It's almost midnight on Friday evening and I am sitting alone in my quiet house while the rest of my family sleeps. Here in North Georgia we are bracing for Snowmageddon 2016 as the region is preparing to come to a grinding halt in response to an estimated 2 inches of snow ( to those of you from up north or out west, please stop laughing). As I'm sitting here, listening to the rain and wondering when it will finally turn into snow, I can't help but think about my bees huddled in their hives out in the cold. I can't help but feel at least a little guilty, knowing that in a few minutes I will crawl into my nice, warm bed.
One of the most common questions I get this time of year is "so, what do bees do in the winter?" Well, that's a good question. The short answer is that they survive (hopefully). In warmer seasons, honeybees have many things they are focused on, gathering food, reproducing, building new comb, etc. But during the winter they are really only focused on one thing... survival. Periodically, on slightly warmer days, I crack open a hive or two to check on the quiet insects inside. Whenever I do this I am reminded of how fiercely they protect their colonies during these winter months and I usually walk away with at least one fresh sting.
When the temperature drops below 55 degrees bees know it's time to start packing it up for the year. The entire colony begins to start gathering in the hives to stay warm. Like all insects, the honeybee is cold blooded and unlike other insects, they don't hibernate. In fact, they stay quite active. In order to survive without being able to regulate their body temperatures internally the way we do, the bees gather in a large cluster within the hive, keeping the queen at the center so she can stay heated to somewhere around 90 degrees. Bees on the outside of the cluster move inwards as bees on the inside move outward, making sure that no bee is left on the colder outer edges for too long. Through constant movement the colony is collectively able to maintain a warm temperature within the hive and wait out the long winter.
As anyone could tell you who has spent a sustained amount of time moving, whether in a race, or playing a sport, or chasing a toddler, that kind of constant movement takes a lot of energy. And there is no better source of raw energy than pure honey. That is why it is so important for beekeepers to leave enough honey in a hive. If you take too much during the harvest, the bees might not have enough to make it through the winter and will starve. I can speak from experience in saying there is nothing more heartbreaking as a beekeeper to come across a hive which has perished from starvation.
One of the dangers of raising bees in the South is that sometimes, the winters can be too warm. I know that doesn't sound like a problem but trust me, it is. On warm days, bees get more active, they leave the hive to have a look around and maybe go foraging for food sources. Of course they don't find any so they end up returning to the hive empty handed. Those trips take a lot of energy, a lot more than just clustering inside the hive. So the bees eat more honey to sustain themselves. This can cause a problem for when the temperature drops again. Too many warm days mean more honey is consumed which means there is less honey available for the cold later part of winter. In many ways, it would almost be better if the weather was so cold that the bees never ventured out of the hive until spring. But then I wouldn't get to wear my seersucker shorts in December.
Ultimately, this is the most perilous time for the bees. We do our best to help them but ultimately we have to trust that they know what they are doing and have adequately prepared for the winter season. So here I sit, hoping that my children will be able to wake up tomorrow morning to at least a little bit of snow, taking great comfort in the fact that the bees are snug and warm in their hives. I think I will go to bed and do the same.