Sunday, January 09, 2011

What bees are up to in winter!

Lynn from Razzberry Corners asked me the other day what our honeybees are up to in winter.

Well, for starters, the hives are wrapped up! There are different ways of wrapping hives in winter. Some people just use a sort of black roofing paper. We bought two insulated "Bee Cozies." There is also a "pillow" of insulation that goes under the lid of the hive. Wrapping the hives protects the bees from wind and keeps them a bit warmer. (Some people don't wrap in winter and their bees do fine.) The colder it gets, the harder the bees have to work to stay warm, and the more honey they need to eat to do it. We like to give them a little help to get through the Canadian winter! There is always a risk of your honeybees starving to death if they don't have enough honey stored in the hive to get them through to spring.

Chickens and honeybees can co-exist quite peacefully, even in summer. In winter, the chickens don't even know the bees are there!


This photo is from last summer, but at this time of the year, the honeybees are usually inside the hive. When it gets cold enough, they form a winter cluster (which expands and contracts somewhat according to outside temperature.) The queen is at the centre of this cluster, and the rest of the bees take turns being on the colder outer edges. The bees manage to generate enough heat to keep the temperature in the hive surprisingly warm. I have read different things about what the actual temperature is, but the centre of the cluster will be around 80 - 90 degrees F.

Being fastidious, honeybees will not relieve themselves within the hive. They wait for a relatively warm, sunny winter day and zip out of the hive for a quick "cleansing flight." If a honeybee stays out too long, she risks getting chilled, which renders her unable to fly. She then drops to the ground and dies.

During the cold months, the cluster works its way through the hive, devouring honey. The bees are not particularly active in winter, but they don't hibernate. They do, however, sleep! The Brookfield Farms Bees & Honey blog has a great post about how and when bees sleep

When spring is in the air, the queen starts laying eggs for a new generation of bees.
Bees die off in winter for various reasons. It is normal to lose some bees, and the worker bees will push the corpses out onto the landing board of the hive on days when it's not too cold, just as they do in the warmer months. If outdoor conditions are warm enough, an "undertaker" honeybee will fly off with a corpse and dump it somewhere away from the hive. And sick and/or dying bees will often haul themselves out of the hive, dropping kamikaze-like off the edge of the landing board to the ground.

Entire hives can and do perish in the cold. I was told that around here, beekeepers can expect to lose 30% of their hives in an average winter. I'm hoping not to lose any, since I only have two hives! But you never know. Last fall I gave my bees various treatment to prevent mites and certain diseases  from killing them off over winter, and I did my best to ensure they have adequate food supplies to see them through until spring. (I fed them sugar syrup to supplement their natural foraging.) Now I'm just crossing my fingers, occasionally clearing dead bees out of the hive entrances, which sometimes get a big clogged with bodies in cold weather. I know both my hives are still alive right now, because I can hear the girls buzzing inside. On warm sunny days, I have seen them flying in and out.

Bees can withstand a fair bit of cold, but they cannot tolerate moisture, so it's very important that the hives have ventilation in winter. My hives have open bottom and top entrances, and are slightly tilted forward so that any excess moisture drains out. The bees create a surprising amount of moisture in there when they heat the hive!

So cross your fingers, and I'll let you know how the girls do in the coming months. I really hope the hives make it. We'd like to add two more hives this year.

 Yesterday, I finally cleaned the dregs out last fall's honey buckets. (Yes, I am slow! Although I have a pail opener, I needed the brute force of my hubby to get the lids off.) I managed to scrape out a kilogram of granulated goldenrod honey that I will keep for myself. It smells and tastes wonderful. I don't sell my honey in mason jars (that's frowned upon) but I put my own honey, and gift honey, in them...

Here's a jar of the dregs, with today's  breakfast and the honeypot I bought from Abby T Pottery on Etsy last year. Granola, yogurt, banana and a dollop of honey...yum!

This morning I didn't have the "dregs" honey! No, this is liquid gold from our first 2010 crop, which was mainly basswood and fantastically delicate and delicious. When I took a sample to our local beekeepers' meeting, a few of the older beekeepers told me it was "award-winning." Not that I can take any credit; the bees do all the work. But my massage therapist bought the entire case of basswood honey I had for sale (we only harvested about 30 lbs of the first crop.) I made sure to keep a jar for us.

