Beehives in apiary covered with snow in wintertime.

How Do Honey Bees Prepare For Winter?


  What do the bees do naturally during cold periods and winters? Let's make sure that we do nothing to help them gets in the way or impedes their natural methods.

When daytime temperatures fall below 57° Fahrenheit, they retreat to their hives and cluster together around the queen, and next to their honey supplies, to stay warm as the temperatures outside get colder.

  How Do Bees Deal With Winter?

As the days get colder and the nights grow longer the bees start preparing themselves for the long, cold winter. The brood nest gets smaller, the honey stores, once relegated to the outer friames and high above the brood nest now invade the brood frames making each frame heavy with energy rich carbohydrates.

The cracks and crevices that once provided cooling ventilation are now tightly sealed with propolis and the drones that were so pivotal to the local area’s bee propagation are now deemed unnecessary and are unceremoniously kicked out.

Read more: October Beekeeping

Read more: Honey Bee Drones

  'Winter Bee' Production

Winter bee.

One of the more amazing changes that happen to a bee colony entering the winter months is the development of winter bees. These are bees with enlarged fat bodies that allow survival for months on honey or sugar alone and even give the bee the ability to produce protein rich brood food in an absence of fresh pollen.

This period of winter bee rearing is probably the most important few weeks of the bee year. There will be no other chances to increase the winter bee population, if they miss this small window or for any reason they are unable to create a sufficient amount of these “fat bees”, the colony is on borrowed time.

The process the bees use to develop these winter bees is similar to the process used to create a queen bee. When creating a queen, it is the lack of pollen and nectar and the surplus of royal jelly fed to the young larvae that allows the ovaries to fully develop and creates a distinctly different bee.

When creating a winter bee it is the relatively low level of protein fed to the larvae that kick up the production of fat bodies and the compound vitellogenin, a glycolipoprotein with properties of sugar, fat and protein that give nurse and winter bees a greater immune system and allows winter bees to consume and dispense nutrients that aren’t readily available in the hive or the field.

This incredible use of external conditions to implement epigenetic changes is truly one of the most fascinating things about this lovable creature we’re all trying to keep alive.

  Daytime Temperature In The 50's

Winter honey bee cluster.

At this point the brood level is severely diminished and the egg laying portion of the year is usually complete.

When the outside air temperature falls into the low 50’s Fahrenheit the bees huddle together to create a temperature regulating cluster that expands and contracts to keep the cluster at a very specific set of temperatures. When there is no brood present the cluster temperature usually stays about 85° F, when there is brood present the thermostat is raised to 93° F.

This fact is why cold weather brood manipulation and early pollen feeding can cause havoc inside the hive as the bees try to maintain temperatures high enough for the brood to develop despite not having enough bees or food to contribute to this effort.

The outer layers of bees detach their wings from the muscles that move them, allowing them to vibrate those muscles to generate heat. When the outer layers become too cold they are moved toward the center of the cluster to warm up while a new set of bees takes up the heat generation job.

This method of heat maintenance is not the furnace that spreads warmth throughout your house in the winter, rather than heat the entire cavity of the hive the bees only expend enough energy to heat the cluster.

The warm, moist air that does leave the cluster rises inside the hive until it reaches a cold surface, where it condenses into water droplets and threatens the colony. If this moisture builds up enough, it will drip onto the colony, reducing their ability to maintain proper temperatures and threatening a quick, cold death.


The cluster will work its way throughout the hive following the honey, but primarily moving upwards, presumably following the heat rising from the group. This movement is slow and sometimes not possible due to frigid cold, causing colony deaths due to starvation even when there is ample honey to the side, below or even above the cluster.

This is why the ubiquity of sugar is an essential element to any northern honey bee colony’s survival. It’s not just enough to have the right amount of honey or sugar, it has to be in the right place for easy access.

During these clustered months, the bees eat enough to maintain, which, obviously brings the requirement of ridding themselves of waste. Their ability to “hold it” is profound but not limitless, and the buildup of bee poop inside the hive can bring on unhealthy conditions. That is why it is so important to allow the bees access to the outside at all times, no matter how many dead bees are clogging the main entrance, by giving them a secondary, or “upper” entrance.

  Spring Approaches

When the outside air temperature climbs above 50&geg; F and the sun is shining, the bees race outside to paint the snow with their orange waste, sometimes covering the lids and sides of the boxes as the need grows too great to wait another second.

If the amount of poop on the lids surprises you, know that it is a good thing as it means a reduction in overall stress on the colony.

As the days start finally to grow longer and the mercury begins to rise, those fat bodies existent in the winter bees exhibit another area of importance for the colony’s continuation and growth. The queen starts laying small patches of brood and even without incoming fresh pollen the fat nurse bees produce protein rich royal jelly to feed the new spring bees.

The brood patch grows slowly with the length of the day until the first abundant sources of pollen herald the end of winter.

Bees flying footer graphic