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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Bawden

The Winter Bee Cluster: Do Not Disturb

With winter bees, less is more at Lloyd St. Bees

packing bees for winter
Winter bee yard all packed and ready

We have officially finished packing our bees up for winter here at LSB! The only thing left to do with the bees is to sit and wait patiently till March. That keyword is patience. It’s important not to disturb your bees during the wintertime. At this point, the die is cast and there really isn’t a lot you can do to change the outcome till spring.

The best thing you can do is leave them alone and let them maintain their tight winter cluster.

Every time the bees break cluster, some don’t make it back. As a result, the cluster dwindles over the course of the winter. Using temperature sensors, we can monitor the cluster and see how a disturbance affects the cluster. In the graph below, you can see a spike in colony's temperature.

winter bee cluster data

This occurred while colonies were being packed for winter in 2022, just gently sliding the nuc over 6” to have contact with their neighbor on the hive stand. You can see that this slight movement caused a sudden 40F temperature increase. This increase is caused by the cluster breaking apart and releasing their collective heat. The increase took three days to return close to the baseline as the cluster condensed itself once again. Now think about the harm when you remove the cover off your colony in the winter to satisfy your curiosity, especially when the ambient temperature is below freezing for the following three days.

this slight movement caused a sudden 40F temperature increase

If you’re curious about the condition of your bees, just press your ear against the side of the box and listen for a buzzing noise. There is no need to bang on the side of the box to agitate the bees, that just causes them to break cluster, you should be able to hear them naturally. You may need to change the position of your ear against the box to hear the cluster. The bees will orientate themselves sometimes to one wall, making it tricky to hear from the opposite side of the box. If you perform this exercise every two weeks, you can log your results. If at some point you no longer hear your bees, you can have an estimate of when they died. Bees that died before the middle of January are typically because of varroa. If they die after that then it is because the cluster is too small to thermoregulate or starvation. Check out our blog post “Why Did My Bees Die?” to get a full questionnaire that you can share with your bee club. This is a helpful exercise in troubleshooting where things went wrong with someone who is a more knowledgeable beekeeper than yourself.

Thanks for supporting local beekeeping,

Trevor Bawden

Lloyd St. Bees

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