Are My Bees Dead Or Hibernating? Ways To Tell

Ever found yourself pondering about the whereabouts of your bees during extreme weather conditions? Our bees are delicate, beautiful creatures that often leave us concerned about their well-being, sometimes to the point of overthinking!

Interestingly, most bees hibernate during winter, managing to survive even the harshest cold spells. They employ survival strategies like hibernation and diapause. In some species, only the queen bee survives the winter. Honey bees, however, remain active throughout the winter, despite the cold and absence of flowers.

Wondering how to tell if your bees are dead or just hibernating? Don’t fret! It’s a challenge for me too, but it all boils down to certain key signs and clues. Join me as we delve into the fascinating world of our buzzing buddies!

Do Bees Die During The Winter?

Both novice and seasoned beekeepers often worry about finding dead bees during the winter months, particularly those found near the hive entrance. This concern has sparked numerous questions about bees’ survival in winter, prompting me to delve into some research.

It’s important to remember that bees die every single day, even in the healthiest of colonies. A typical colony loses about a thousand bees per day during the summer! This is a normal occurrence and not a cause for concern, although it can be hard to comprehend.

Most of the losses in summer are compensated by a busy queen bee laying up to 1500 eggs or more per day. The majority of summer losses are forager bees that either die on the job or lose their way back to the hive. As beekeepers, no matter how attentive we are, we rarely notice these losses. 

Similarly, bees die in winter too. Bees continue to die daily, even in winter, although the death rate is lower than in summer. This is because the bees are not foraging, and they have special adaptations that allow them to live longer than summer bees.

Bees continue to die daily, and during winter, they die at home, where beekeepers usually find them on the landing board or scattered on the snow. Considering that a healthy colony will have between 50,000 and 60,000 members going into the winter, you need not worry about the few bees who don’t survive.

Seeing Dead Bees Is Completely Normal

Sometimes, beekeepers get alarmed by the sight of five or six dead bees on the landing board or a few on the grass. However, these numbers are just a part of natural attrition and nothing to lose sleep over!

Typically, when you check your hive daily, you might notice a small pile of dead bees on the grass or landing board. This is actually a positive sign that everything is functioning well inside the hive, and the bees are simply following their natural life cycle. Only a healthy colony has the “manpower” to assign undertaker bees to remove the dead. On warmer winter days, the bees will fly the bodies off the landing board and dispose of them on the ground.

On colder days, the bees simply push the lifeless bodies of their hive mates out of the hive entrance. In either case, this indicates that all is well!

In fact, as a beekeeper, you should be more concerned when you see no dead bees because then you are left to wonder if the colony is dead or as strong as it should be. In several instances, this could be an indication that the colony is failing.

This is a crucial point to consider when making management decisions or deciding whether to peek into your hive or not.

My article titled “Can you start a bee hive with just a queen?” might pique your interest. Feel free to read it here.

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What Happens To Bees In Winter?

Put simply, honey bees need to stay warm and have enough food to survive the winter. Generating heat and staying warm requires food and energy, which comes in the form of honey. If the colony exhausts its honey supply, it will freeze to death before spring arrives.

This is one of the reasons why honey bees work tirelessly during the warmer months to collect nectar, process it, and store large amounts of fresh honey. This is also why beekeepers are advised not to harvest their bees’ honey too close to winter.

As summer ends and fall approaches, and the bees can no longer collect nectar and other sugar sources, they begin to settle in their hive for the winter. When temperatures start to drop, the bees start to cluster in their hive. During this period, the queen stops laying eggs due to limited food sources.

The bees then decide to insulate the colony as they risk freezing with the dropping temperatures. The worker bees form a cluster around the queen and the brood to keep them warm. The bees in the cluster keep their heads pointed inward, and the bees on the inside of the cluster feed on the stored honey in the hive for the winter.

When the outside temperatures reach about 57 degrees Fahrenheit, the cluster tightens, and the bees remain relatively motionless for the winter. The combined body heat generated by the bees lined up inside the cluster’s outer ring is sufficient to keep the entire colony warm.

