What happens to bees in autumn and winter?

by Clare Fairs, February 22, 2017

How much do you know about the way bees live? We’ve quizzed Hillfarm’s very own beekeeper Arlen on what happens to bees during the colder winter months, and what they’re doing now spring is just around the corner.

How many bees live in a hive?

During the summer there are as many as 70,000 bees in the hive, plus the queen mother. In the autumn months, the population dwindles to 15,000 because the number of eggs the queen lays is directly linked to the amount of food she’s fed. In autumn, there are very few plants in flower, so her food intake is drastically reduced.

How can you tell which one is the queen?

The queen bee has a distinctive colour marking on her head. Over the winter months, the queen bee is being fed much less food, so her ovaries shrink and she becomes smaller in appearance. The queen mother can live up to seven years, but most only last for around three years.

What do the worker bees do during the autumn and winter?

In autumn, the new worker bees are slightly different from the summer bees because the fat-producing gene is switched on, and they put on as much weight as possible to stay warm. Overwintering bees can live for up to six months, while their sisters born during spring and summer live for just six weeks as they work so hard collecting nectar and pollen for the colony.

What are drone bees?

Drone bees are male bees, whose only job is to mate with the queen. In late July and August most drone bees are ejected from the hive as they are surplus to requirements – the queen won’t be reproducing much during the winter. Instead, the female worker bees only tolerate a small number of drones, in case of an emergency such as the queen failing or dying.

Do you feed the bees?

To give our bees a helping hand when there’s no food available naturally, we feed them using something called a ‘framed feeder’, which is loaded with inverted sugar syrup and keeps them going through the winter months. The bees will reduce the water content of the syrup to less than 18%, then seal it with wax to keep it fresh until they need it.

How do bees survive during the winter?

The bee colony clusters together to stay warm and protect the hive in winter. They do this by continuously shuffling the warm bees from the centre to the outside of the cluster. The bees tend to become slower and slower as the weather gets colder, becoming dormant at around 8°C.

To produce heat in the cluster, the bees flex their wing muscles and move slowly across the frames, uncapping the wax to eat the stored honey. Individual foraging bees will leave the hive to collect water and dilute the honey to share.

Do bees leave the hive in the winter?

On warmer winter days – when temperatures hover above around 12°C – the bees will go and and look for food. Borage is an annual plant, and other pollen-producing plants at this time of year include aconites, snow drops, hazel catkins and gorse.

The bees will can remain in the hives for up to 6 weeks, and like any other creature they need to egest the remains of what they have eaten. They won’t defecate inside the hive, so on a sunny warm day they will all leave the hive and do what we call ‘venting’. This is not a good day to hang out your washing nearby!

What happens when springtime draws near?

In February the bees start sensing the longer days, so they’ll start increasing the amount of food they eat from the winter stores, and start feeding the queen bee to stimulate her into laying eggs to strengthen the size of the colony. At the same time, the bees will start increasing the temperature inside the cluster – where the brood is developing – to 34°C. The eggs, located in the cells inside the brood area, take 21 days to hatch into a female worker bee.

Do you have any questions for our beekeeper Arlen? Tweet us @hillfarmoils with anything you’d like to know about bees!

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