Freezing, Starving, or Suffocating: What Kills Bees in Winter?

Many beginning beekeepers make the mistake of worrying about their bees freezing to death in the winter. When I first started beekeeping, that was one of my main concerns. It’s not surprising, since our temperatures here in Manitoba can sometimes dip to around -40°. (Yes you’re right - that’s cold!!)

However, honeybees form a 'winter cluster' inside the hive, so they actually do quite well at keeping warm. This can be aided by well-prepared beekeepers, who put winter wraps (a.k.a. ‘bee cozies’) on their hives in the fall. (You guessed it! That’s what our online store is named after! 😊).

Our beehive complete with its bee cozy is pictured below. The bee cozy is a black winter wrap made of R12 insulation that you slip over the beehive in the fall, to help the bees stay warm. (*Caution: If you are a beekeeper and use a winter wrap, please be sure to leave part of the front entrance exposed, to prevent the bees from suffocating). You’ll also notice that we have an old white election sign on the top, weighted down by a piece of broken concrete slab. This serves to keep the snow out, even when it’s REALLY windy, to the tune of 90 kilometers per hour.

Anyway, getting back to the topic of starvation being a bigger threat to bees in winter than freezing to death, starvation becomes an issue when the outside temperatures linger too much in the ‘mild’ zone. (When I say mild, I mean -5° C/23 °F or warmer).

What happens when the temperatures stay warm for too long in winter is, the bees wake up from their winter slumber and eat up all the honey that they stored in the fall. If their honey stores become depleted before the first nectar becomes available in the spring, the bees will starve.

So what can we do about this? Enter the “pollen pack”!

I purchased these two from a local beekeeping supply store. They didn't cost much at all:

As soon as we get a mild day, when the temperatures rise to a few degrees above freezing, I’ll prepare the pollen packs by cutting a few slits in the wax paper. This will make it easier for the bees to get access to the pollen.

Then I’ll go out to the beehive, open the lid really quickly, put a pollen pack on top of the frames, and then close it all back up again - as fast as humanly possible to conserve heat.

This will hopefully help the bees make it through the end of the long winter into spring.

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