What are the bees up to in the winter?
This time of year when the nights are long, the temperatures are cold and we turn the calendar from the old year to the new I get a lot of questions about how my bees are doing. I love questions about bees!
Today the bees are safely nestled in their hive grouped in what is known as their winter cluster. The bees primary goal for the winter is to keep their queen alive. The queen is the future of the hive. To protect her, the worker bees pack themselves into a tight ball with their queen at the center. By flexing their flight muscles the 20-30,000 worker bees collectively generate heat - enough to keep their queen a toasty 75F day and night.
The bees in the center of this ball constantly shift position and slowly move towards the outside of the cluster to allow the colder bees on the edge of the cluster to take their turn in the toasty core. Along their journey to and from the edge of the cluster to the middle, the bees will eat some of their winter honey stores. On the days that the weather warms above 55F the bees will take turns to make short flights to eliminate their waste.
Sometime in late January as the days begin to lengthen, the queen will begin to lay the first eggs of the 2018 season. When she does, the bees in the cluster will increase their efforts to keep the eggs and unhatched larvae at a constant 96F. This work is energy-intensive. To fuel their efforts the colony will consume upwards of 60 to 80 pounds of honey over the course of the winter.
This cold and dark time of year is one of mixed emotions for me as a beekeeper because there isn't much I can do for the bees at this point. I'm anxious wondering whether each of my hives has enough honey stores to keep them well fed despite the fact I left more than 80 pounds of honey in each hive. I'm happy for the free time I gain each weekend because I'm not having to actively manage my hives. But most of all I'm hopeful about the new year ahead and the beekeeping adventures I will have.
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