COLUMN: How do honeybees survive the winter?

Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     Have you ever thought about how honeybees survive the winter?

     Many of our locally native bumblebees die with only the queen surviving dormant underground or in a hollow log or stump until spring, when she will start laying new eggs. Non-native honeybees, on the other hand, spend the winter gathered in their man-made beehives waiting for spring to arrive.

     As fall weather arrives and flowers disappear with the plummeting temperatures, honeybees prepare for winter. Male bees, called drones, are ejected from their hives. Since their only job relates to reproduction, which is on hold until spring, they are non-essential and a drain on winter resources. So, for the winter, it’s girls only – the queen and her female worker bees.

     As the temperatures drop below 57 degrees, the remaining honeybees gather together into a winter cluster inside their hive. In this cluster they will regulate their temperatures to keep the queen safe and warm. Worker bees surround the queen with their heads facing inward as they shiver their bodies and flutter their wings to produce heat. The colder the temperatures the tighter the honeybees cluster.

     These fall/winter female worker bees will have a lifespan up to six months; much longer than the summer worker bees that typically live only six weeks. Worker bees rotate to the outside of the cluster so no bee gets too cold taking turns in the different layers of the cluster they share the warmth.

     At the inside of the cluster, the bees are able to share the honey they worked so hard to store during the summer as food to get them through the long cold winter. This is why beekeepers will leave some of the honey for the bees. Those beekeepers who take too much and don’t leave enough for their bees to survive the winter will risk losing their hive to starvation.

     On sunny warm winter and spring days you might see honey bees flying around the entrance to their hive. These short quick flights are to eliminate waste from their bodies. If they fly too far from the hive they risk becoming too cold to fly and would not be able to return. Beekeepers know that keeping their beehives dry is essential as is limited winter disturbance. Some beekeepers wrap their hives in black tarpaper to help keep snow out and help the hives gather heat from the winter sun.

     If you would like to learn more about the fascinating life of honeybees and backyard beekeeping, mark your calendar to attend our “Beginning Beekeeping” program at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb 1 at the Central Park Nature Center. Beekeeper Joe Wagner will cover the basics of keeping honeybees.

     Please contact Michele at 319-481-7987 or at to pre-register for this program. This program is free and all ages are welcome to attend.



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