We’re right on the cusp of outside bee activity for the year. In the winter, bees mostly stay in their hive and eat their honey stores; in the spring, they go out and start foraging again, replenishing their stock. What’s fun about right now is that they’re in a sort of liminal state – not quite fully active, but not sedentary either. Transitioning to spring is a process. What does it look like as your bees get revved up for the warmer months?
Now, before we get to that, the first question we have to answer is whether or not your bees made it through the winter. Wisco winters can be rough, and not every hive survives the icy grip of the arctic tundra. As you go through the de-winterizing process, you’ll assess your hive’s condition: are the bees alive, is there a living queen, do the bees look healthy, has there been major damage to the comb, etc. If they failed to store enough food for winter the answer to what they are doing is all too short… starving. But let’s not focus on that. If the worst comes to pass, then hopefully what your bees are doing right now is getting ordered! And what about if they didn’t shuffle off this mortal coil? In that case, they might be more active than you expect.
Bees don’t hibernate, and they sure as heck don’t just hang out in the cold for the fun of it. During the winter, your bees stick together and pool their body warmth to fight off the chills. What this looks like is fascinating. A hive essentially acts as a superorganism, with all the individual bees coming together to ensure the hive survives. They form a clump to maximize the heat they can produce. The queen is, of course, in the center where she can benefit from her children’s efforts. The rest of the bees move in and out of the clump to cycle the heat throughout it. You wouldn’t want to be the one bee who gets stuck at the edge of the party and freezes, right? It’s a good thing that basically the whole hive agrees, so they take turns.
For most of the winter, that’s how life goes for honey bees. They wiggle and shake, move and mambo around their hives keeping each other warm. And eating. Whoo-boy, are they eating. Think about it, to keep warm, at least a few of your bees have to move all the time. I’ve had jobs where I was on my feet for 8 hours at a time, and I’ll tell you it works up an appetite. That’s why all the honey storage they do during the winter is so important. They need that honey to fuel their constant wiggling and waggling. Of course, all that eating can be a problem. Because, when you eat, that pretty much always leads to another bodily function…
So how do bees poop in the winter? Yep, I just came out and asked it. Bees are notoriously fastidious and don’t poop in their own hives, but they can’t leave without freezing their little translucent wings off. According to observation and study, they hold it. You have to give them props for that. When it’s too dangerous to venture outside their hives, and that can be(e) for weeks, bees just suck it up and hold their business. Which is why I can only imagine how excited they are when a warm day rolls around and it’s time for a, well… the polite term is “cleansing flight.”
When it gets warm enough for them to risk it, your stalwart bees sally forth from the hive to evacuate their digestive systems. For honey bees, a warm breeze on the wind has a similar effect as a warm bucket of water has on a sleeping human. It’s go time. Some researchers think your bees are also using their brief sojourn as kind of a pre-foraging scouting mission. It makes sense. Bees are nothing if not efficient, and why let a rare trip outside the hive serve one purpose when you can squeeze in a second? As the warm days start to become more common, you are going to see more activity from your bees outside of the hive. Spring’s coming! And that means it’s time to get back into the world.
As the season changes, bee behavior shifts right along with it. New bees are being born, and new fleets of foragers are setting out to gather resources and get started on prepping for the next winter. We don’t call bees busy for nothing. There’s always something for them to be doing, and the time where winter is transitioning to spring is no different. What’s really amazing is all the different ways that a beehive comes together to give it the best chance of survival. From working together to get enough honey stored to make it through winter to squeezing their legs together and holding it as they shiver next to each other and keep themselves warm – everything they do is a communal effort for survival. And that’s just cool.