - special insect tissue designed to release energy - and a lifespan that is 3-4 times longer than the summer bees (6 months instead of 6 weeks). These bees will be responsible for keeping the colony alive all winter.

The male bees get kicked out of the hive

The male bees are called drones. During the spring and summer, they are important because they mate with virgin queens from other hives. This is their only job - drones are unable to perform any other tasks in the hive such as caring for larvae, cleaning, making honey, or foraging. This work is left to the female worker bees.

As winter approaches, the female worker bees evict the male drones. You can see the female working bees guarding the beehive entrance, preventing the drones from entering and dragging them out by their legs. The female worker bees will even remove underdeveloped drone pupae from the hive in order to make room for the queen to lay winter bees and for food storage. This drone eviction happens because, aside from mating with new queens in the spring, the male honey bees have no winter purpose and will eat honey unnecessarily. The queen will simply lay new drones in the spring (did you know the queen bee can pick the sex of the eggs that she lays!?)

In the fall, beekeepers prepare their beehives for winter

Getting the bees ready for winter means ensuring that they are well-fed (have lots of stored honey) and are healthy - by monitoring and treating for a parasite called varroa destructor. Varroa is parasite that attaches itself to the honeybees, feeds off them, and transmits viruses.

We also winterize the beehives by giving them a black insulated wrap (called a bee cozy) and insulating their inner cover. This black insulated cover provides a bit of thermal protection and absorbs heat from the sun on cold winter days. Insulating the lid of the beehive prevents cold water from accumulating and dripping on to the bees inside the hive.

Winter arrives...and we wait for spring...


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