- When temperatures drop, honeybees gather and form a “winter cluster” around the queen, vibrating their bodies to generate heat.
- The cluster includes an outer layer (the outer mantel) and an inner layer (the inner core), each generating different levels of heat.
- Honeybees reduce their colony size in winter by slowing reproduction, removing drones, and retaining the larger honeybees.
The Winter Habits of Honeybees: Where Do They Hide?
One of the most common questions beekeepers are asked year after year is, “Where exactly do honeybees go in winter?”
Do bees hibernate like mammals? Do they die off or go dormant like other insects? Do they remain active throughout winter?
The answer is both fascinating and complex. Honeybees have a unique way of surviving in the colder months, unlike most other creatures on earth. So, how do they do it? Let’s dive in and find out!
Do Honeybees Hibernate During Winter?
Honeybees don’t hibernate like bears or other mammals in winter, and they don’t go dormant like many insects. They have a distinctive way of surviving the cold.
When temperatures dip to around 57 degrees Fahrenheit, honeybees gather in the hive and form a “winter cluster.” The worker bees surround the queen, then vibrate or “shiver” their bodies to generate heat.
In warmer climates where temperatures rarely dip below the 60s, honeybees may not form a winter cluster. The local climate dictates how long they have to survive in a winter cluster.
In some areas, the cold weather can drag on for four to six months, while in others, the honeybees may only need to cluster for six weeks.
How Do Honeybees Stay Warm in Cold Weather?
Unlike humans, honeybees don’t heat their homes in cold weather. Instead, they focus on concentrating heat where it’s most important: the queen.
Preserve the queen, preserve the colony.
This means keeping the queen and enough worker bees alive until spring so the bees can repopulate and start foraging again.
The worker bees band together and squeeze in tightly, forming a cluster around the queen, with the older bees in the outer layer of the cluster and the younger bees closer to the center.
The workers all point their heads inward and vibrate their bodies to combine their warmth, creating a small space heater. In fact, bees can produce enough warmth to power a 40-watt light bulb.
So just how warm does the cluster get during winter?
- Outer Mantle: This is the tightly packed outer ring of the cluster, usually made up of older worker bees. The outer mantle typically sustains temperatures around 44 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Inner Core: The inner core of the cluster is looser, allowing the younger bees to access honey to eat. The inner core usually stays a toasty 90 to 97 degrees, though the inner temperature may go as low as 64 degrees during times when the honeybees aren’t protecting a brood (bee eggs, larvae, and pupae).
On milder days, the honeybees may rotate positions, with the outer mantle bees moving into the inner core and the inner core bees moving into the outer mantle so the outer bees can eat.
How the Cluster Adjusts to Temperature Fluctuations
One fascinating feature of a winter cluster is that it expands and contracts as the temperature fluctuates. When temperatures are warmer, the honeybees expand the cluster, allowing for more movement. When temperatures dip, the bees huddle closer together for more warmth.
They also position themselves into layers, with their tiny, down-like hairs interweaving. This allows them to control airflow and prevent heat loss as they all work together to insulate the queen. The bees in the cluster's center will often “vent” warmer air to the outer mantle bees, keeping them from getting too cold.
Carbon Dioxide Plays a Major Role in Winter Honeybee Survival
Speaking of cool survival tricks, did you know honeybees use carbon dioxide to survive in the cold? As they gather in the winter cluster, interlock their hairs, and shiver in unison, carbon dioxide gathers in the hive.
This happens because the bees are packed in closely, breathing and creating humidity for warmth, with very little ventilation. The result? The honeybees are induced into an “ultra-low metabolic rate,” which means they conserve energy and need less food to sustain themselves. Humans couldn’t survive in this environment, yet bees can’t survive without it.
There’s even some evidence that this increase in carbon dioxide may help control the Varroa mite, a common parasite that can ravage bee colonies.
Do Honeybees Reduce Their Colony Size in Winter?
