Answer and pictures from the folks at Cox’s Honey
European honeybees are what we typically call the bees that search out and gather nectar here in Idaho. This nectar is brought back to the hive and turned into honey. The breeds of bees commonly used around here are Carniolans and Italians. Each breed has its plus and minuses. The Carniolans are the most docile of these breeds. It takes a lot to irritate them to the point of being stung. They tolerate beekeepers getting into their hive if they are gentle while doing so. Italians are a tad more aggressive, but because of this trait, they tend to be more productive gatherers of nectar. It is not uncommon for a beekeeper, either hobbyist or commercial, to have both breeds or crossbreeds in their colonies.
Sometimes we will run across a colony of bees that are much more aggressive than the rest. Most of the time that is due to the traits of the queen. She probably obtained some African honeybee traits. Better known as the killer bee. They are much more aggressive and tend to attack with just a little provocation. In Idaho, we do not see this too often as this type of breed has a higher level of metabolism and needs to stay active year-round. In our cold winters, that is not possible.
Honey starts out as nectar gathered from flowers or trees. When sucked up by the bees, this nectar will be 85% liquid and 15% substance. The foraging bees will fly home and deposit the nectar in cells in the hive. They will then dehydrate the liquid and it becomes honey, which is 85% substance and 15% liquid. That is why pure honey is so thick. They dehydrate the honey by flapping their wings to create airflow throughout their hive. They then will cap the individual cells and keep the honey for storage to use in times where they are not collecting food.
Bees will also collect pollen. This is the bees’ source of protein. Mixed with honey, this creates a bee bread that is fed to the baby bees for nutrition. The pollen and honey are all the bees need to survive and sustain life.
What do bees do in the winter?
There are several people who say that bees hibernate in the winter. Although they do not gather honey or pollen or maintain their hive, they do not hibernate. They are active. In fact, it is a life or death situation. When temperatures dip below 40 degrees, bees become less active and their movements become limited. Bees can also freeze very quickly if they cannot maintain this temperature. So, nature has given them a way to overcome the cold temperatures we see in Idaho.
This is called a bee cluster. The bees cluster up into a ball to help maintain a good temperature and it is a way to keep everyone in the hive warm. The colder the temperature, the tighter the cluster becomes. While in this cluster, the bees will create warmth by “shivering.” The bees on the outside of the cluster will shiver or shake to keep things warm. As they run out of energy or become cold themselves, they rotate with the bees on the inside of the cluster. They essentially change positions over and over again. It takes a lot of energy to perform this miracle feat. So, that is why it is crucial for them to have a lot of honey for eating. Bees will literally starve if there is not enough honey stocks in the hive. The hive usually does not grow during the winter months.
The queen typically does not lay many eggs in the wintertime. So, as the bees come out of the winter, they experience a decrease in their hive as old bees die off and the eggs take time to mature.