The cluster also expands and contracts as temperatures fluctuate. As temperatures rise and fall, the bees on the outside separate a bit to increase airflow through the cluster. As temperatures fall, the cluster tightens again.

As temperatures continue to drop, the worker bees start to actively generate heat within the hive. They begin to flex their flight muscles located within their thorax. This is fascinating because their wings don’t move. Instead, the vibration raises each bee’s body temperature. With thousands of bees vibrating in this miraculous way, the temperature at the center of the cluster could warm up to a cozy 93 degrees Fahrenheit.

During warmer winter days, the entire cluster moves around in the hive, positioning themselves around fresh supplies of nectar or other sugar sources. As the temperature begins to rise again and winter comes to an end, they resume their normal activities.

Things To Do When Checking Your Hive

Do you feel anxious if you don’t check your hives at least once a week all winter long? The uncertainty can be nerve-wracking. We all worry about our hives in the winter. We wonder if our little bees are cold, diseased, will they survive? Is the queen still alive?

These are all questions that pop into my mind when I turn on my heater inside my house during the winter. I was a little upset when I found out there is actually very little we can do during the winter to help our bees. And there is even less we can do to determine whether they are dead or hibernating. However, it does help to check on our hives during the winter.

You might find my article on “Plastic vs Wood Beekeeping Frames” interesting. You can read it here.

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Checking If Your Colony Is Dead Or Alive

As mentioned, there are very few things you can do to determine if your colony is failing or not. However, there is one simple way to use your senses to check for movement and noise in your hive.

To check to the best of your ability if your colony is dead or alive, put your ear against your hive and gently tap with your fingers against the hive. You may then hear an increased buzzing. This generally serves little to no purpose if your hive is okay, just that there are still some signs of life left.

There is some benefit to this method: if you are sure of no signs of life in your hive, you can open it and verify by looking for not more than 30 seconds between the comb. If the entire colony has perished, it would be best to shake out the dead cluster as soon as possible to prevent further decay inside the combs.

If you don’t hear anything, it may speak more to your hearing than of your bees. Still be careful and vigilant, as bees sting in the winter too!

What Can You Do To Check On Your Hive During The Winter?

Provide your bees with food.

Did you know that an average-sized bee colony has the same nutritional needs as a medium-sized dog? Just like us and every other living creature, bees require protein and carbohydrates to survive. During the winter, bees rely on their food stores to generate heat and stay warm. So, as the temperature drops, your bees will need to consume more food to maintain their body heat!

Here’s an important tip: Never lift frames out of your hives when the temperature is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Doing so could potentially harm an entire pupa of bees. However, you can briefly lift the top to check on your bees’ food supply, but be careful not to disturb them too much.

Always place the food you provide for your bees at the top of the cluster. While this doesn’t guarantee their survival through the winter, it does ensure they won’t starve.

Shield Your Bees From The Wind!

Research suggests that wrapping your hive with roofing paper can give your bees a significant advantage. Remember to provide more upper ventilation to prevent cold water from dripping on the colony if you decide to wrap your hive. This simple step can protect your bees from the harsh cold and wet conditions!

Stabilize Your Hive

The first thing you should do to prepare for winter is to ensure that your hive is stable on its stand. As the ground freezes and thaws, your stand blocks can shift, causing your hive to topple over. Be vigilant about this potential hazard.

For more tips on hive placement, check out my detailed article on “What should I put under my beehiveshere.

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Be careful not to break the propolis seal on your top cover, as a harsh winter storm could blow it off, leading to the demise of your bees. To prevent this, regularly check your hive for any shifting and keep it stable. Consider placing a rock or weight on top of your hive to help it stay put.

Prevent Mice Infestations!

Mice can wreak havoc on your hive if they decide to nest in it during the winter. To prevent this, use a flashlight at night to inspect your hive. Remove your entrance reducer or mouse guard and ensure there are no signs of mice nesting in your hive.

