How honeybees survive the winter

The numbers of bees in the indoor beehive have gone down.

But that's pretty normal this time of year. It just means that our bees have entered winter mode and are getting ready to survive cold weather.

Baby, it's cold outside.

As the weather cools down, a honeybee hive starts to change.

One of the first changes is that the hive becomes all female. All of the male bees, called drones, are pushed out of the hive --- sometimes literally dragged out. Since drones' only job is to help with reproduction, and the queen doesn't lay eggs in the winter, they are nothing but a drain on resources. So the female worker bees make sure all drones leave the hive. The queen can lay more drone eggs in the spring to replace the male population.

For the winter, though, it's just girls.

When temperatures outside reach about 57 degrees, the honeybees are cued to enter into their winter cluster that will help them survive colder temps.

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The winter cluster

The goals of the honeybee winter cluster are to regulate temperatures and to keep the queen bee warm and safe.

The worker bees form a cluster around the queen, with their heads facing inward. The bees shiver, fluttering their wings and shaking their bodies. This produces heat, just like the way humans warm up by shivering in cold temperatures.

The bees in the cluster face inward, so the ones at the center can eat honey to restore their energy. Then, so no bee gets too cold, the workers will rotate. Each takes a turn in the different layers of the cluster to share the warmth, the honey and the cold, in turn.

The temperature of the winter cluster is usually in the mid-40s on the outside and 80-90 degrees where the queen is located in the center.


Long live the workers

Workers bees typically have a life span of six weeks. However, winter bees have a different biology and can live up to six months. If they couldn't survive longer, they would all die, because the queen bee doesn't lay eggs in the winter.

A study found that the pheromone --- the smell given off by a body that animals and even can sense unconsciously --- of brood, or baby bees, will encourage worker bees to transition into nurse bees. That will then begin the process of a worker bee going through different jobs in the hive during its six-week lifespan.

However, the lack of the baby bee smell in the fall and winter, when the queen doesn't lay eggs, means that the worker bees don't transition into "job mode," and therefore have a different biology. That allows them to live longer and survive the winter. These winter bees are called diutinus bees.

In the spring, when the queen begins to lay eggs, the diutinus bees can then transform back into "job mode" and become nurse bees or foragers.

Photo of a honeybee on a floweropens IMAGE file


Just another reason

We've said it before, and we'll say it again, we love pollinators.

Each time we learn something new about bees, butterflies and other pollinators, it leaves us in awe of how amazing these creatures are.

The way bees winter --- just another reason to be in awe of the way they work and want to protect them.

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  1. Robert Wheeler on May 3, 2019 at 10:50 pm

    Thank you! I have always questioned how the workers could only live six weeks, but the queen doesn’t lay eggs in the winter.

    • Carolyn Galbraith on May 18, 2019 at 3:03 am

      Thank you so clearly written and explained appreciated