Honey Bees in Early Winter

A Warm Day For Stretching And Cleaning

I didn’t expect to see our honey bees until sometime in March when the temperature is a little warmer.  But to my surprise, the temperature yesterday shot up to almost 70º F.  It doesn’t matter whether there is snow on the ground or not if the temperature is above 50º F the honey bees will come out to clean themselves.  They were out in droves yesterday despite it being a cloudy day.  It was a relief to me to see the bees from all three hives come out for a warmth break.  I wasn’t sure about their condition when the temperature dropped to single digits a couple of weeks ago.  Even though we put thick insulation around them, I really don’t know how much cold they can bear.

I have different concerns for each hive since I insulated them for winter: the first one seemed to have more dead bees in front of the hive than the other two, the second one didn’t seem to have much activity, and the third, the smallest hive, may not have enough bees to survive the winter.

Yesterday brought me some relief though.  The first hive, despite a lot of dead bees in front of the hive, had even more bees being dragged out.  We reasoned that the hive was over-populated to begin with therefore more of them will die out.  There have to be a lot of healthy live bees to do the undertaker jobs and yesterday a lot of them did just that…dragging and flying more of the dead out.

The second hive with a lesser population had a busy day as well.  There were a few dead bees in front of the hive but there were many bees doing cleaning flights and gathering on the landing board.   This is the hive that had been robbed left and right in autumn but it looks like they are managing to hang on.

The third one is the smallest hive and the latest to come to our garden.  I did my best to feed them but I wasn’t sure it was enough.  During my last inspection before winterizing them, I didn’t see much honey storage or bee population compared to the first two hives.  But in the warmth they were busy as well.  I’m very happy to see them flying in and out and hope that they will manage until spring.  This third hive is the fiercest in defending their home so their toughness may see them through to spring.

Beehives in snow
Beehives in snow

The first two hives are fenced in since we have both raccoon and skunk in the area.  We didn’t have time to fence the third one so it’s almost an experiment to see if it’s raided by the raccoons or skunks.  If not, I would prefer to remove the fence from the first two as well.

Bees at the second hive either stay on the landing board cleaning themselves or fly in and out.
Bees at the second hive either stay on the landing board cleaning themselves or fly in and out.
Traffic congestion at the entrance of the first hive
Traffic congestion at the entrance of the first hive

Instead of using a mouse guard, I reduced the entrance to only one inch wide.  I think it’s harder for mice to get in since the hive is over a foot above ground as well as the small entrance.  A smaller entrance in winter also keeps the hive warmer but it causes congestion when the bees want to rush in and out en-masse during their cleaning flights.

Carrying out the dead
Carrying out the dead

I noted that the bees first took out their dead, then started their cleaning flights.  Maybe their priority was to clear a path inside the hive first for a better traffic flow.

Taking a rest among dead comrades
Taking a rest among dead comrades

There were many dead bees in front of the first hive but there were many more flying in and out yesterday.  I won’t know until next spring whether the hive has survived or not.  I hope this is due to over-population as I counted very few mites last fall or yesterday either and this is the hive that stored the most honey when I last inspected them.

Note: A little good news about honeybees, at least in Europe, in the New York Times on Wednesday 12/18.  The article  “European Agency Warns of Risk to Human in Pesticides Ties to Bee Deaths” reported that the European food regulators recommended the European Commission to further restrict the use of pesticide neonicotinoids.  Hopefully, we can grow food without harming everything in the process… including ourselves.

4 thoughts on “Honey Bees in Early Winter

  1. As long as they have enough food for energy, bees are very good at coping with the cold. In his book ‘A sting in the tale’, bee researcher Dave Goulson tells the story of a buff-tailed bumblebee colony that survived a night in the freezer at -30°C, the workers gathered over the brood, the queen in their centre. (He was trying to destroy the colony as they were foreign bees which could not be released into the wild).

    Glad your bees are doing well, Merry Christmas to all of you x

    1. I think they have enough food but they are Italian bees. From what I’ve read, the Italian bees don’t do well in very cold weather, unlike the Russian bees. I’m still in the trial and error stage. Thank you for the tip on the book.

      1. From watching the behaviour of Italian bees in other hives in the apiary, part of the problem seems to be that they fly too much in the winter. They are out at times there is unlikely to be any forage about, and I wonder if they tire themselves out and shorten their lifespan this way.

        The entrances of the darker mongrel bees in the apiary are noticeably quieter – when I was first starting out in beekeeping this worried me, but I’ve found these darker bees overwinter very well and I’ve not lost a colony yet in five years.

      2. I picked the Italian bees because (I was told) they are the friendliest and most productive. By the way, according to Amazon, the book ‘A Sting in the Tail’ won’t be released in the US until next year and the international edition seems to be out of print.

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