Have you ever wondered what happens to our bees in the cold winter months? Read on for an answer to this burning question and additional updates from Jen, our Education & Administrative Coordinator as well as resident beekeeper. This post is a contribution to our month-long February series My Wolfe’s Neck Farm. We’ll take a look at the many ways our staff and community members connect to Wolfe’s Neck Farm.
By Jennifer Rowland, Education and Administrative Coordinator
It’s a cold winter day, and the thoughts running through my head are: Did the bees have adequate food stores going into winter? Was the pest treatment I used effective, and will it keep varroa mite populations low enough that my bees survive? What are their food stores like now? Should I put on a candy board?
This is the time that I think about my hives the most. I wonder if (and hope) I did a decent job helping them prepare for our long winter here in Maine.
What happens to the Wolfe’s Neck Farm bees during the winter?
I’ve had several people ask me what happens to our bees during the winter. Although winter looks different in different parts of the country, here in Maine a honeybee queen reduces or stops her egg-laying in late fall and doesn’t pick up again until after the Winter Solstice. During these cold winter months, the bees form a winter cluster around the queen whenever the temperature inside the hive goes below 58 degrees F. The cluster will be fairly loose at first but gets tighter and tighter as the temperature falls. As bees from the outside of the cluster get chilled they move toward the center of the cluster while warmer bees move outward.
There are also certain bees within the cluster referred to as heater bees. These bees consume honey and burn it by flexing their wing muscles or shivering, in turn keeping thousands of other bees warm. The heater bees do this not only within the winter cluster, but also in empty cells of the brood nest in order to keep the brood (baby bees) warm. Honey is provided to these heater bees by their sister bees who uncap and move honey located elsewhere in the hive to the warm center of the brood nest. It’s a complex, amazing phenomenon and exhausting process!
A taste of winter beekeeping
One of the most difficult experiences of being a beekeeper is discovering that one of your colonies has died. On an unusually warm January day a couple weeks ago, I ventured out into the bee yards here at the farm to see if the bees were flying at all – a clear sign they’ve made it this far through winter. While I was thrilled that two of my hives were alive – both had many bees flying about – one of my hives was completely still. Although there’s a small chance that there’s a tiny cluster of bees alive in the hive, in all likelihood, it didn’t make it. It’s a disappointing, saddening, and sometimes confusing occurrence, especially when I thought I’d done all I could to prepare the hive for winter. It is also a humbling experience and a good reminder that as a new beekeeper, I still have a lot to learn about how best to support our bees.
How you’re connected
As a non-beekeeper, there are many ways in which you can support both wild and stewarded bees yourself. An estimated 80 percent of all the food we eat—every third bite of food—comes from fruits and vegetables pollinated by bees or other insects. We must care for the many bee species that pollinate our crops and enrich our scenic vistas. There are many online resources to guide you in how best to support pollinators, and a great start is establishing a garden – whether specifically dedicated to supporting pollinators or otherwise. Check out Pollinator Partnership’s Ecoregional Planting Guides – the Adirondack or Laurentian will cover our area here in Maine. They even have an app you can download to help you select plants for pollinators specific to your area!
There are many questions beekeepers may ask themselves as we watch our hives – across our snow-covered lawns, gardens, and fields – through the winter.