During the warm months bees would normally collect enough honey and bee pollen to keep them going over the winter months. Beekeepers add ‘super’ boxes to the hives for the bees to collect more honey. It is these extra super boxes that are extracted and packed for human consumption. At Sweetree we leave enough honey and bee pollen in the hive for the bees to keep strong over the the winter months.
People often think that bees hibernate over the winter months, but they do something more fascinating over the cold period. Their major purpose of the winter is to take care of the queen, so she can re-colonize the hive in spring.In late autumn, when they have their stores of honey for the winter, they throw all the drones (male bees) out of the hive to die. They cannot afford to feed extra mouths and the queen does not need them for mating over this period.
Bees stop flying when the temperatures drop down to around 10 degree celsius. They stay inside the hive and go into a big huddle to keep as warm as possible, this is called a winter cluster. The queen is kept inside the cluster to keep her warm and safe. The colder the temperature the more compact the cluster becomes. The worker bees create heat by shivering and they also move back and forth between the inner part of the cluster and the outer part. In this way no bee will freeze in very cold climates.They usually don’t fly outside the hive as there are no flowers in bloom, therefore no pollen or nectar is available. But on nice sunny winter days you can see bees flying short distances out of the hive and then quickly returning, this is to eliminate body waste.
It is essential that beekeepers manage bee health issues throughout the season and that these issues are fixed by early August, preferably sooner. Winter bees produced in a Varroa or tracheal mite infested colony, or in a colony with other health issues like viruses or Nosema, will not be healthy and will have a much shorter life span.
A full size colony needs about 27 kg (60 lb) of easily accessible ripened honey to get through the winter. This amount normally is sufficient to get through times of higher consumption and delayed springs, however, beekeepers should always monitor honey stores in early spring to ensure the stores are still adequate. In the north, to help the colony obtain enough honey stores, beekeepers should start feeding the bees continuously by mid-September and finish feeding by end of October or sooner. The objective is to feed enough sugar syrup early enough that the bees can store and ripen it before temperatures drop and the bees have to form a cluster.
The beekeeper can also support the bees by making sure the hive is adequately ventilated to avoid condensation in the hive – which usually means having small upper and lower entrances. Good air drainage is important to help avoid standing high humidity air. This can be achieved by not placing hives in hollows and low land where airflow becomes trapped by the landscape features. Also, protect colonies from high winds, water pooling and flooding.
In southern climates, there may be no break in brood cycles, bees may only need to form clusters occasionally, and the bees are not confined to the hive for long periods because of low temperatures. The conditions are vastly less severe than in the north, however, food is still a critical issue so beekeepers may need to feed colonies often to compensate for potentially long periods when natural forage is not available.