Honeybee Hives: Wintering Bees

There may be snow on the ground and ice on the trees, but your bees are a balmy 96 degrees inside their honeybee hives. Here's the lowdown on wintering bees.

| GRIT's Guide to Backyard Bees and Honey 2011

  • Winter Honeybee Hive
    If you feel like you must do something for your hive, set bales of hay or sheets of plywood around the hive (not up against) in late fall to protect it from strong winds.
    iStockphoto.com/Andrzej Petelski
  • Honeybees on a Daffodil
    Even in the snow, honeybees visit early-blooming daffodils to collect pollen and nectar.
    iStockphoto.com/Johan Lundgren
  • Row of Honeybee Hives
    Sometimes you just have to let nature takes its course.
    iStockphoto.com/Borislav Gnjidic

  • Winter Honeybee Hive
  • Honeybees on a Daffodil
  • Row of Honeybee Hives

Believe it or not, bees do not hibernate or sleep all winter. How can that be, you wonder? Their survival depends on the heat they generate as they cluster together in a ball inside honeybee hives. The bees maintain a temperature of 96 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the cluster all winter long, so wintering bees becomes quite simple.

The process of warm air emanating from the cluster making contact with the cold, flat surface above them results in a build-up of moisture (or condensation), much like the water that forms on a cold glass and runs down to make a ring on your mother-in-law’s antique end table. Standing water is never a good scenario, whether it’s in a beehive or on an antique end table.

Our local bee clubs usually teach us to give the bees ventilation on top of the hive as well as the bottom entrance; this is to prevent humidity from building up on the ceiling of the hive only to drip into the cluster, freezing them. However, this extra ventilation is problematic because the air draft requires more energy from the clustered bees to maintain 96 degrees and 50 percent humidity. In other words, they’ll have to eat more of their stored food (honey) than necessary.

In the wild, bees prefer to maintain a single opening at the bottom of the hive. A single opening allows them to fan fresh air or ventilate the hive as needed. Fanning also encourages excess moisture to be absorbed into the wood, for use in drier times. If there’s a serious excess of moisture in the hive, the bees can direct it out through the opening.  

Let nature take its course

So, realizing that the droplets of moisture building up on the cold, flat ceiling of the hive is a man-made problem, I avoid the situation by mimicking nature. My Homestead Hive (a top-bar type hive) is made with thick wood to emulate a hollow log, and I let the bees seal up all the cracks as they like to do anyway. I try not to open the hives in the cool of fall. If I must, I’ll press the hive parts back together to allow the propolis to reseal the hive.

Propolis. Propolis is a resin that the bees harvest from trees and plants in order to seal the cracks in the hive. It’s nature’s version of weather-stripping, and yes, it can be annoying. It’s sticky and messy, requiring hives to be pried apart. In commercial bee breeding, they have done their best to eliminate the pesky propolis through selective breeding.  

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