Honey Bees in Winter

I’m always amazed at the number of people who seem genuinely interested in the ins and outs of keeping bees. Because bees are one of my favorite subjects, it’s hard to not answer in such detail that they start edging away, sorry they every asked.

The Engineer can be very helpful on such occasions, kindly pointing out when my audience members’ eyes are beginning to glaze over.

I promise that’s not why I started this blog, although doing so does offer the distinct advantage of readers having the option of choosing to not read a post.

My intent in writing these posts is to share our many foibles as we endeavor to become successful beekeepers — kind “I’m telling you about our mistakes so you don’t have to make them.”

Of course, if you’re a beekeeper, that just frees you to make different ones.

Anyway, one of the more frequent questions I hear is about what bees — specifically honey bees — do in winter.

Most people think they hibernate, but this is not the case as you can see from the photo below (taken today).

It was about 60F today, and our girls took advantage of the warmth by going on cleansing flights. I’m probably anthropomorphizing, but it looked to me like they were just enjoying being out of the hive.

In the winter, they generally only venture out when the temperature is above 50F, although we occasionally seen one or two take brief excursions on those sunny clear days that look warm but are actually extremely cold.

The Engineer and I always joke they fly right back into the hive and tell their sisters, “Don’t go out! It’s f—ing frigid out there!”

Honeybees stay warm in winter by forming a cluster or bee ball, with the cluster growing tighter as the temperature drops. They keep the cluster warm by vibrating their abdomens, rotating the outer positions of the cluster so no single bee gets too cold. The mother (queen) bee remains at the center because if she doesn’t survive the winter, the hive will die also. This is because she doesn’t usually lay eggs when it’s cold, so the sister (worker) bees have no way to make a new queen.

No queen = no new bees = the hive will eventually perish.

Also, the girls waste no effort on keeping the entire hive warm; all their energy goes toward keeping the cluster nice and toasty with the center of it getting to about 95F.

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of energy to create that amount of heat, which is why it’s so important to leave the hive enough honey to support the work they are doing.

A hive can also die because it doesn’t have enough bees to keep the temperature high enough to survive.

It’s a big balancing act: We hope we have enough bees to keep the hive warm, but not so many that they finish their food before winter ends and they are able to forage once more.

We cheat a little by putting sugar or sugar patties on top of the frames so they have extra food if they deplete the honey they’ve stored, but there’s not much you can do if they don’t have enough bees.

One of our hives ended up in this situation last fall. Because we had a lot going on, we were late discovering it, and although we moved it into a smaller box setup, we were sure it wouldn’t last the winter.

It didn’t, and because we knew it would take a miracle for it to survive, I’m not even counting it toward our total number of hives going into winter.

In my opinion, we had five, and we still have five, although since most hives die in March, we are not yet in the clear.

Still, it does my heart good to see them fly!

Because it was so warm, we were able to treat all five hives with Oxalic Acid vapor to try to bump down the varroa count before the queens really start laying. Our hope is this will give them a healthy start to the spring and summer.

In other news, WordPress informed me a few weeks ago that I’ve been blogging for thirteen years now. It’s interesting (at least to me) how my blogging life has changed, having begun with “Reading, Writing, Ranting and Raving,” a blog designed to support my endeavors as a romance writer, then seguing to “Keeping A-Breast: Cancer Lessons,” and eventually landing with “The Byrd and the Bees.”

I intentionally made the spectrum of The Byrd and the Bees wider than my previous blogs so I don’t have start another one if my interests/experiences shift again.

In some ways, it seems impossible that I’ve been doing this for that long, but as I look back, I can see how much my life has changed since I began.

Also, although I feel a little guilty for not having posted as frequently as I usually do, I can promise you I’ve been quite busy doing a lot of exciting (to me) stuff — crocheting vast quantities of scrap-happy afghans (see above), spending hours upon hours researching The Engineer’s mum’s genealogy, and visiting my own Mom three times a week.

She remains much the same — determined to try to move around by herself, which has resulted in multiple falls. Her hand was so badly bruised and swollen after the last one that the nurses thought she’d broken a bone (again). Thankfully, the X-ray showed no new breaks, and the bruises have begun to fade a little.

With my approval, the nurses have begun to insist she stay in the common area during the day so they can keep an eye on her. It’s certainly not ideal, but at some point, safety has to trump Mom’s ability to be independent.

Obviously, she can’t stay there all night or she’d never get any rest, and that’s how she fell this last time — getting up to go to the bathroom on her own.

In looking forward, I can see no happy ending, but I visit regularly, trying to alternate days with my brother, because even if she forgets as soon as we’re gone, Mom is at least happy when one of us is there.

