Winter bees: How honeybees survive the winter

We've been having a very mild January and this past sunny Saturday, we took a quick walk past the beehives. Sure enough, we found honeybees in the snow...which got us thinking about the winter bees.

Did you know that there are winter bees and summer bees? And that honeybees don't hibernate or go dormant like other insects? In this blog post, we'll explain the very important role of the 'winter bees' and how they work together to get the honeybee colony through our long Ontario winters.

How to bees live in the winter?

Unlike most insects, honeybees don't go dormant. Instead they stay awake all winter, clustered together in a ball, and stay inside the beehive eating honey. They keep each other and the queen bee warm, so that she can start laying eggs again in the the spring. The job of carrying the colony through to the next season falls to a special caste of bees called the 'winter bees', who have a lifespan that is 4 times longer than the summertime worker bees.

What are 'winter bees'?

The ‘winter bees’ are laid by the queen bee in the fall. When they are larva, the winter bees are fed a diet that is scarce in protein (pollen), compared to the summertime bee larva that receive lots of pollen. This pollen-scarce diet causes the winter bees to develop an extra large ‘fat body’ - a special insect tissue that regulates their metabolism and produces vitellogenin, an amazing substance that enhances the bees’ immune system and increases its lifespan. This allows the winter bees to live 6 months instead of 6 weeks. Because of this difference in their physiology, they are considered a separate caste of bees - unique from the other three castes of bees: workers, drones, and queen.

What do winter bees do?

Clearly when the ground is covered with snow and the temperatures are below zero, there aren't any flowers to be had. So, honey making is not their thing - that job falls squarely on the summertime bees that spend their time visiting flowers and making a hundred kilos of honey. Instead, the winter bees are responsible for eating the stored honey and keeping the colony warm by shivering their flight muscles.

Over the course of the winter, the colony gets smaller and smaller as the bees gradually reach the end of their lifespans. In the late winter, the queen will start laying eggs again, in preparation for spring. The queen does this slowly at first, so as to not lay more eggs than the colony can keep warm. The winter bees become responsible for incubating the brood ('brood' is the beekeeper term for developing larva). As the temperatures get warmer and the colony gets bigger, the queen can start laying eggs in larger sections of the empty honeycomb. Come spring, the colony's population will quickly increase, especially as the first flowers bloom and the newly hatched spring bees start bringing fresh nectar and pollen back to the hive.

Bees in the snow

The winter bees sometimes fly out of the hive on mild sunny winter days. They typically do this to take 'cleansing flights' to defecate away from the hive. They won't go inside the hive and will wait for warm sunny days. Unfortunately, they don’t all make it back and we'll find bees in the snow in front of our hives. To learn more about these cleansing flights, check our our post "March in the Beehive=Time for a Bathroom Break".

As much as we don't like seeing little bees in the snow, it is a very promising sign of life inside the hive.

Snow is an insulator

Some years, our beehives will get most covered with snow, and this is ok. The snow creates extra insulation for the hives. The heat of the hives will melt the snow around the hive, creating air space. Here is quick video that we filmed a couple winter's ago, in much colder weather.

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