How do Honeybees Survive in Winter?
Written by Tobias Roberts
There is a noticeable, sensual difference between the different seasons of the year. As our earth spins on its tilted axis, we feel the temperature differences, see the discrepancies in the length of the days, and even taste the variances in seasonal cuisine. (A tomato shipped to your supermarket in January certainly doesn't taste anything like a vine-ripened July tomato you grew on your back deck.) But what about our sense of hearing? How does the winter differ from the summer in terms of the sounds we perceive?
When taking a walk through your backyard on a winter morning after a recent snowfall, the silence can be deafening. The tiny pores through freshly fallen snow create an insulating effect, which essentially mutes the world around us. Though you may hear the wind shaking the bare branches or the occasional song of a cardinal, winter is generally a time of silence and stillness.
Fast forward a few months to the middle of June, and that same yard is literally "buzzing" with life. The humming and pulsating sounds of crickets, katydids, cicadas, mosquitoes, flies, and bees fill the thick summer air with a constant murmur of life. So what exactly happens to all those buzzing insects during the winter?
Cicadas are famous for their 17-year hiatus underground before emerging to fill our summer nights with their song. Other insects, such as the common cricket, die during the fall months, leaving only their eggs to hatch next spring so that next generation can continue the summer symphony. But what about the bees? Where exactly do they go, and how do they survive those long winter months.
Do Honeybees Die in the Winter?
Unless you unexpectedly come across a beehive hidden in the hollow trunk of a tree while out on a winter walk, most people never see a bee during the winter. Some species of wasps and bees do go into a type of hibernation during the winter months, essentially going dormant during the cold season. Honey bees, however, do not die nor hibernate during the winter. Rather, the bees stay throughout the winter inside their hive. In order to bear the cold, the bees bunch together in a giant ball and almost continuously shiver their flight muscles as a mechanism that generates heat to keep the hive at a livable temperature.
As winter approaches, the hive's queen bee begins to stop producing larva for worker and drone bees. However, she actually gives birth to a special "caste" of bees known as "winter bees." These bees are significantly larger and fatter than the drone and worker bees, which actively collect nectar and pollen from flowers and buds throughout the warm seasons. The winter bees are born during the fall months as the cold begins to set in. Because they have larger and fatter bodies, this special caste of bee has a lifespan that is around four times longer than regular bees. Whereas most drones and workers only live for six weeks, a winter bee will generally live for six months. A unique type of tissue produces a substance called vitellogenin that boosts the bees' immune system and subsequently increases its lifespan. The primary responsibility of the winter bees is to ensure that the colony stays warm enough to survive the winter.
What Do Honeybees Eat in the Winter?
Because they don't hibernate or go dormant during the winter, bees need some sort of food/sustenance to survive throughout the winter. In most areas of the United States, however, flowering plants are not exactly abundant in the middle of January. To stay nourished, the bees in the hive feed on honey and pollen that they produce throughout the spring and summer. This gives them the needed energy and sustenance to survive the long months bundled together in the hive. The honey they consume as carbohydrates for energy, and the pollen is their source of protein.
Fortunately for us, honeybees are extravagant producers of honey. They tend to produce 2-4 times more honey than the colony needs during the winter. This extra production is often spread on our morning waffles or sweetens our afternoon tea. Experienced beekeepers know how much honey to leave for the bees so they can stay nourished until the first spring flowers begin to bloom.
Do All Honeybees Survive during the Winter?
Due to the extreme temperatures and the potential scarcity of honey and nectar for nourishment, a typical bee hive will tend to reduce its population by 5-10 percent during an average winter. Those bees are then replaced in the early spring months when the queen begins producing new worker and drone larvae. During a particularly long and harsh winter, it isn't uncommon for bee colonies to lose 15-20 percent of their bees.
In recent years, however, winter losses of honeybee colonies have routinely reached losses of 30-50 percent, which makes it difficult for the colony to recover their original numbers during the spring. In 2019, beekeepers across the country reported record numbers of honey bee colonies completely dying over the winter. Coupled with the dangers of pesticide drift, colony collapse disorder, and other chemical residues which affect bees, we are now seeing a tremendous reduction in the total number of bees. According to U.S. National Agricultural Statistics, honey bee populations have sharply declined from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60 percent reduction.
What Can We Do to Help Bolster Bee Population?
Bees pollinate at least one-third of the food we eat. Helping restore bee populations can be seen not only as an urgent environmental matter but also as an essential part of our food security. To help reduce bee mortality, we can get involved in campaigns to ban the most dangerous pesticides. We might also consider turning our barren, sterile, and chemical-soaked lawns into more natural landscapes mimicking the wild habitat that pollinators need to thrive. You can also help preserve pollinator habitat by supporting farmers who practice regenerative and ecological agriculture.
At Project Hive Pet Company, we pride ourselves on producing healthy and innovative toys and snacks for dogs. All of the dog toys that we manufacture and sell are BPA-free, latex-free, phthalate-free, and non-toxic. If you are looking for dog treats, all of our treats are Non-GMO Project Verified and completely vegetarian. Our treats also contain no artificial colors or flavors and are naturally preserved, reducing our reliance on unhealthy synthetic chemicals.
Best of all is that these healthy and natural treats and toys for your dog also help protect honey bee populations across the country. Through our partnership with 1% for the Planet, we have committed to giving away at least 1% of our revenues to further our mission—saving the bees. Our donations support nonprofits in the U.S. and Canada that restore vital habitat for the declining bee population. Learn more about why we need to save the bees (honeybees and native bees)!