Honey bees are one of the few insects that go through the winter as a colony. But a bit like their keepers, they do a lot less work than in the summer months.
Like us humans, bees prefer to stay inside when it’s cold and so rarely leave the hive. There are very few flowers in bloom during this time, so gathering nectar or pollen is infrequent. On warmer days however, the bees venture out foraging or as mentioned in our last blog post, to go to the toilet. Essentially the bees have one main priority in winter and that’s taking care of the queen.
As the air temperature drops below 10-14 °C the worker bees huddle around the queen in a ball, known as a winter cluster. In the centre of this ball is the queen, where the temperature remains around 29-34 °C, regardless of how cold it is outside. If the outside air temperature drops any further this cluster becomes tighter and more compact. The opposite happens as it gets warmer and the bees contract and expand in sync with these fluctuations. Also, they keep shifting position so the burden of being on the colder outside is split between the entire colony. A behaviour similar to that of emperor penguins.
To keep the cluster warm the bees vibrate their wings’ flight muscles giving off heat. All this ‘shivering’ burns calories and the bees need fuel to keep the furnace going. This is where the excess honey produced during the summer comes in handy. As the winter progresses, this honey is polished off and the cluster moves position to stay in contact with the remaining stores. If they run out of food, the chances are the colony will perish. Sadly this is out of the hands of the beekeeper, but it is rare and hopefully there’s enough food for the colony to survive off until the arrival of spring. Then, as the warm weather returns, the cluster breaks down completely and the foragers head outside again to gorge on newly flowering spring plants.