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What happens to bees in the winter?

Good afternoon bees! With only a week to go until the big day, we’re officially getting into the Christmas spirit. Here at The Hive, we may have already tucked into our first mince pie of the season and had a little boogie to some Christmas tunes! So with winter set to stay, we thought it was time to get an update from our favourite beekeeper, Pa Harper (aka Ron), to see how his bees have been keeping in this chilly weather. We’re guilty of seeing beekeeping as purely a summer time job, so we always find it fascinating to hear what beekeepers get up to once the weather turns cold. Contrary to popular belief, bees don’t officially ‘hibernate’ over winter and beekeepers don’t either! Ron has been busy preparing things for the summer and has been keeping a careful eye on his bees – so without further ado, here’s our most recent catch up with the man himself!

Hi there Ron, so tell us, how have you and your bees been getting along?

Hello! Well I’m doing well and I hope my bees are too. I’ve packed up the Hive for the winter to make sure they’re kept safe and just recently added a piece of equipment to my hive, which us beekeepers call a Mouseguard. This is a simple piece of equipment that we place over the entrance of the hive to prevent mice from entering while still allowing the bees to come and go freely. When the weather gets cold, mice often try to get into our hives, as it’s much warmer in there than it is outside!

Ah what a great idea – we don’t want them damaging the hive do we!

No we certainly don’t. I think my bees are ok inside though, as occasionally, when we’ve had warmer days, I’ve seen a few flying around the hive, perhaps looking for nectar.

That’s great news. So they’ve survived the season. It’s looking promising! What exactly do the bees do over winter then?

Well, the colony shrinks a lot. I’d say it goes from approximately 50,000 bees in the summer to about 10,000 in the winter. You don’t need as many bees as in the summer you see, so the colony shrinks. It won’t go below a certain size though, as you need a certain number of bees so there’s enough to keep each other warm.

And how do these bees differ from summer bees?

These bees actually live a lot longer, about 6 months, where as in summer, worker bees tend to only live about 6 weeks. These bees don’t have to work as hard as they do in the summer, as their main focus now is to keep our queenie and each other warm. They do this by staying in a cluster (kind of like a rugby ball shape) and by taking it in turns to be on the outside of the cluster.

So does this cluster stay exactly as it is all winter?

Not quite! The cluster will move very gradually inside the hive so that the bees can eat the honey they’ve stored. It’s very slow though – I’d say it takes them about a month to move just one inch! However, I won’t take the lid off the hive to have a look until January, as if I do, the heat will escape very quickly. It’s best to leave them for a while.

So whilst the bees are busy keeping each other warm, what have you been up to?

Well I’ve been pretty busy myself actually! You see, us beekeepers (the sensible ones) see this time of year as a chance to clean up our equipment and get things ready for the next season.

That does sound sensible, to BEE prepared! So what have you made?

Well I’ve just recently built a whole stack of new frames from flat packs, not from Ikea though mind you! Each wooden frame fits into the castillations on the super (*in case you’ve forgotten – that’s the box that holds the frames together!). I’ll then put these frames together to build a new super. I can they layer up these boxes on top of one another, depending on how big my colony is next year.

I’ve also made another set of legs, as last year I had a hive that was 6 boxes high – given that when each box is full of honey it can weight about 20kg, they need to be pretty sturdy. I sure don’t want my hive collapsing!

So do you replace old frames every year?

Yes I do. I’ve found it really helps ensure I have a strong colony. You see, if I use old frames that I’ve kept over winter, sometimes they get dirty and gather disease. It’s best to give the bees a new set of frames so I can guarantee a healthy, fresh start! (*Pictured below is one rather old frame and one shiny new one!)

Well it sounds like you’ve got it all under control Ron, thanks so much for the update!

It was great to hear that Ron’s colony is doing well and that he’s got things ready for next year already. As always, we learnt a lot from Pa Harper – there’s so much more to this beekeeping business than we thought! If you’ve got a colony yourself, then we’d love to hear how it’s getting along this winter. Feel free to tag us on our socials @justbee.honey or email buzz@justbeehoney.co.uk with your pictures.

Until next time, have a buzzing week!

Blogger Bee x

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