How do honey bees survive our Saskatchewan winters?

The honey stored in the hive is intended to ensure the survival of the queen bee and the hive throughout the year.

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As an urban beekeeper, I get asked this question a lot this time of year.

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Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to America, but originated in Africa and were eventually brought here by Europeans. They do not hibernate. But how do they survive our cold winters that reach -40⁰C? Short answer: Bees’ own strategies are augmented with a little help from their beekeeper friends.

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Bees make honey from flower nectar and store it in the honeycomb in the hive. These stores aim to ensure the survival of the queen bee and the hive throughout the year. As the days get shorter and colder, the flowers wither and the nectar is gone. Bees respond by reducing their numbers so that there is less food to eat.

Most of the bees in the hive are worker bees, all of them are female. There are a smaller number of drones (male bees) whose reproductive services will not be needed during the winter. Drones are forced out of the hive by worker bees. When beekeepers see this happen, they know the fall is too short.

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Repeatedly flying up to five kilometers to collect nectar, pollen and water from the hive, forager bees die of exhaustion and, if not replaced, the size of the hive also decreases. This is because the queen bee stops laying eggs in response to the drop in temperature. Summer bees’ six-week lifespan is extended to five months or more because they don’t have to do the tedious foraging work of wintering bees.

When beekeepers harvest honey in mid- to late summer, they are careful to leave enough honey for the bees to eat in the fall. They also feed the bees a thick sugar syrup that they use to fill and refill their hives throughout the fall to ensure they have enough food for the winter. Syrup is delivered through special buckets or trays placed on top of the hives. Bees find it easier to digest “honey” made from sugar syrup than nectar in cold weather.

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Beekeepers treat each hive to reduce the likelihood of diseases (such as foul brood) and pests (such as mites) that weaken or kill the hive.

The main job of bees in winter is to keep the queen alive by keeping her safe and warm. As nighttime temperatures drop toward freezing, bees swarm around the queen bee. They hug each other and tremble and flap their wings. This action keeps the temperature inside the cluster close to +30⁰C. The swarm moves around the hive to feed.

But in very cold weather, this will not be enough to keep the hive alive. To help the hive stay warm, beekeepers insulate their hives. We use five centimeters of rigid foam wrapped in painted particle board and put a pillow in an empty honeycomb box on top.

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On sunny, warm winter days, fewer bees leave the hive on cleaning flights (to defecate). You can see them flying or lying dead in the snow if they are suffering from the cold. Dead bees are also removed from the hive. These are usually old feeders that die naturally. When the snow melts, a small pile of dead bees can be found outside the hive entrance.

When the spring temperature warms up to about +10⁰C, the hives open and another beekeeping season begins.

Saskatoon Nature Society member Heather Brenneman runs two beehives in her Saskatoon backyard with neighbor Ken Glover.

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