If you do find signs of a mouse nest, enlist the help of someone to lift the hive off the bottom board. Destroy the nest, put your hive back, and reduce the entrance to prevent future infestations.

Inspect Your Hive For Cracks

If you’re using older equipment, you might find some corners missing or large cracks appearing. Use duct tape or metal tape to seal these gaps until you can replace your equipment in the spring. Remember, broken bottom boards can allow mice to enter, so be vigilant about any cracks, no matter how small.

For more tips on hive maintenance, check out my articles “Should beehives be in sun or shade” and “Should you stain or paint beehives“.

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Maintain a Clear Hive Entrance

Winter can be a challenging time for your hive, with snow, ice, and even water potentially blocking the entrance. Dead bees can also contribute to this obstruction. That’s why it’s crucial to ensure the entrance is clear during every winter hive inspection.

Wrapping Up

As a beekeeper, you can gain valuable insights about your hive’s inner workings by simply observing from the outside. While it might be tempting for beginners to open the hive during winter to witness the fascinating work of the bees, it’s important to remember that this can inadvertently harm them.

That’s why it’s essential to let your bees do their job during the winter, stepping in only to provide them with the resources they need.

Remember, a single bee cannot survive on its own. But as part of a large group, bees work in unison, thriving and surviving together as a cohesive unit!

Title: Are My Bees Dead or Hibernating? Distinct Ways to Tell

In the dregs of winter, when the would-be buzz of bees is replaced by frosty silence, those who tend to bee hives may find themselves confronted by an alarming sight: motionless bees that show no sign of activity. A hive that was once teeming with life now seems like a crypt of insectile lethargy, triggering concern among beekeepers: are the bees dead, or are they just hibernating?

In order to alleviate this uncertainty, it is crucial to remember that bees, especially honey bees, do not hibernate in the conventional sense, but rather remain cooped up within their hives in what can be described as a winter cluster. This article aims to help beekeepers distinguish between dead and hibernating bees and to provide clues for proper hive management during the cold months.

Honey bees and the winter cluster

Hibernation is generally a state of deep sleep that certain animals enter to save energy during the harsh winter. But honey bees do something slightly different. When winter approaches, bees gather around the queen and form a tight group known as a winter cluster. The bees on the exterior of the cluster keep their wings beat at a high intensity to create heat, while the queen and the young are being kept warm in the center. It is their way of surviving the cold months.

On warmer winter days, bees may leave the hive on “cleansing flights” – a venture out of the hive to defecate and free the hive of waste. Their activity during winter is dictated by temperature, which implies that visual signs of activity may not be a reliable measure of whether the bees are dead or alive.

Identifying dead bees

If you come across a cluster of stiff, motionless bees during winter, your first assumption might be that the bees have met their untimely demise. However, it’s crucial not to jump to conclusions immediately. Dead bees might separate from the cluster, falling to the bottom of the hive or appearing at the hive’s entrance. It’s essential to pay close attention to the location of still bees before determining their state.

Additionally, a strong musty or foul smell emanating from the hive could be indicative of a high number of dead bees. This smell can often be accompanied by signs of disease or pests such as mites, which contribute to a hive’s decline.

Meticulous observations

Checking for the ‘buzz’ inside the hive on a mild winter day is another way to ascertain the colony’s condition. Vibrations or a low hum can indicate the bees are maintaining the winter cluster. Such checks should be done carefully without opening the hive that might chill and damage the cluster.

Similarly, some beekeepers opt to use infrared technology or stethoscopes to monitor the heat and sound within the hive, providing non-intrusive ways to check on the bee’s winter progress.

The methodologies highlighted offer clear directives in identifying whether bees are dead or merely surviving the winter. Regular examination, coupled with good observation skills, can prove vital in fostering a thriving colony. Remember, maintaining healthy hives during winter is often a prelude to a productive spring, making understanding these nuances in bee behavior not only exciting but also beneficial for effective beekeeping.

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