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What do honey bees (and bee keepers) do in the winter?

Cluster of honey bees on a superWinter is the season that makes or breaks bee hives.  Our goal is to be such good bee stewards that our fuzzy little friends have no problem with the cold weather.

Although the hives look abandoned during most of the winter, during warm spells we can see the bees fly out on "cleansing flights" --- this is a euphemism for the fact that honey bees won't use the bathroom in the hive.  Luckily, bees are able to hold it and only need one warm day a month for their cleansing flights.  While they're out, I've also seen them poking around on the ground, seeming to lap up water from melting snow.

During the rest of the winter, the bees huddle together around the queen (and the honey.)  They slowly rotate from the outside to the center so that no one gets too cold.  At the core of this cluster of bees, workers shiver their bodies and raise the temperature of the cluster as high as 95 Fahrenheit, but just outside the cluster, the unheated portion of the hive may drop below freezing.

Winter honey bee hive check

Our job as winter beekeepers is quite simple --- make sure that the bees have enough honey to keep shivering.  We took advantage of a day above 50 on Friday to quickly open up the hives and count the frames of honey.  All three still have good stores, though one has significantly less than the others.  If that hive is still low on honey during the February check, I'll give them a few frames of sweet stuff from our strongest hive, which has plenty to spare.

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you know I was wondering, what do the bees do with the wax when they eat the honey. Is the wax left as an empty comb waiting to be refilled next year? do they eat the wax?
Comment by Anonymous Mon Jan 18 18:10:14 2010
They have to eat the caps off the cells to get to the honey, but they leave most of the comb in place. Next year, they refill it and just have to add the caps back on. That's one of the reasons that the first year is the hardest for a new hive --- they have to build all of that comb from scratch! That said, some beekeepers will cut the whole comb out to put in the jar of honey. Others will cut out the comb every few years when it gets black from dirty bee feet --- then the bees have to rebuild.
Comment by anna Mon Jan 18 19:37:24 2010

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