Wintertime for Honey Bees
An Animal Rights Article from


Jill, Indraloka Animal Sanctuary
February 2018

Honey bee colonies are superorganisms. (And yes, superorganism is a really fun scientific term.) The term superorganism is used to describe social insects that live and work together in giant groups that function as individual colonies.

Did you know that when it is below freezing on a winter day it can be 95 degrees or warmer in the center of a honey bee cluster? Winter is a time for hunkering down and flexing wings if you are a honey bee. As nectar flows dwindle, days shorten, and temperatures cool, a healthy honey bee colony will bulk up by increasing its number of workers.

honey bee

Honey bee colonies are superorganisms. (And yes, superorganism is a really fun scientific term.) The term superorganism is used to describe social insects that live and work together in giant groups that function as individual colonies. In other words, the colony is the individual and the single bee is a cell in the larger organism. (That means when a colony of bees swarm, they are reproducing.) You can think of the colony bulking up in preparation for the winter in much the same way many mammals put on a layer of fat to help them stay warm through the winter, and some birds gain bulk to burn as they migrate thousands of miles.

Late blooming plants like asters, knotweed, and especially goldenrod help honey bees bulk up their winter stores of nectar and pollen. Goldenrod provides a protein-dense pollen that fills honey bee pantries with food for winter survival. Workers raise bee larvae by feeding the larvae "bee bread", a mixture of pollen and their own saliva. Bee colonies that have access to healthy goldenrod have a greater chance of wintertime survival, and quite possibly tastier bee bread.

honey bee

Fall born worker bees will live 3-4 months, which is much longer than their spring and summer born sisters, who live only 3-4 weeks of pure busyness flying miles a day collecting nectar and pollen. The bees born in the fall will spend the winter eating honey which gives them energy to continuously flex their wings, and snuggle with each other in a giant cluster. This constant flexing and snuggling creates and shares heat (think 60,000 or more bees). The queen stays right in the middle of the giant snuggle hug at a toasty 95 or so degrees. As a bee on the outside of the cluster begins to cool it squeezes in, and trades places with sisters farther towards the center who are warmer. The cluster moves around the hive as a unit, never letting the queen out of the center of the cluster. You can imagine if the cluster is not large enough, a colony cannot survive the winter. During the coldest parts of the winter, the queen does not lay any eggs at all. It would be impossible for the cluster to keep all of the developing brood warm enough. As winter wanes, the days lengthen, and temperatures rise the queen begins to lay eggs again to replace the workers who are coming to the end of their lives, and begin preparing for the coming nectar.

honey bees

On days when the temperature exceeds 40 degrees it is easier to keep thecluster and the queen warm enough. This means it is time for a quick bathroom break. Although, bees are eating honey all winter they never poop inside their house, unless they are sick. That means they are holding it a long time, and they take short trips out to relieve themselves on a warm winter day.

Honey bees came to North America with Europeans, quickly escaped domestication, and found their way amongst thousands of species of native bees. When it comes down to pollination, native bees really get the job done. Honey bees are unable to pollinate some new world plants, and they are not as fast or effective as our native bees. A few native bees are social, but many native bees are solitary. Native bumble bees that live in social colonies will die with the cold weather except for fall-hatching queens, who overwinter in the ground or protected places. These queens emerge in the spring, build nests, and lay eggs to grow the colony, and begin the cycle again. Many solitary bee species make it through the winter as eggs ready to hatch when nectar and pollen begin to appear.

Jill is an avid nature enthusiast, animal lover, and mom, and she is very special to everyone at Indraloka. While at the sanctuary, she enjoys listening to the squawking, honking, lowing, and all sorts of other excited commentary heard throughout the grounds. Jill has gained a wide range of skills from her experiences working in a retail food cooperative, teaching English as a second language, growing thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables working farm to table, and spending years creating community garden spaces.

Jill generously shares her knowledge and expertise with the sanctuary and our supporters for all of us to benefit from the power of connecting more deeply with our planet. Enjoy!

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