I never used to like honey all that much (apart from in baking and cooking) before I started keeping bees, but now I eat it straight up all the time. There is no comparison between unpasteurized, strained  raw honey and the blended, pasteurized stuff you get at the supermarket.

That's not to say all supermarket honey is bad, but it's important to know what you're buying. In this country, you can have an appallingly low amount of Canadian honey blended with imported stuff, yet still be allowed to label it as "Canada No. 1." We have a local apiary, Levac's, that uses only Canadian honey (mostly local) and puts out a much better product than those huge producers I shall not name. Their product is also certified kosher!
And did you know that the reason producers pasteurize honey is not because of germ issues (honey is naturally sterile), but to prevent granulation, which is a purely aesthetic issue? They also use pressure filtration. All of these things affect the taste and quality of honey. Honey is delicate in its way, and if you overheat it (as with pasteurization), you will kill off various enzymes and other natural things, changing the taste of the honey. Some people argue it also negates the health benefits of honey. All I can say is that I've tasted pasteurized, blended supermarket honey, and I've tasted my own honey, and there is NO COMPARISON. Local honey has beautiful subtleties in taste that no mass-produced blended product can ever match!

As for granulation, if it bothers you, you can gently heat the honey to restore it to its liquid state. It's best to do this with small amounts of honey. Put it in a container that you can immerse in hot tap water, and leave it in warm water until the honey re-liquifies. If you are gentle with honey, it will retain all its wonderful qualities for an indefinite amount of time!

Happy eating!


  1. I've never had problems with granulation in honey... Runny, smooth it's all good!

    A fascinating post. What bees do in winter never really occurred to me

  2. Anonymous12:05 pm

    Fascinating stuff. Bee societies (and ants etc.) are amazing. All that cooperative endeavour. I'm not sure I like the hereditary royalty aspect of it all, but oh well, it may all stand them in good stead when they inherit the Earth. Over here (Scotland) we have a lot of Heather Honey. I wonder how much the food source affects the honey - maybe a nice honey and oatcakes research project for me to set up there :)

  3. WOW! I love that post. I really needed to learn how to resmooth honey. Mine granulates fast as I use it only in cooking. It seems that as soon as the jar is opened, I should use it all immediately, or it becomes grainy. As you tell us that some Canadian honey might be tampered with, I'll go and get mine at the St-Laurence market from now on. I'll have a better chance to get local, pure honey.

    I thought I would return to life as a cat in Jams' home. But now I might decide to be a queen in one of your hives, Knatolee. It's a role I wouldn't mind playing. Be at the centre, warmed and fed....Human Life is so tough sometimes.

    Meanwhile I might start a project like H.I. Will you sell me some honey, Knatolee?

  4. Anonymous3:48 pm

    Fantastic information! Bees are amazing critters.

    I was wondering, why are mason jars frowned upon for selling honey?

  5. Thanks for a very interesting post.
    I didn't realise that bees needed the honey to eat through the winter, I thought they hibernated.

  6. Very interesting to learn all this, my hubby read your post too (he keeps dreaming of having his own bee hives one day, I don't know how serious he is but I let him keep dreaming, lol!)

  7. So much to know about such small lovely creatures. Thanks!

    After this I wish I liked honey but I don't. Perhaps I've just bought the wrong stuff.

  8. That was such a fascinating read! I learnt so much about bees.

  9. Excellent post, Knatolee! Very informative. Sometimes I tend to not read all of a longer post, but just skim it (gasp!) for time's sake, but I read this one several times! I have some questions, like texastrailerparktrash asked about the mason jars, I was wondering that, too. How many bees have you lost already this winter? Do the worker bees take turns doing the undertaker duty, removing the dead bodies? Bees are so very wonderful, such hard workers. I love them! How long have you had bees? Ok, enough questions from me for now! Thank you!


