Do Bees Die in the Winter? + How to Prevent Lossing Your Hive in Winter

do bees die in the winter

Worker and drone bees have naturally short life spans, living for a few weeks up to 6 months, and hives naturally contract in population in the winter to save on honey stores when there is no nectar flowing outside. Colonies can go from 40,000 to 90,000 members in the spring and early summer, down to 20,000 to 30,000 in the winter.  

Understanding the natural lifespan of bees is important to determine why some bees do die in the winter, and if it is normal, or signals a bigger problem that can lead to a loss of the whole hive. Once you understand normal bee death in winter then you can address the most common causes of beekeepers having hives die in the winter and what you can do about it.

Do Bees Die in the Winter?

If you are wondering do bees die in the winter and is this normal, the answer is yes. Drones are male bees whose sole purpose is to mate with a newly hatched virgin queen. Drones cannot gather and collect nectar and pollen and depend on the female worker bees to feed them. In late fall the worker bees will evict drones from the hive as they are no longer needed to mate in that season. Because they cannot keep themselves warm in small numbers or feed themselves, they naturally die off in the winter.  

Not only are drones usually kicked out of the hive in winter, but the process of mating with the queen also kills them. Most drones don’t get the chance to mate, but for those that do they will perish soon after because the forceful ejection of their mating appendage from their body causes it to be ripped out. It’s a tough life for drone bees! 

The average life span of a drone is 90 days. The queen will begin laying new drone eggs in cells in the spring for potential mating, and the process starts over again. This natural shrinking of the colony population in the wintertime is a normal and healthy process that allows the bees to need less honey to survive the winter.


Where Did the Honeybees Go?

Another reason why it may seem like bees die in the winter is because they will cluster together in the hive for warmth and to preserve energy, so we simply don’t see them much when it’s cold outside and the flowers are not in bloom.

Honeybees need to keep a consistent temperature and humidity in their hive year-round and they are incredible at providing their own natural ac and heating. Once the outside temperature drops below 50 degrees, they cluster tightly into their hive and create heat by beating their wings. This keeps the hive an incredible 97 degrees inside. 

Because nectar and pollen are not typically available in the winter, the bees also stay in their hive to access the stored honey they need. So even though you don’t see them out and about foraging, they are alive and well in the safety of their hive.  

The reproduction of the hive also comes to a halt in the winter to preserve food for the colony. The queen will stop laying in the winter, so both her and the worker bees won’t need as much food to raise young. The worker bees will cluster around the queen and young female bees and vibrate their bodies, expanding and contracting according to the temperature. 


Reasons Why You May Lose a Hive In Winter

Aside from the natural expansion and contracting of a hive in winter, there are more serious and potentially deadly reasons bees may die in the winter. Although losing a hive in winter is an inevitable part of beekeeping, there are certainly important steps beekeepers can make to minimize this problem. Studies have shown that nearly one-quarter of all human-kept hives do not survive the winter. 



This can be a natural part of the selection process, where the colony genetics and conditions were not strong enough. Too much propping up of weak hives may not be for the long-term good. This can be shown in the natural difference between colonies that are ordered and shipped to beekeepers, versus those that are caught from the wild. The wild-caught bees almost always do better than bees that are shipped. 

This is likely because local bees are adapted to the local area and have shown they are strong enough on their own to swarm and reproduce themselves. To mitigate this problem you can order bees from a local company. Check with your local extension office or beekeepers club to purchase bees for the best genetic chance of survival.

Even if you do order bees and have them shipped from a much different climate, over time their genetics will strengthen as the queen mates with local drones from other colonies. Because of this, for those colonies that survive, you can expect them to get stronger and healthier over time.   


Varroa Mites

Varroa mites are the single biggest reason hives die in winter, so they are well worth learning about. Varroa mites are parasitic mites that require honeybees to survive. The entire varroa mite life cycle is dependent on the honeybees and their hive. 

Varroa mite growth is exponential and begins on a very small scale. Therefore it may not be until the third year of infection in a hive that the mites can be detected. Varroa mites can be virus carriers and infect honeybees, which is one of their major negative impacts on the colony, along with lowered honey production. Varroa mites are the biggest reason colonies fail and die, so it’s important to check and treat mites in your hive. 

The simplest way to check for Varroa Mites is to use a sticky board, which is a white piece of cardboard or corrugated plastic covered in cooking oil and placed on the floor of your hive. You can check the daily number of mites that fall onto the sticky board and determine if you have an infestation.

In the northern hemisphere, you can use the number of the month, for example, May is the 5th month of the year, and if you find 5 or more mites on your sticky board in a day, then you have a mite infestation you need to treat or risk losing your hive in the winter. 

