I’ve had lots of questions from folks wondering how bees can survive these record low temperatures and unusual heavy snowfall in Texas recently.
“Do bees hibernate?”
“Do you have to bring the hives into your garage?”
The good news is that honey bees are made for this! All of their hard work over the busy warmer months is to store up enough food to survive the winter cold – a little like squirrels store up nuts to nibble and stay warm.
As a super-organism, or a group of individuals working together as a collective unit, the goal of every honey bee colony is not just to make more bees, but to make more hives.
“Colony-level reproduction” happens during times of abundance. A successful bee colony creates a new queen and the original queen flies off with about half the original colony to literally “colonize” and make a new hive nearby, maybe in the hollow of a tree, the floor of your shed, or the wall of your house as often as not! Reproduction is called “swarming” and I love capturing swarms.
But honey bee hives can only successfully reproduce when the colony has enough bees and resources to be sure they can survive the winter. The new swarm also needs time to build up for winter themselves, which is why bees typically reproduce in springtime when there are plenty of flowering plants to supply nutrients.
Through the winter months, which are usually brief and mild in our part of Texas (New Braunfels), bees form a winter cluster around their honey stores and slowly consume what they need in order to wiggle and keep warm – a little like a mammal will shiver when it’s cold. Worker bees take turns on the outside of the winter cluster to deflect the cold.
I imagine it’s a little like what my wife and I look like curled up on the couch in blankets with snacks and Netflix on chilly winter nights.
Down here in Texas I really only have to take a few simple precautions to help ensure hive survival.
Most importantly, the bees have gotta have enough food. A full pantry is vital for their survival because not only is there no blossoming forage for bees to eat during winter cold, it’s too chilly to go and get it.
I spend a lot of time in the fall making sure every hive has plenty of honey stores, and I’ll sometimes combine weaker colonies to ensure they have enough bees to ball up and stay warm through winter.
The bees also need to be in the right-sized box, not too big for them to manage or too small that they are cramped.
I typically reduce the entrance size on the front of the hive so the bees can maintain their heat. I also make sure the hive has good ventilation because the respiration of the bees (yes, they breathe) can build up moisture which will freeze.
A hive that’s large enough, in the right-sized box, with plenty of food stores and ventilation should do just fine during the cold.
Weaker hives, unfortunately, will not make it through a prolonged cold snap, and typically run out of stores and then starve and freeze.
Northern beekeepers often insulate their colonies and set up wind breaks, and I’ve seen lots of worried Texas beekeepers doing likewise in the run-up to this recent cold snap. Not a bad thing to do, but I have found that a strong colony set up properly does just fine in brief periods of cold (fingers-crossed!).
The one upside to the hard freeze here in Texas this year is that it puts a dent in the pest population, such as small hive beetle and wax moth. I won’t cry.
The challenge is that we will lose some nice burgeoning forage, such as the early spring kickstarter Agarita. Once it warms up again I’ll likely be supplementing pollen and nectar to help the bees build up to the big show in spring.