Beekeeping is an exercise in continuing education, experimentation, and acceptance.

Do Bees Migrate? What Happens in the Winter?

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A photo from the beehive on a mild winter day.

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Do Honey Bees Migrate?

No, bees do not migrate in the winter! The only “migrating” bees are the ones that are loaded up on trucks and shipped across the country to help other areas pollinate such as the almond crops in Califonia. And, of course, that is human intervention.

In nature, bees only leave their home when they’ve outgrown their hive and need more space. They do not leave for a warmer climate like some birds or butterflies do. Instead, the bees will hunker down in their hives for the winter, just like we humans would like to do! 

How do Bees Survive the Winter?

What do bees do all summer? They forage for pollen and nectar. They make honey! All that honey that they are storing up is actually what will help them to survive through the winter. They will eat through their honey stores as they need it.

Bees will form a winter cluster during the cold months. This cluster, or what looks like a ball of bees, is how they will generate heat to survive the cold. This helps them to maintain the hive’s temperature without expending a lot of energy. 

As they run out of food, the cluster will move to find more honey to eat. As beekeepers, it’s important to make sure the bees have enough resources to make it through the winter.  While we generally want to leave them alone, around the New Year, it’s a good idea to peek in to make sure they still have a good supply. If not, you may need to supplement with some fondant. You can also give them some honey if you have extra frames from the summer.

A photo of fondant added to a beehive for winter feeding.
Fondant is placed on top of the frames for winter feeding.

Or, if you have a deadout with honey stores, you can give the honey to another hive that could use the resources.

The Fall Build-Up

Fall is an important time to help the bees prepare for winter. I will try to lift the hives just to check the weight. If it’s hard to lift, then I suspect they have plenty of honey stored up. For the hives that feel pretty light, then it’s time to consider feeding them.

In the fall, you should feed a 2:1 ratio of sugar syrup. I also add Hive Alive to the syrup. If you choose to open feed, meaning setting the syrup out for the bees to find it, make sure it is far away from your beehives. You do not want to create a robbing frenzy by feeding close to your beehives.

Photo of fall feeding setup with double nucs. We give them jars of syrup hidden in an empty hive box to prevent robbing.

I prefer to feed in the hive. We use mason jars with the perforated lids. The bees will suck down the syrup as needed. I set an extra hive body onto the hive to create a space for the jar. This makes it very easy to simply lift the lid and then grab the jar to refill it as needed. 

When you are feeding, ensure the nights are still well above freezing so the syrup isn’t freezing overnight. If you take a peek at night, (with a red light so you don’t anger them!), you will see them working the syrup even through the night! 

Photo of the inside of the hive box where we feed bees in the late fall.

If you have some frames of honey that you do not intend to consume for whatever reason, you can also save these and give them to the hives that will need them.

Warm Late Fall Days

If you have some unusually warm fall days, you will see the bees out and about. This year, there are some late dandelions and a few flowers still going, so the bees are still bringing in a little pollen even though it’s November in the upper Midwest! While the bees are working, keep in mind these late warm days also mean the bees are using up more energy by getting out and flying.

If the bees are out and using more energy, then that means they need to eat and refuel more. This translates to the fact that they will consume even more honey. We’re experiencing an unusually mild winter, and so far, I’m finding that some colonies are going through more honey than they normally would.

Usually, the colder temperatures will have the bees in a torpor, meaning very minimal activity, so they do not need as much honey. Warmer weather means busier bees who are eating more food!

While we enjoy these beautiful extra days of warmth, be mindful that it could be hard on the bees’ winter supply. 

Winter Preparation

There are so many different methods and opinions on how to prepare your hives for winter! Some beekeepers have pretty intense tools and methods to help regulate the temperature inside the hive. Others will thoroughly wrap the hives with insulation.

Other beekeepers may have a more minimalist approach. Like so many areas in beekeeping, there is no right or wrong approach. 

One thing to keep in mind: moisture is a bigger threat to the bees than the cold. As the bees are generating heat in the hive, the warm air will clash with the cold and create moisture in the hive. If the condensation collects, it could drip down onto the bees, soaking them in water, and then killing the colony. The colony still needs ventilation for airflow. A quilt box can also be used to help absorb the moisture.

Warm Winter Days

And in the middle of the cold, snowy winter when you have a sunny day with warmer temperatures, you can take a walk and enjoy seeing your bees coming out for cleansing flights! Bees are clean, and after weeks of being cooped up in the hive, they need to get out and do their…er…business.

When you look at the snow and see a bunch of yellow marks? Yes, that is bee poo. It’s nice to see them out on the occasional mild winter day!

Photo of snow with spotted with yellow from honey bees fecal matter from their cleansing flights.

Conclusion

While you may not see honey bees in the winter (unless you’re a bee obsessed beekeeper who still visits the bees with a thermal camera or a light tap on the box to hear the buzzing), rest assured that the bees have not gone south for the winter. They are cuddled up together, eating some yummy honey, and waiting for longer and warmer days like the rest of us.

While you’re missing the bees during the winter, plan for what you can do when they return in the spring. Beekeepers can prepare new frames and hives for making spring splits and (yay!) more bees! 

Or bee enthusiasts can plan and buy seeds for some bee-friendly gardens! Make some exciting plans now and look forward to seeing those bees again soon!

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