The frost was late this year, but now the growing season is over. The weather is cool, the tree leaves are falling, and the time for mowing is gone. With no more flowers for the bees to visit, what do they do over the winter? And what does a beekeeper do?
Honey bees are unique in that they don’t hibernate through the winter. They store honey all throughout the growing season so that they can eat it during the cold months. In Kentucky, it takes around 50 pounds of honey for a colony to survive the winter. When they store extra honey, it allows beekeepers like myself to harvest some. Spring is when they make the most honey, so local beekeepers typically harvest in early summer, around June. If the weather is especially good during August and September, an early fall harvest might be possible.
Honey bees stay warm by clustering into a ball inside their hive. They eat honey and vibrate their muscles to generate heat. Imagine yourself running outside or doing some jumping jacks on a cold day to heat up your muscles and you’ll get a good idea of how it works. It also explains why they can eat so much honey in the winter! When the temperature is over 50 degrees, they may fly out to see if there is anything blooming. The queen almost completely stops laying eggs, the bees don’t make any honey, and opening the hive in cold weather might give them a chill. Still, there are a few chores for a beekeeper in the winter.
In the late fall, most beekeepers winterize their hives in some way. It could be as simple as making the entrance smaller to keep out the drafty air or it could be insulation all around the hive. Hive parts often need to be repaired or replaced, so winter is a perfect time to work in the shop. Every once in a while, on warm days, the beekeeper might peek into the top of a hive to make sure the bees have plenty of honey left. Honey is the best food for bees, but sugar can be added in an emergency.
Most of all, winter is the time when beekeepers practice patience. I prepare my bees for winter the best I can, but sometimes they just don’t make it until the spring thaw. It can be a helpless feeling. It’s a reminder that honey bees are still wild creatures and nature takes its course. The worry is outweighed by the excitement of springtime every year. When I see a hive with bees coming and going in warm weather, it’s like a surprise gift. I’m grateful for another chance to help the bees grow through another season.