Insects have a variety of ways of surviving cold weather. Some might move indoors into a home or building, some hibernate and others migrate (Monarch butterflies). Honey bees actually stay active all winter long, even though you don’t see them out and about. Despite a lack of flowers to feed on and the cold temperatures, honey bees do not hibernate but rather use their stores of honey and an ingenious way of staying warm to survive the winter.
The Honey Bee Cluster
To survive, honey bees must have food and stay warm. This is where all that honey they made all spring and summer comes in handy. When temperatures fall, bees start to cluster together inside the hive. The worker bees form a cluster surrounding the queen and her brood to keep them warm. The brood consists of immature honey bees from egg to larvae stage. Bees in the cluster keep their heads pointed inward, insulating their fellow bees from the cold. The bees on the inside of the cluster feed on the stored honey for energy.
When the temperature reaches 57 degrees, the cluster tightens and goes mostly motionless. The worker bees help generate heat by flexing the flight muscles in their thorax but not moving their wings. This creates a slight vibration that raises the bee’s body heat. With thousands of bees vibrating and contributing body heat, they warm up the cluster to a cozy 93 degrees. When temperatures outside rise, the cluster expands a little and slowly moves to shift over to a new supply of honey in the hive. In fact, the cluster will expand and contract based on the temperatures outside as needed to maintain their access to stored honey while keeping the cluster warm.
You might be wondering, if the honey bees need the honey to survive the winter, does it harm them when humans harvest honey from them? The average hive produces an average of three times as much honey as they actually need to survive the winter. This extra honey or surplus honey is what beekeepers harvest from the hives while making sure to leave enough honey for the colony to survive the winter. A typical hive can produce between 30 to 60 pounds of honey and some large hives can produce as much as 90 pounds of honey, of which they only need a portion of to survive the cold months. As long as enough honey is left for the bees to overwinter, harvesting the surplus honey doesn’t harm them or their ability to survive.
By clustering and using their collective body heat, honey bees are able to keep their colony warm enough during the winter months to survive the cold. Of course, a plentiful supply of honey is necessary for them to have food since they cannot forage for flowers during the winter. So now you know how honey bees survive the cold winter months.