honey bee behavior honey bee myths

Honey bees do not hibernate any time of year

A winter day with snow. Honey bees do not hibernte but keep active all winter long.

Although we don’t see our bees during the winter, they are not hibernating. They maintain an active winter colony feeding themselves and keeping warm.

Honey bees do not hibernate. According to Wikipedia, “Hibernation is a state of inactivity and metabolic depression in animals, characterized by lower body temperature, slower breathing, and lower metabolic rate. Hibernating animals conserve food, especially during winter when food is short, by tapping energy reserves (body fat) at a slow rate.”

Many insects hibernate, especially in the larval or pupal stages, and a few hibernate in the adult stage. Queen bumble bees, for example, hibernate all by themselves in the ground for approximately five months.

Since they don’t hibernate, they must eat and keep warm

However, honey bees remain “awake” all winter, during which time they eat and keep the hive warm. Winter activities—especially heating the hive—require vast amounts of food energy and are the reason that honey bees store so much nectar.

Evidence that honey bees do not hibernate is plentiful. For example, if you knock gently on the side of your hive during the winter, you will hear a great roar of agitation. This is because the bees are awake and perceive danger. Also, if you check your hive frequently you will often see feces in the snow or notice dead bees on the landing board. This is because, on warmer days, the bees seize the opportunity to eliminate body waste and tidy up the hive by removing the dead bodies.

The hive keeps getting lighter

Another piece of evidence is that the hive keeps getting lighter all winter long. If you lift the back edge of the hive an inch or so, you will notice a big difference in weight between early fall and late spring—proof that the bees are eating the stored honey and turning it into heat.

A warm pre-spring day with temperatures in the 60s will bring them out by the thousands but, if the temperatures go back down, they will re-form the winter cluster. In short, honey bees are just like us—they try to keep warm and well-fed during the long and cold winter days, then go out and frolic in the sun the very first chance they get.

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  • Have just been for a lovely walk in midday sunshine on local heath/woodland. Passed a known tree in which bees have established themselves, and there was a fair amount of flying activity around the entrance. There are many gorse flowers out, but no obvious other flowers as a source of pollen etc.

    Is this typical or unusual?

    • Mike,

      It is normal to see bees out and about in the sunshine even if no pollen is available. A few warmish minutes gives the bees an opportunity for “cleansing flights” during which they rid themselves of waste that has been accumulating in their bodies during the cold “no-fly” days. Bees that have a few flying opportunities in winter are more apt to be healthy and less likely to acquire dysentery than bees that never get a chance to go out. Usually each bee is out for a very short time, relieves herself, and then quickly returns to the nest before she becomes paralyzed by the cold.