For many of us the Holiday season is a very busy time of year. We spend our days preparing gifts for love ones and food for special holiday dinners and celebrations. We attend school Christmas plays, parades, office parties, and special religious services. With all the hustle and bustle of the season, it is easy to forget that natural systems are slowing down in preparation for cold winter weather. A beehive is no exception to this condition of semi-hibernation. So, what exactly happens in winter in the beehive?
For beekeepers, the winter months are the slowest of the year, requiring careful observation instead of constant task management and bee-yard maintenance. This is the time for processing the beeswax left over from the last honey extraction to make some great candles! In Savannah, we have the luxury of a long bloom cycle that stretches late into fall. We typically harvest the last of the years honey in late October and sometimes even into early November. In fact, the last product we bring in each year is the Yellow Star Thistle Honeycomb, a customer favorite year after year! The really slow season for our bees does not begin until mid-December. We also know that early spring blossoms will emerge sometime in February. So, the food resources inside our hives do not need to be huge, but just enough to provide for a healthy colony for around ten weeks. For beehives located in colder regions, hive food resources must be able to last up to five months!
During the winter, honey bees feed on honey that was produced during the warmer months when nectar sources were plentiful. As the weather cools and seeds replace flowers, honey bees retreat inward to ride out the cold weather. During these months a colony can be weakened or even die from starvation if their honey stores are not adequate.
Although we observe very little activity around the hives during the winter, the bees are hard at work inside. A honey bee colony will work as a single unit throughout cold months attempting to keep the inside of the hive warm. The internal temperature of a beehive will remain around 90-92°F throughout the winter even as temperatures outside the hive dip well below freezing. Honey bees will pack themselves tightly together in a formation commonly known as a winter cluster. The winter cluster forms in the middle of the hive, and spreads out over the food chamber. The food chamber is the portion of the hive where the honey stores can be found. The bees consume honey and use the chemical energy contained in the honey to rapidly contract and relax tiny muscles located at the connection points where their wings attach to their thorax. The movement of these muscles causes the wings to vibrate. This process of rapid muscle contraction and relaxation creates heat as a by-product. The heat generated by the muscle activity coupled with the air circulation created by the movement of the wings raises the internal temperature of the winter cluster and the hive. For a wild hive, a late cold snap could mean the difference between starvation and colony survival. In addition, once honey stores are exhausted, the bees have no way of controlling the internal temperature of the hive. One cold night without food could bring a frosty end to an entire colony.
Fortunately, the beekeeper can supplement the food stores of the colony extending the bees ability to warm their hive indefinitely. Although conceptually supplementing a hives honey supply seems simple, there is an art to the process of “feeding” honey bees. First and probably most importantly, a beekeeper needs to recognize when a colony's food stores are reaching a critical low point. Honey bees will experience stress whenever a hive is opened during cold weather. All of the precious heat generated by the winter cluster can be lost very rapidly by opening a hive and filling it with cold air. So, a beekeeper must have a sense of when to open the hive to check the colonies honey supply.
The beekeeper must open the hive and quickly assess the remaining honey stores. Fortunately, in Savannah, we typically will have a few very pleasant days sprinkled into our January and early February. This allows us to take inventory of our hives remaining honey stores without shocking the colony by filling their hive with frigid winter air. Beekeepers in colder climates do not have this opportunity and must rely on their experience and intuition.
Once it is determined by the beekeeper that winter honey stores are indeed low, the beekeeper will begin adding honey resources to the hive. A wild hive will act as efficiently as possible in order to stretch their honey supply as far into the season as possible. A domestic colony will act in much the same way until food supplements are added. Once the hive receives supplemental honey from a beekeeper, the colony will raise its collective metabolism and will require constant feeding until the spring nectar flow begins. The goal of the beekeeper is to begin supplemental feeding just as honey stores expire, attempting to minimize the duration of supplemental feeding.
Working with bees this time of year is a great opportunity to connect with the natural “slow down” of ecological systems. It is a great time to embrace the process of rest and repair. Winter is the time to go to bed early, sleep late, and eat plenty of honey. It is a time to make sure our internal honey stores are adequate as we muse about the first blossoms of spring.
Submitted By: Brantley Crowder