Winterize Your Bees

October 24, 2013

It’s not too early to start preparing for winter. About this time of year, I set about cleaning out the gutters, changing the furnace filter, inspecting the chimneys, reversing the ceiling fan…and all the other items on my honey-do list.

One thing I don’t have to think about is whether or not my family will have enough food to last the winter. It is something, however, that I worry a lot about for my bees. In places where there are seasonal weather changes, honey bees have only several months to find and collect the sustenance the hive needs to survive for the remainder of the year. By enhancing their opportunities to search for food and stay healthy, you can assist bees in succeeding as pollinators.

Here are three ways that you can help ensure your neighborhood bees stay alive through the colder months:

Plant Late-blooming Flowers

When thinking about designing or improving your garden, add late-blooming flowers such as zinnias, sedum, asters, witch hazel and goldenrod. Fall bloom provides an important nectar source that will help bees overwinter in good health and in a more robust condition.

Avoid Using Pesticides

Systemic pesticides are particularly dangerous to bees as they are typically absorbed by the plant through the soil and infiltrate its stem, leaves, nectar, and pollen. A class of chemicals referred to as neonicotinoids is strongly suspected to contribute to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon where bees fail to return to their hives resulting in a massive decline of the hive’s population. Contact pesticides, which are typically sprayed directly on to plants, are also very harmful to bees since these chemicals can kill bees when they crawl on contaminated leaves.

Plant Early-spring Blooming Trees

When the temperature rises above 55º F, bees begin to emerge from the hive in search of rich nectar sources. Flowering trees such as redbud, tulip poplar, willows, and maples provide bees with excellent sources of forage in early spring. Access to these rich nectar sources—after months of a barren winter landscape—are essential in helping a hive to recover and rebuild its numbers.


At our annual apple cider pressing party event last weekend, a few neighbors asked me whether honey bees hibernate for the winter. While they don’t enter a state of stasis as many other animals do, honey bees have developed a brilliant strategy to survive over the cold winter months. The bees form what is called a “winter cluster”. The worker bees build up a tight cluster around the queen bee, which is at the center, and beat their wings in order to keep the center warm. By pumping their flight muscles, the bees produce heat in the same way that shivering helps us to warm our own bodies when chilled. The cluster is a dynamic ball with worker bees continually moving toward the outer edges and back in again so that no single bee gets too cold. This amazing cooperative behavior enables honey bees to keep the hive’s temperature in the mid-to-high 90’s while the rest of the natural world is in a deep freeze.

Studies of over-wintering honey bees have shown that the hive consumes about 30 to 40 pounds of honey. This honey was collected by all the hard work that the bees did during the nectar flows occurring over the warmer months. Their success in this undertaking depends—in large part—upon the decisions that you make when designing, creating and maintaining your garden and yard.