Winter can be a challenging time for bees and for beekeepers. There are no flowers for bees to forage from, and beekeepers are limited to minimal hive inspections. Luckily, bees spend all year preparing by storing honey. For beekeepers, it is important to know how much honey bees need to survive the winter.
What do Bees do in the Winter?
While some people think that bees hibernate in the winter, that is not true. Instead, bees focus on staying warm. Bees are cold blooded, so it is important for them to maintain a warm temperature within their hive. To do so, they form what is called a winter cluster.
Bees begin forming their winter cluster when the temperature dips into the 50’s. They will form their cluster by huddling around the queen to keep her warm. The energy from quickly fluttering their wings heats the center of the cluster to a toasty 80°F.
The outside of the cluster isn’t quite as warm, so the bees will rotate and change positions so everyone can stay warm. The cluster will expand and contract, depending on the temperature. As it gets colder, the cluster huddles closer together. When it is warmer, the cluster spreads out more, to allow for more airflow.
Winter bees are different from summer bees. Their bodies are plumper to generate warmth, and they live for 4-6 months, instead of 6 weeks.
That is due to enlarged fat bodies in their abdomen. This enables them to have an increased immune system and longer lifespan. Amazingly, these fat bodies produce a substance called vitellogenin, which allows bees to secrete food for the brood, even with no pollen available.
Winter bees are made not based on temperature, but when pollen becomes scarce. A diet lacking in pollen triggers the larvae to start developing winter bee traits.
It takes a lot of energy to warm the hive, which means that they need to eat to gain that energy.
What do Bees Eat in the Winter?
Despite honey being harvested by humans for thousands of years, bees really make honey for themselves. Honey is calorie rich – perfect to give bees the energy they need to warm their hive.
Without flowers to forage from in the winter, bees must eat the honey that they have stored up. Still in their winter cluster formation, the colony will move together to reach their honey reserves.
This is why it is absolutely critical for beekeepers to leave enough honey for the bees when harvesting honey. Without enough honey to get them through the winter, the colony will likely perish.
How Much Honey do Bees Need to Survive the Winter?
Now that you know why bees make honey for winter, how much honey do bees need to survive winter? The exact amount depends on the winter temperatures in your area and how long your winter usually lasts.
That being said, you should plan to leave 60 – 90 pounds of honey for your colony to survive winter. This is at least 8-10 full deep frames of honey that must be left on the hive.
You should plan to leave 60 – 90 pounds of honey for your colony to survive winter.
Feeding Bees in Winter
To help their colonies, some beekeepers will feed their bees in the winter. Supplementing the bees will ensure that they have enough energy to keep the hive warm during the winter.
Bees are usually fed sugar syrup, fondant, or candy boards in the winter. Sugar syrup works better for warmer climates, above 50°F. Use an internal feeder, such as a top feeder, so the bees don’t need to go outside to eat. Syrup also molds easily, so it would help to add a mold inhibitor.
For areas below 50°F, use either fondant or sugar cakes/candy boards. Fondant is made from a sugar mixture and kneaded like dough. It looks similar to fondant on a cake, but there are no additives, like corn syrup or flavorings. See here for a fondant recipe.
A candy board is a wooden frame that holds a hardened sugar mixture. Other than providing food for the bees, a candy board helps to collect moisture in the hive and prevents condensation by allowing humid air out of the hive. Learn about making candy boards here.
In the winter, bees form a winter cluster to keep warm. They eat the honey they have stored for energy. To survive the winter, bees need 60 – 90 pounds of honey left on their hive. Beekeepers also help their bees by feeding them sugar syrup, candy boards, and fondant.