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Are My Bees Dead Or Hibernating? Ways To Tell

Have you ever wondered where your bees go during these extreme weather effects? We know our bees are beautiful, vulnerable creatures, and we sometimes worry about them, leaving us wondering if we are worrying a little too much!

Most bees do hibernate during the winter, and they can survive some of the coldest winters. They use hibernation and diapause, which are strategies to survive. In some bee species, only the queen will survive. Usually, honey bees remain active during the winter, despite the cold and lack of flowers.

Are you unsure how to check if your bees are dead or hibernating? Don’t be! I still struggle, but it all comes down to little key aspects and clues you need to look out for. Read on with me, as you will discover loads of new information about our beloved stinger friends!

Do Bees Die During The Winter?

Both new and experienced beekeepers are concerned about dead bees in the winter months, especially the poor bees that accumulate on or near the hive entrance. There have been loads of questions about dead bees in the winter, so I took the innetiative to go and do some research.

It is crucial to remember that bees die every single day, even in the most healthy colonies. A normal-sized colony loses about a thousand bees per day in the summer! This is more normal than it is not and is nothing to worry about, which I certainly struggle to understand.

Most of the losses in summer are replaced or evened out by a busy queen that may lay 1500 eggs or more per day. Most of the summer losses are forager bees that usually die on the job or find their path back to their hive. As beekeepers, it doesn’t matter how vigilant we are in our hives; we never notice these losses. 

Ultimately, bees die in winter as well. Bees will continue to die every day, even in winter. The bee lives lost in winter is not as high as in the summer. This is because the bees are not foraging, and they tend to have special adaptions that allow them to live longer than bees in the summer.

Bees will still die every day, and they will die at home during the winter, where beekeepers usually will see them lying on the landing board or peppering on the snow. If you consider that your healthy colony will have between 50 000 and 60 000 members going into the winter, you do not have to worry about the few bees who will not make it out alive.

Seeing Dead Bees Are Completely Normal

Sometimes beekeepers are concerned about five or six dead bees on the landing board or a few on the grass. These numbers are, however, natural attrition and are nothing to worry about!

Usually, when you check on your hive daily, you can expect to see a small pile of dead bees on the grass or landing board. This is an accurate signal that all is well inside the hive, and the bees are just going about their natural processes. Only a healthy colony would have the “manpower” to dispatch undertaker bees to clean up the bodies. On warmer days during the winter, the bees will fly the bodies off of the landing board and dispatch them on the ground.

On the colder days, the bees will just shove the lifeless bodies of their hive mates out of the hive entrance. Either case, this means all is good!

In fact, you, as the beekeeper, should get concerned when you see no bodies because then you are left to wonder if the colony is dead or as strong as it should be. In several situations of this happening, it is usually an indication that the colony is failing.

 This is a great note to take into consideration if you are trying to make management decisions or when you are trying to decide whether to peek into your hive or not.

What Happens To Bees In Winter?

Stated in pretty simple terms, it is key for honey bees to stay warm and have enough food to survive during the winter. Staying warm and generating heat requires food and energy in the form of honey. If the colony exhausts its supply of honey, it will freeze to death before spring.

This is just one reason honey bees work so hard during the warmer months of the year to collect nectar, process it, and store large amounts of fresh honey. This is also why it is not advised for beekeepers to harvest their bees’ honey too close to winter.

As the summer ends and fall approaches and the bees cannot collect nectar and other sugar sources, they all begin to settle in their hive for the winter. When temperatures start to drop, the bees start to cluster in their hive. It is during this period that the queen stops laying eggs because food sources are limited.

The bees then decide to insulate the colony because they are at risk of freezing with the temperatures dropping outside. The honey bee workers 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 that are on the inside of the cluster feed on the honey that has been stored in the hive for the winter.

When the temperatures outside 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 whole colony warm enough.

The cluster will also expand and contract as temperatures fluctuate. As temperatures rise and fall, the bees on the outside will separate a bit to increase airflow through the cluster. As temperatures fall, the cluster will then tighten again.

