Posted by: Pam B. Newberry | December 7, 2010

Too Cold for Beast or Bee!

Bkyard Pic on Dec 08 2010

Backyard - Dec 08, 2010 - Cold 20 Degrees outside!

Brrr, is it ever cold here in the mountains of Virginia. Winter is a hard time for many animals and humans — especially those without a home. Honey bees are at their most vulnerable at this time. Winter is the most hazardous period for a honey bee colony. In the past, most beekeepers reported a typical loss of 10% to 20% of their total hives. Now, the loses are more around 40% to 60%. That means if you have four hives, you most likely can expect to lose at least half of the hives. The better prepared a honey bee colony, the more likely it will make it through the winter.

In my last post, I mentioned I’d begin sharing the duties of the beekeeper for each month. Since there is so much to share, I’ll be sharing the duties for the month we are in along with how Hobbit King and I are learning and doing as new beekeepers.
December is the month that the beekeeper leaves his or her bees alone! I’m so glad, cause as you can tell with the bitter cold temperatures and snow on the ground, I really wouldn’t want to have to work with them right now anyway. We were told in our bee class that you don’t disturb them for any reason if you can help it. If the bees had a good fall gathering, their stores of honey should be bountiful enough to help the hive get through winter. If you must go into a bee hive in December, you need to plan it very carefully.  First, make sure it is a day above 50° F and not windy. And, just like any other time of the year, but more so during the cold temperatures of late fall and early winter, you need to get in and out of the hive as quickly as possible without disturbing the cluster.

Speaking of cluster. Did I tell you about the honey bee cluster? I may have mentioned it in a quiz a few posts back, but let me tell you honey bees are smart. Very smart.  The honey bee colony has evolved over time to where it has adapted for the best chance of survival in winter. For instance, the winter cluster is what the entire colony does to stay warm in the hive. Imagine, a bee hive doesn’t have a mechanical heating system. The bees do the job. I personally don’t have a picture of a bee cluster, but I hope to acquire one from our own bees real soon. In the meantime, you may want to do a search on the Internet to find a picture, there are loads of them out there. See the links on the right of the post for sites you might want to visit.

When bees cluster, they move as close as possible to each other as the temperature begins to drop.

Typically, this is in early fall when the temperatures outside starts to drop below 50° F. The bees suspend brood rearing. The most fascinating aspect of how the honey bee has evolved for winter survival is that the bee’s life span changes from a mere 30 to 35 days for the summer bee to winter bees that live for three to seven months. Imagine, your life span depending on the temperature outside. Except for the cold, sounds like being born in the late fall is a good time to be a bee. The honey bee cluster puts off an enormous amount of heat. This heat does not heat the hive, but only heats the area around the cluster. In early winter, the hive temperature at the cluster can hoover around 76 to 80° F, and by late winter it can be greater than 90° F.

The cluster stays the warmest in the center. As you move to the outer edge of the cluster the temperature begins to drop substantially, but tends to stay rather consistent. While the ambient temperature is very erratic and totally dependent on the outside temperature. The cluster forms to provide insulation and maintain the temperature for the colony. There can be as many as 30,000 or more bees in one cluster!

Every colony must have a good queen and colonies must be protected from climatic extremes. This is why the cluster must not be disturbed. An abundant storage of honey for the bee is critical because as the honey bees cluster, they don’t move far from each other. This means that as a honey bee is in the cluster, it doesn’t always eat. The honey bees in the center of the cluster do the most work, moving their wings to give off heat. The honey bees on the outer edge, near the honey stores, gather food to eat and move to the center to replace the spent honey bee who is now hungry and cold. This exchange of bees is how the cluster is able to maintain the temperature of the hive.