Honeybees reduce their numbers in winter, preferring to keep the population smaller so all their energy and food stores can be directed toward survival.
Here’s how they do it:
Slowing reproduction: As winter approaches, honeybees stop introducing young into the colony. Rearing young bees requires a lot of resources, and the honeybees need to focus on staying warm.
Removing drones: During the fall, female worker bees physically evict the male drones from the hive. Drones are considered a drain on winter resources, so they’re generally reintroduced when spring arrives and resources aren’t so thin.
Becoming larger and mightier honeybees: The colony may reduce their numbers during winter, but the bees are larger. Winter honeybees have fatter bodies that can store and break down food. They also produce vitellogenin, a substance that enhances bee immune systems, helps them live longer, and even allows nursing bees to secrete food for the brood when there’s no fresh pollen available.
- Longer lifespan: A winter bee lives significantly longer than a summer bee. Winter bees live an average of 150 to 200 days, while summer bees typically live anywhere from 15 to 38 days. Winter bees live longer so they can fulfill their role of keeping the queen warm all season while avoiding using their precious resources to rear young.
What Do Honeybees Eat All Winter?
Honeybees eat honey all winter. This is what they work so hard for all year; to store enough honey (and then some) to sustain the colony over winter.
A honeybee colony usually needs between 30 to 100 pounds of honey to survive winter, depending on how cold it is. The colder and harsher the climate, the more honey the bees will need to survive. This makes sense since the bees must work harder and use more energy to stay warm in extreme cold.
Commercial beekeepers generally take most of the bees’ honey, substituting it with simple syrup (one part sugar to one part water) or even fondant over winter as the bees’ food source.
We’re all about working with nature, and we find that nature’s way is usually best left untouched.
Do Honeybees Ever Leave the Hive During Winter?
When it gets above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the worker bees will leave the hive to relieve themselves of waste. This is called a “cleansing flight,” and it’s common because honeybees don’t like to dirty up their hive.
Besides cleansing flights, honeybees don’t leave the hive much in winter. There’s not much for them to forage while the landscape is frozen. Plus, they’re needed inside the hive to keep the queen warm.
When Does Spring Start for Honeybees?
When temperatures climb into the 60s, and the flowers begin to bloom, honeybees will resume foraging and start repopulating the colony. This kicks off the cycle of preparing honey stores for winter all over again.
When exactly spring hits for honeybees depends on the hive location. In more temperate locations, it could be as early as March. In colder climates, the honeybees may not venture out until closer to April or May.
Can Honeybees Die Off in Winter?
Sadly, yes, individual honeybees and colonies can die off in winter.
In 2021, an estimated 32.2 percent of managed U.S. honeybee colonies were lost in winter.
The reasons a colony may not survive include:
- Insufficient food stores
- Not enough numbers to stay warm
- Extreme, prolonged cold that doesn’t allow workers to take cleansing flights
- Parasites, diseases, or viruses
The good news is that many losses can be avoided with proper bee care and hive management.
That’s why, at Manukora, we pride ourselves on our ethical beekeeping and regenerative practices.
Aside from leaving enough delicious honey for the bees to survive winter, we don’t transport or shift their hives around like many commercial producers do for agricultural purposes, which can leave the bees vulnerable to pesticides and other environmental chemicals.
Finally, we allow the honeybees to naturally dehydrate their own honey. Most honey you’ll find at the grocery store is prematurely harvested then industrially dehydrated to get it to a thicker consistency. However, this can also deplete its natural beneficial properties due to the heat involved in the process.
We let our bees dehydrate their honey as nature intended — at their own pace, on their own time. This ensures the honey retains its most beneficial nutrients for both bee and human health.
Honeybees have fascinating winter habits. They gather in the hive and form a “winter cluster” to stay warm, protect the queen, and ensure the colony’s survival. It’s vitally important that they have enough honey stores for winter since they need so much energy to survive the cold.
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