A Moment of Science

Honeybees in Winter

Many insects hibernate or migrate during the winter, but honeybees are more like us, they bundle up and wait for spring. How do they survive?

Bee hive in tree

Photo: lars hammar (flickr)

Bees must keep their hive at the right temperature in the winter in order to survive

Many insects hibernate or migrate during the winter, but honeybees are more like us, they bundle up and wait for spring.

When winter comes, honeybees form a ball deep in their hive to regulate the hive temperature. This means they stay close together, vibrating their wing muscles to generate heat and keep the center of the hive around eighty-six to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. If the core temperature drops too low, the colony will die.

Bees also eat a lot of honey to stay warm, and the fastest way to kill off a hive if you’re a beekeeper is to take out too much honey, too late in the season. Healthy beehives have at least twenty-thousand bees, and that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

Some bees on the outside of the ball will not stay warm enough and will die over the course of the winter, but its for the good of the colony. (Fortunately, we humans have central heat.)

With bees one always talks about the colony as a single entity. This is because each bee has a very specific role, but together they work as a unit. You could say each bee functions like a cell in your body. Honeybees start out cleaning the hive and feeding larvae, but will progress to collectors and foragers, and even hive guardians.

Honeybees try their best to keep the hive clean, so on a warm winter day, they clean house and fly a few hundred yards away to use the bathroom! This can be dangerous, though, because if it’s colder out than they thought, the bees might not make it back.

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