Beekeepers often get asked if honeybees hibernate when the weather turns cold. And if not, you might wonder what do they do this time of year?
We'll talk about winter in a minute, but first, we need to back up to fall. In the late days of summer, when the days start to shorten the bees do a rather harsh thing. The worker bees, which are all female, throw out the drones, which are all males. A drone's one purpose in life is to mate with a virgin queen should the need arise (an act which will end in his immediate death). As the bees begin to sense autumn coming on they will turn out the drones. Since honeybees are only able to survive as part of a colony the homeless bees soon die.
Going into fall and winter there are only workers and the queen left inside the hive. The goal at this point is to survive until spring. To do this the bees bunch together in a tight ball called the winter cluster. At the center of this cluster is the queen, the mother of every bee in the hive, kept warm and safe amid her own offspring. The bees rotate from the inside cluster to the outside so that no bees ever get too cold. The colder the weather is the tighter the bees cluster. The bees shiver to generate heat.
The cluster moves around the hive a bit to be next to honey they'll consume for survival. Beekeepers never take honey from this part of the hive called the hive body, brood boxes, or nesting boxes. If the beekeeper feels that the bees have not stored up a sufficient amount of honey for a long winter they feed the bees to help them remain strong until spring.
Occasionally bees do leave the hive in winter. On days where the temperatures are high enough (about 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit), the bees will fly out of the hive for cleansing flights to eliminate waste. Bees are meticulous about the inside of the hive and never eliminate waste there. When it does happen it is the sign of a serious problem. Even during January, there are still places to gather pollen if the weather is warm enough for the girls to go out. If you have camellias then you may have seen bees very busy on sunny winter days.
You can help many kinds of bees survive winter by leaving things in your garden like plants that have hollow stems. Tiny species of bees overwinter there.
Now you can stop lying awake at night wondering about this. I mean, you were doing that, right?