How do honey bees survive winter?

December 16, 2019

Posted by Lake Erie Nature and Science Center

“Where did the honey bees go?”

This is one of the most frequently asked questions from Lake Erie Nature & Science Center visitors during the winter months. Despite freezing temperatures and a lack of flowers, honey bees survive the winter due to their amazing array of survival mechanisms.

Simply put, honey bees must create their own heat source and maintain a food supply inside the hive in order to make it to spring.

“Once the temperature drops below 50 degrees, honey bees keep the inside of their hive a warm 97 degrees in order to keep the colony alive,” explains Christine Barnett, wildlife program specialist at the Center. “Honey bees must produce over 90 pounds of honey throughout summer in order to survive the winter.”

Once temperatures fall and food sources disappear, honey bee workers (females incapable of reproducing) begin to form a cluster around the queen and younger bees. Meanwhile, the queen stops laying eggs to maintain the hive’s limited food source. The worker bees in the cluster squeeze together tightly, rapidly vibrating their muscles, and keep their heads pointed inward, allowing the bees on the inside of the cluster to feed on the honey that’s been stored in the hive for winter.

This combined body heat generated by the worker bees is sufficient to keep the colony warm. As temperatures fluctuate, the cluster expands and contracts. Sometimes, during warmer spells, the entire cluster will move within the hive, positioning themselves around fresh supplies of honey.

While bees work to stay warm, local beekeepers prepare for the next season. North America’s largest commercial pollination event, the California almond bloom, happens between late February and mid-March, when almond tree buds burst into beautiful light-pink and white blooms in preparation for pollination. As the most successful pollinators of almond blossoms, honey bees are placed in almond orchards throughout California for a successful almond crop.

Each spring, once almond pollination is complete, many bees are shipped to the Midwest and sold to local beekeepers. Sellers in Ohio place their orders in January to ensure that they receive bee packages.

“Trucks carrying thousands of 3-pound packages of bees often sell out before they arrive to Ohio,” explains Barnett. “Most people wait until the weather is warm to start preparing for their first hive and have difficulty finding bees for sale. Now is the time to get started.”

Barnett recommends that beginners in Northeast Ohio take advantage of two active beekeeping organizations — the Greater Cleveland Beekeepers Association and the Lorain County Beekeepers Association.

Lake Erie Nature & Science Center offers beekeeping programs throughout the year, including Introduction to Backyard Beekeeping from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19. Visitors will learn beekeeping basics, how bees and other pollinators support the environment, and how they can maintain a hive in their own back yard. Tickets are $8 per person and can be purchased online at www.lensc.org or by calling 440-871-2900.

Topic: Programs, Wildlife
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