13 thoughts on “Honey Bees in Winter

  1. I enjoy learning about your bees; they fascinate me and honey is miraculous stuff, but severe reactions to their sting prevent me from having my own.

    It’s good to see you’re enjoying your days, however you choose to spend them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Lynne. We’ve got plenty of honey still, should you need any. And if you return the jars, I could probably give you a little discount! 🙂

      Haven’t enjoyed the last week very much. Mom’s been in hospital with pneumonia caused by aspiration, and my brother was sick with pneumonia at home. Today, he was finally able to visit before going off to substitute teach. But when I got home, I got a call from the school. He was taken by ambulance, then helicopter to the hospital. Blockage in his carotid artery, so he’s now in ICU until they figure out how to handle it. And my sister-in-law fell over her dog on the way out of the house to see Mom. She got a concussion and a broken orbital bone for her troubles. I wince just thinking about it.

      So, not a great week, although seeing the bees flying on these warm days gladdens my heart. And I joined Planet Fitness and have been using the treadmill there and trying to fit in as many morning walks in as possible too. Helps me keep sane. 🙂


      • Oh my goodness! Just saw this about your brother and sister-in-law! Sending positive thoughts and prayers for both of them. And your mom too—-that would be concerning if she’s having trouble swallowing everything. So sending you prayers too as you handle all these crises!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Betsy, and sorry I replied to Lynne through you!

        Brother was discharged from Akron City to follow up with his doc at Cleveland Clinic. He went there today, and they were aghast he was driving, said he should have been transported. He’s having an angioplasty, which I think is a good thing. Not sure why they’d send someone home with a blocked carotic artery, as if the whole episode wouldn’t happen again! Anyway, he’s where he needs to be. SIL is recuperating at home. I don’t usually see her, but we keep in touch by text, so I’ve been checking in. Mom is safely back at Burbank, on liquids and purees, which work okay as long as she follows what the speech therapy department says. Her reply to this is, “I’ve been eating for 92 years, and I never had to do that,” and “I’m going to do what I like.” But between these spurts of feistiness, she seems worn out. You can see it in her eyes; she’s just so tired. I find it very hard to understand why she has to go through all this.


    • Thanks, Lynne. I’ve been quite busy with Mom. She’s been in the hospital, along with my brother. It’s been a tale of woe and illness, I can tell you. But seeing the girls fly when it gets warm makes my spirits rise!

      We have plenty of honey left if you need any. 😉


    • Thanks, Betsy. Sorry for the delay in replying, but comments haven’t been loading properly, so I just saw this. Also, Mom’s been in hospital again, this time with pneumonia caused by aspiration. After a week, we now know it’s not due to a blockage in her esophagus, just that her muscles there aren’t working well, and food, saliva, mucus end up in her lungs. They stretched the esophagus, but it didn’t seem to help much because she aspirated pudding an hour or so afterwards. They suggested a feeding tube, but we aren’t going that route. Knowing her, she’d get it into her head to pull it out because she insists she can swallow. Also, that doesn’t stop the aspiration problem. According to my reading, it’s often just mucus or saliva anyway. Why I’m telling you all this, I don’t know, except to perhaps explain my lack of attention to my blog. Anyway, thanks for the comment!


      • Oh, your poor mom (and you!) I went through the aspirating issue with Jack several times (and the pneumonia). They never did anything for him though, except say to give him soft food. (sigh) Hope things improve.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Betsy. It’s awful, isn’t it? She’s on purées and liquids, and the speech therapist said she needs to sit upright for a half hour after eating or drinking. She doesn’t like that much, keeps saying, “I’ve been swallowing for 92 years, and no one ever told me to do that before.” Apparently aspiration is quite a common problem.


      • Yes, and it’s so scary when it happens. The one time we were up at our cottage in the Upper Peninsula—the night before were to leave for home—but were back home before he developed the pneumonia. He ended up in the hospital where they did a swallow study which was inconclusive and then sent out a speech therapist, who had him eat a cookie or cracker, which gave him no trouble at all, so that was that. Fortunately, we (meaning I) pretty much solved the problem (finally) after realizing it was only happening when he was eating meat.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I3 years! congrats–most bloggers don’t make it 13 days anymore.

    Just did my first quick inspection of hives of spring. I overwintered some, nucs and couldn’t believe one already some capped swarm cells. I was lucky I was able to find the queen and they hadn’t swarmed yet so I went ahead and split them. Spring is coming soon and the bees know it

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Crazy you have swarm cells already! Our girls are doing well, but not warm enough yet here to do a real check. At least three of ours are going nuts, but the worst month up here for losing bees is March, yet to come. Fingers crossed.


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