Fifty-five to sixty pounds is the amount of honey a hive must have to enable it to make it through the winter. So, it is critical that the honey bee keeper is aware of a hive’s needs, doesn’t take more honey from the hive than is necessary, and provides for the honey bees when they are unable to build proper stores of honey. This means that if a hive is lacking winter stores, a beekeeper can feed the hive with frames of honey, entrance feeders, baggies, or jars with holes in the lids that are placed directly on the top bars of the brood nest. This must be done prior to the dead cold of December. It is so important to make sure your bees are ready for the blistering cold and wind. If your hive is weak, it is critical you place a cover on the bottom board of the hive. This enables the hive to keep some heat in more carefully, especially if the number of bees in the colony is down.

Other duties for the beekeeper during December is to take inventory of supplies and order equipment to replace worn or damaged parts. Paint equipment to maintain and keep the extra hive parts ready for use. The beekeeper begins to plan for the coming year. If you are an established beekeeper, than you can look for new apiary sites and renew old pollination contracts, if you’re into that sort of level of business. 

Wow, that’s a lot to be thinking about and December is supposed to be an easy month. Hobbit King and I have talked about all that goes on as we’ve headed home from our bee class. This past Monday night, we didn’t get to have class because it was so cold out. Imagine the poor bee. It is stuck with it’s buddies all winter and can’t venture outside until the temperature gets up to 50° F. Otherwise, the poor things die on the spot. Now, remember, I told you that the bees still eat for survival. They also still have other bodily functions going on, so when a break in the weather happens, they scamper out of the hive so they can have what beekeepers call “cleansing flights!” Yep…for real. Kinda funny when you think about it. The sad part is, it is common to find dead bees in the snow after a warm day of cleansing flights during winter where they didn’t get back to the hive before it got too cold again.

You might be asking yourself, well why don’t you insulate the hive and protect it form the cold? Well, the main reason is it can have a negative effect by holding in the cold temperatures and preventing the hive from warming naturally on its own as the temperature changes. Warming outside allows for cleansing flights and cluster shifts for feeding. So, without the temperature fluctuations, the bees won’t know they can take care of business, so to speak, and they can die.

Now, in addition to honey for bees to eat, they also need about three to five frames of pollen. Pollen provides protein for winter brood rearing as the hive begins to prepare for the coming spring.

Aren’t bees just fascinating?!? I find them remarkable. I’m going to “bee” adding some bee facts that you may find interesting periodically as I learn more about them. If you know of any, please share and let me know by dropping me a line or leaving a comment.

Here’s the first one….let me know what you think….

Special Bee Moment: Tidbits of the Honey Bee — Facts when you need them — News when you don’t!

Bees have an olfactory that is similar to a dog. The performance of the honey bee’s olfactory is as good or better as that of a trained canine. Honey bees can be conditioned and trained to sniff out drugs and high explosives, such as land mines.


BEE Quiz 2:

Here’s another “BEE” Quiz — The answers will be posted in the next blog:

  • A. Besides honey, what is a honey bee’s favorite food?
    1. Honey
    2. Pollen
    3. Bee Poop
    4. Royal Jelly
  • B. How many pounds of honey does a colony require for winter survival?
    1. 50 to 60 pounds
    2. 45 to 55 pounds
    3. 55 to 60 pounds
    4. None of the above
  • C. Why do bee’s cluster?
    1. Because they like to be close
    2. Because they must be close to maintain temperature and provide insulation
    3. Because they like to eat
    4. None of the above


December is a wonderful month to learn more about bees and to try recipes with honey. I’ve added a recipe for you to try and provided a few links, too. Let me know if you try the recipe and share any you may have as well.

Until next time, stay warm and cozy…

Honey Kisses,
Hobbit Queen


  1. I really enjoyed this blog. Thanks for giving me the link to it. I have signed up as a subscriber and am looking forward to lots more happy tidbits about beekeeping. I will definitely give you my blog link as soon as I have set it up.


    • HI Sandra,

      THANKS so much! I so look forward to reading your blog as soon as you’ve got it up and running! It’s been a real joy getting to know you!

      Looking forward to future dialogs!
      Hobbit Queen


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