What happens to honey bees over the winter?

Honey Bees Photo by Shutterstock/Diyana Dimitrova

When the temperature drops and the flowers wilt, the honey bees disappear. But have you ever wondered what happens to them? It’s a concerning thought when you realize how vital they are to our food supply.

According to data from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a third of all food produced in the world depends on bees and other pollinators. That equates to between U.S. $235 billion and $577 billion worth of annual global food production.

To make sure they survive until spring, bees do what many people do: they hunker down at home until the cold months have passed.

Over the winter, “bees cluster in the middle of the hive and move around on the food,” says Mary Eaton, a beekeeper based in Sault Ste. Marie. Depending on the number of bees in the hive, the cluster they create can be as big as a basketball. Moving as one, the bees start at the bottom of the hive and shift up towards the top, feeding on the honey they’ve stored.

They need these stores to have enough energy to stay warm. Inside the cluster, the bees flex their wing muscles to generate heat, keeping the queen and larvae at the centre toasty. Around the queen, the temperature can reach over 30 degrees Celsius with the bees tightening or loosening the cluster based on the temperature outside.

But once clustered in the hive, bees are unable to collect pollen to create more honey, leaving them dependent on the supplies they created during the summer. With less food, the queen stops laying eggs in late fall and doesn’t resume again until early spring, to conserve energy.

Canadian winters, in particular, can be tough on bees. “I’ve been through winters of minus 40,” Eaton says. To ensure the colony doesn’t die, they occasionally need a little help from a beekeeper. Eaton makes sure her colonies stay warm by wrapping her brood boxes—where the hives are kept—in alpaca wool.

“In the old days, we wrapped them up with [fiberglass] insulation,” she says. “We don’t use that anymore.” Alpaca wool is a more environmentally-friendly alternative.

Eaton also puts a layer of alpaca wool on the top of the box to wick away moisture. “If there isn’t something to wick the moisture away, it’ll drop down on [the bees] and freeze them and kill them,” she says.

Prior to wrapping the bees up, though, Eaton makes sure they have enough food supplies to survive the winter. Depending on how cold it gets, a colony of bees can consume up to 90 pounds of honey. Without enough food, the bees will either starve or freeze, lacking the energy to produce the necessary body heat.

“In the fall, when I’ve finished extracting honey,” Eaton says, “I put out all the scraps for them to take the excess honey back into the hive. Then I will put out two-to-one sugar water, and they’ll take that into the hive. They took in six little buckets of sugar water this year and I only have six hives.”

In early spring, Eaton puts out one-to-one sugar water to help the bees regain some energy. “And then the flowers finally come out and the dandelions and all that stuff,” she says. And the pollination process starts all over again.

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