  10. Jams, different honeys granulate at different speeds (my basswood honey still hasn't granulated, but the goldenrod honey is solid!) and if you eat it fast enough, there will be nor worries about granulation. :)

    H. i., I agree. The more I learn about honeybees, the more I want to know. But have some sympathy for the queen. If the bees get fed up with her, they perform "cuddle death": they ball up around here and basically squeeze her death, toss her from the hive, and make a new queen!

    The nectar sources do have quite an effect on honey. Some beekeepers even intentionally "make" artisanal honeys from single sources (like heather), which takes some doing since bees can fly a few miles from the hive in search of nectar.

    And heather honey has a special texture. This is what Wikipedia says:

    "Heather honey is a highly valued product in moorland and heathland areas, with many beehives being moved there in late summer. It has a characteristic strong taste, and an unusual texture. It is thixotropic, being a jelly until stirred, when it becomes a syrup (like other honey), but then sets again to a jelly. This makes the extraction of the honey from the comb difficult, and it is therefore often sold as comb honey."

  11. CLaude, I would put a small amount in a glass container that can stand some heat (small jar or mug?), then immerse that container in hot tap water until the honey re-liguifies.

    If you freeze honey in a tightly-sealed container, it won't granulate, but you should never put honey in the fridge.

    Claude, it's all fun and games being the queen until the worker bees decide you're useless and it's time to kill you!

    And I will GIVE you honey if I ever get my butt back to Toronto. :)

  12. Right, the mason jar issue. Too bad I'm having a brain fart and can't find the rules and regs right now. I think that if you're a tiny producer like me, you can get away with more, although there are basic labelling requirements you must follow when selling honey. I'm not sure where the mason jar thing started, but when you bottle honey to sell, there are certain standard weights it must be sold at, and there are jars made for these particular sizes. And I think all the manly men in beekeeping think mason jars make honey look like jam at a state fair. ;) Plus I think the one-piece lid that you get with new jars is what OMAFRA demands.

  13. Little Blue Mouse, lots of people think honeybees hibernate, which is not surprising because how often do you see a bee flying in winter (unless you are standing near a hive!)? :)

  14. CalumCarr, thanks for stopping by. Maybe honey just isn't your thing. It is 40 times sweeter than sugar! I don't have much of a sweet tooth but when we were harvesting honey this summer, I have to admit, I had a hard time keeping my fingers out of the honey. I like chewing on comb too.

  15. Shelley, I encourage your hubby to keep bees! You might like it too (are you allergic to bee stings?)

    Hoot, I have lots more to teach you all about my favourite little insect!

    Lynn, I've probably lost a hundred or so bees. I'm guessing from corpses on the ground. Apparently this is normal!

    As for the bee jobs question, I'm going to do a post about that so stay tuned.

    I first tried bees the summer of 2009 but both hives died. It was a terrible summer weatherwise, and everybody was having issues with their bees. So we tried again in 2010 and it was like night and day, much much better weather so much much more pollen and nectar for the bees to collect!

    I also volunteered at the Natural History Museum back in 2002-2003, teaching little kids about the working beehive in the museum (it has glass panels and a tube leading outside, so you can watch the girls at work!)

  16. Absolutely fascinating post!
    I have taken to having a Vermont tea (tea, apple-cider vinergar(with the mother), honey) however after reading your post, I am not sure the honey I got a the supermaket was all that organic!
    Would love to buy a jar of your, if you could spare it.
    BYW. Granola, yoghurt and banana is my breakfast every day at work.
    Nothing like it to get the brains cells and the body going!

  17. Wow... this is such a great post... who knew that bees would get up to so much? (Well, you and the other bee keepers obviously, but I digress)

    The pics of your breakfast made just all of me ache for honey!!

  18. Anonymous10:54 am

    "Cuddle Death"? Hmmm. Makes death by crushing and smothering sound almost quite nice, though I suppose it depens on who is doing the "cuddling". "Workers"? No thanks :)

  19. Elisabeth, Vermont tea sounds yum! And I have about ten 1-kg jars of honey left, at $10 a jar.

    Angel, those little bees have a whole lot going on in the hive. And I'd like to try Sri Lankan honey.

    H. insciens, "cuddle death" is one of my favourite beekeeping terms. So graphic! The more popular term for it is "balling the queen."


Thank you for all your comments, which I love to read!