honey bee behavior wintering

How much honey for a warm winter?

Lots of folks want to know if bees consume more food in warm winters or cold winters. I’ve been searching for scientific data on this for quite a while but I haven’t found any. So, for what it’s worth, I hereby offer my opinion.

Based on hearsay and my own beekeeping experience, I believe that bees expend more energy—and so eat more food—in warm winters than in cold ones. As counter-intuitive as that may seem, I’m convinced it’s a common occurrence.

In very cold winters the cluster remains intact for long periods, brood production is extremely low or non-existent, and all other hive activities come to a standstill. The bees vibrate their wing muscles to create heat and the highest temperatures are found in the center of the cluster, but that temperature can be lower than when brood is present.

In warm winters, however, with occasional balmy days and temperatures that rise into the 40-60°F (4.5-15.5°C) range, the bees begin doing other things. They may take cleansing flights, some search for pollen, the undertaker bees carry dead bodies from the hive, house bees clean debris from the nest and sweep cobwebs from the corners. Brood production may increase, and with increased brood production comes the need for consistently higher temperatures in the nest along with constant feeding and tending of the larvae.

All of these activities require energy even though some of them are not very effective. Foraging for pollen, for example, requires lots of energy and it may or may not produce good results. The higher than normal temperatures seem to “trick” the bees into searching for something that may not be there—or may not be found in sufficient quantities to make the trips worthwhile. We’re talking cost/benefit ratios here, and the benefits will depend on local conditions.

And don’t forget, the nights are still cold. The cluster resumes warming itself during the long winter nights, so it is still expending a lot of “keep warm” energy even though the daylight hours are warmish.

In addition to tricking the bees, I think beekeepers, too, get lulled into thinking that warm weather means the bees will have plenty of food. I, for one, have been seduced into believing that winter stores would last longer during a balmy winter. But experience has shown otherwise, and I now check for honey stores earlier in warm winters than in frigid ones.


The bees were flying from this top-bar hive one day after the photo was taken.


  • I agree with you. When no brood is present the cluster can let the temperature drop to about 20°C (68F), which must require much less muscle effort to maintain.

    I wonder which type of winter they are most likely to survive. It seems a warm winter carries the risk of stores running out, but perhaps the risk of a cold winter is that the cluster may become isolated from their remaining stores and unable to move to them due to the cold?

    • Emily,

      You make a really good point. I think that is exactly what happens, which is why I prefer a warmer winter even though I end up feeding.

  • I agree with this. Some of my hives have been down right pigs with their stores this year. Even my Carniolans have gotten deeper into the upper box than in the past.


  • I have a question Rusty. I would love to be a beekeeper and have done a lot of research on these amazing gals, but I cannot afford to start up a hive. So, instead, I have started to just feed the bees that visit my backyard. I noticed honey bees drinking water from an old flower pot in my backyard so I put out some honey I had bought from a local beekeeper next to the pot and watched them enjoy! They were very docile and ate like pigs! I’d say there were about 50 bees eating or drinking. I sat about 3 feet away from the plate and just watched them. My question is, will this practice hurt or help the bees? I don’t want to mess up anyone’s hives or make them swarm.

    • Linda,

      The only issue is the source of the honey. Honey can transmit diseases from hive to hive, including serious ones like American foul brood (AFB). Never feed honey from the grocery store or honey from any unknown source. If you know the local beekeeper who sold the honey and you believe he uses good practices and has healthy hives, it is probably fine. Since you are interested in bees, go ahead and ask him. If he is really local–as in very near to you–those bees you are feeding may be his.

      Feeding will not cause them to swarm, although it may cause fighting among the bees if they come from multiple hives.

      • I don’t personally know the beekeeper. He lives about 40 miles aways so it would not be his bees. I buy his honey from a local farmer’s market. You were absolutely right about the fighting, too. There was a difference in the color of bees, darker vs lighter, that you could only distinguish when they were there together. There was fighting that resulted in 2-3 dead bees. So, in light of this and what you said about the honey, I think I will just plant bee-friendly flowers and keep water available at the same spot. It was awesome to watch the little swarm, but I would rather do what’s best for them than me. I still want to have a hive one day though!

    • As mentioned, feeding bees honey from unknown sources, particularly those from outside your area is generally not a good idea for the reasons already mentioned. And honey from the store, unless it is labelled as being local, is almost guaranteed to not be honey from your area. The cheapest honey I know of is 48oz jugs from Walmart for ~$13. And stamped right on the top is that it is a product of Argentina, US, or Brazil I think? Point being, it’s definitely not local and likely from bees owned by corporations where the employees doing the beekeeping may or may not have a vested interest in bee hygiene.

      However if you still want to attract bees just for watching, attract them with table sugar or corn syrup. As long as you aren’t putting out quarts or gallons of it, the small amount you are contaminating a bee keeper’s honey with “non floral” sugar sources will be negligable. Just don’t put food coloring in it and it’ll remain between you and the bees.

      And if you happen to see any yellow jackets amongst them, try to mash them with a piece of wood…one less robber for the honey bees to have to deal with.

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