How you treat mites will vary depending on your beekeeping philosophy and whether or not you want to introduce chemicals into your hive. Though chemicals are the most effective, can also have a harmful effect on the bees and have negative long-term consequences on the mite population by making them more resistant and difficult to control. 

Some beekeepers like to allow natural selection to take its course and not treat Varroa mites at all. There is evidence that bees allowed to deal with the mites on their own will either die or develop the genetic traits to mechanically evict the mites from the colony and become resistant to their viral infections. This long-term approach could be helpful but could also be devastating for new beekeepers whose goal is to have their hives survive through the first season. 

A middle-of-the-road approach is to help control Varroa mite populations without damaging chemicals by using drone culling, small cell foundations, brood breaks, or sugar dusting. Female Varroa mites are ten times more likely to lay their eggs in drone brood cells than worker bee brood cells and experts disagree as to the reason. Nevertheless managing the drone brood is an effective way to lower problematic mite populations.

Using a wax foundation in a Langstroth hive, which is embossed with a slightly smaller cell size than what is used for drone eggs, is felt to be an effective way to control mite infestations. Some beekeepers like to use the brood break method where they remove the queen from the hive for 21 days and cull all of the brood combs for disposal or later treatment with powdered sugar. This three-week period interrupts the natural Varroa life cycle and reduces a load of mites in the hive. 

Dusting each side of each comb with pure powdered sugar has shown to be effective without any ill effects on the bees. The sugar works to encourage natural bee grooming behaviors which dislodges the mites, and also makes it more difficult for mites to attach themselves to the bees. You can begin sugar dusting when your sticky board mite checks indicate a problem and continue dusting weekly until you see the mite population drop to no more than 3 mites per day on your sticky board. 

Just as with all things beekeeping, there are a wide variety of opinions on how to deal with mites in the hive, but it is the single biggest problem that will cause your hive to die, and is worth monitoring and treating. 


Over Harvesting Honey in the Fall

In a cold climate with a long winter, a hive will need about 90 pounds of excess honey to keep them alive through the winter. In moderate climates, they need about 60 pounds of extra honey for the winter, and in mild climates, they only require around 40 pounds of extra honey. 

Until you get the hang of knowing how much honey your bees need it’s a good idea to weigh your honeycomb. Take an empty frame or bar and weigh it. Then weigh an entire frame or bar filled with honeycomb, and subtract the frame/bar weight from the total weight to get your honeycomb weight. Since honey is usually seven to eight times heavier than a comb, you can divide your honeycomb weight by 8 and then multiply your answer by 7, essentially removing 1/8th of the weight to arrive at your actual honey weight. Stated another way, for every 7 to 8 pounds of honey, you have 1 pound of comb. 

It may seem a bit tedious, but can give new beekeepers tremendous insight into the amount of honey in their hive, and how much to leave the bees for winter. You can also check with your local beekeeping club or beekeeping friends and ask them how much honey their bees need for winter in your local area. 

Bees are excellent at producing large amounts of honey in the spring and summer, so you don’t need to worry about over-harvesting in those seasons. It is your last pre-winter harvest when the temperatures have begun to drop and the flowers stop blooming that you want to be cautious and measure the amount of honey you are leaving in the hive. 

If you’ve determined that there is not enough honey for your bees to make it through the winter, or it is too close for your comfort, you can feed the bees with sugar syrup. Even though sugar syrup can never replace the nutrition found in nectar and you should try and not rely on it, it can be better than allowing a hive to starve and die. 

  • Fall Bee Feeding Recipe: 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Perfect for bees who need supplemental feeding to store honey for the winter.   

Heat the water on the stovetop and mix in the sugar until it’s dissolved. Let the sugar syrup cool to room temperature then fill your bee feeders. You can purchase a feeder that attaches to the top of your Langstroth hive, or a separate feeder you place near your hive. 

To prevent honey shortages in the future, consider cautiously harvesting honey in the fall, and planting a bee garden the following spring to help feed your bees naturally. Planting a bee garden is a healthy way to get higher honey yields if you are considering making money with your bee hobby


Too Much Moisture or Not Enough Heat in the Hive

Your hive style can influence the humidity and temperature in your hive. It will also vary depending on where you live and your climate conditions so there is no one right hive style. It differs from one region to the next. In Texas where it is more humid even in the winter, we need to pay more attention to the ventilation in our hives than someone in a drier climate would have to. This is where connecting to your local beekeeping club will be very helpful as you troubleshoot if the moisture or heat are contributing to winter problems with your hive. 


What about you, have you had a hive die in the winter? What have been the biggest factors that have affected your hive during cold weather? Let us know your experience in the comments below. 



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