As temperatures continue to drop, the worker bees start to generate heat within the hive actively. They will begin to flex and flight muscles located within the thorax of their bodies. This is amazing because their wings will never move. Instead, the vibration raises each and every 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 will move 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 will start living their lives as usual.

Things To Do When Checking Your Hive

Do you get nervous if you don’t check your hives at least once a week all winter long? You never know what you might find. All of us do worry about our hives in the winter. We wonder if your 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 make sure whether they are dead or hibernating. However, it does make it better to check on our hives during the winter.

Checking If Your Colony Is Dead Or Alive

As mentioned, you could do very few things to see if your colony is failing or not. There is, however, one very simple way to use your senses to check if there are still 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 slightly 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?

  1. Provide your bees with food.

An average-sized bee colony has roughly the same nutritional needs as a medium-sized dog. Like us and everything else that is alive, bees need protein and carbohydrates. Bees consume their food sources during the winter to stay warm. So, needless to say, the colder it gets, the more food your bees will have to consume to be able to generate sufficient heat!

It is crucial to remember that you can not lift frames out of your hives when the temperatures dropped or are below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If you do lift the frames, you run the risk of damaging a whole pupa of bees. You could lift the top off briefly to be able to take a look at your bees’ food supply, but never more than that.

Keep food you provide your bees with at the top of the cluster. This is not a guarantee that your bees will survive through the winter, but at least you will be making sure they will not starve.

  • Block The Wind!

Some studies have shown that your bees will have quite an advantage when you wrap a     hive with roofing paper. If you wrap your hive, you will have to provide more upper ventilation to reduce excessive cold water dripping on the colony. This is an excellent idea, as your bees will be shielded from the cold and water!

  • Ensure That Your Hive Is Stable

Ensuring that your hive is stable enough on its stand throughout the winter is the first and foremost thing you should do. As the ground freezes and flows away, your stand blocks can shift, and your hive may fall over.

If you break the propolis seal on your top cover, a harsh winter storm could blow the top off. This means certain death for all your poor bees. To prevent this from happening, it would be best to regularly check your hive for any shifting and keeping it stable. You could even just keep a rock or weight on the top of your hive to help it stabilize.

  • Keep Mice Out!

Mice will kill your hive if they decide to make it their nest in the winter. Take a flashlight during the night, remove your entrance reducer or mouse guard and make sure you cannot see any signs of mice nesting in your hive.

If you do see signs, ask somebody who lives with you to help you lift off the hive from the bottom board. You could then destroy the nest and put your hive back down, and reducing your entrance.

  • Always Check For Cracks

If you have older equipment, you might find some corners missing, followed by some large cracks. You can use duct tape or metal tape to seal the gaps until you can replace your equipment in the spring. Remember, broken bottom boards can allow mice to get in, so keep an eye out for any cracks, big or small.

  • Keep The Entrance Cleared

Snow, ice, and even water can pile up on the hive blocking the entrance at the bottom. The dead bees can also cause a blockage at the entrance, making it even more important that you clean it with every hive inspection during the winter.

Conclusion

A careful, observant beekeeper can learn a lot about the things going on inside their hive by quietly watching outside. It could be very tempting for a new beekeeper to open up a hive during the winter months just to look inside and take note of these amazing insects working simultaneously. They are more often than not oblivious to the harm they cause to their beloved bees out of their curiosity.

This is why it is important to let your bees do all the work during the winter and only helping them with providing them with the sources they lack.

It is good to remember that a single bee cannot survive alone, but if he is part of a large number of bees, they all work together as a single unit to thrive and survive together!

Jaco Stander

My name is Jaco Stander. I’m from Cape Town, South Africa. I’m a registered beekeeper with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform & Rural Development in South Africa. Registration number WC808. I live on a small holding where I keep my 16 beehives. Taking care of bees is a very rewarding feeling, contributing to keep our bee colonies growing and thriving, and as a bonus, enjoying that sweet pure raw honey!

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