Wintering our Honeybees

Towards the end of the year, beekeepers prepare their honeybee colonies for winter.

An abridged version of ‘Winter Bees’ from the Pinner and Ruislip Beekeepers Association. In order to live to the spring a colony must be a good size, be disease and mite free. A build up of mites or disease could mean a colony dies.

Hives are checked to make sure they are not damaged. Preventative methods are used to make sure and that they won’t get damp. Bees produce a lot of water vapour and this could condense in the top part of the hive and drip down on the bees making them too cold.

A mouse guard is attached to each hive entrance to stop unwanted pests getting in and eating the stored food.

An English colony needs around 40 lbs of honey to survive our unpredictable winter. The bees make and store extra honey between spring and autumn in readiness for winter because there little or no food in the UK from mid-October to February.

If, due to bad weather, the nectar flow has slowed up in late summer then the bees are fed a supplement of liquid sugar syrup during August so that the bees have time to turn it into honey and store in sealed cells before the weather gets cold. The beekeeper encourages overproduction of honey within the hive so that the excess can be taken without endangering the colony’s winter stores.

 A summer bee and a winter bee are physically different

Cooler autumn weather triggers the rearing of stockier, stronger winter bees to make sure the colony survives the winter. The autumn larvae are fed a low fat, high protein content (unlike summer bees reared on high fat, low protein) which results in fatter bodies and a different blood protein profile than a summer bee and they live far longer 4 to 6 months instead of the six week lifespan of a summer bee. They will also have far less work to do.

Honeybees do not hibernate but what they do is even more fascinating than that.
Honeybee will over-winter clustered together vibrating their wing muscles to generate heat. This cluster looks like a ball of bees that covers a few frames usually in the vertical centre of the hive. The ball size will depend on how many bees are in the hive and what the temperatures are outside the hive. The colder it is the more close together the bees will be in the cluster. The bees only heat the cluster; the rest of the hive is the same temperature as the apiary. The bees on the inside of the cluster can still walk around. Food consumption is minimal. Bees regularly switch places, with ones from the inner core taking up a position on the outer core to allow the outer bees to go inside. As food supplies dwindle around the cluster the bees will move up; rarely do they move to the sides.

The queen will start laying eggs in January in the middle of the cluster thus starting to build up the bee population in readiness for spring. By the end of winter the stores of food will become low. In the early spring, when nectar flow begins, the colony grows rapidly. Going into winter a good colony would consist of approximately 60,000 bees but at the end maybe 10,000 are left.


Winter feeding will be done if the bees are on the verge of starvation or to stimulate the queen to lay and some beekeepers place dry sugar around the hole in the inner hive cover, others use bakers’ fondant (additive and flavouring free). Pollen substitutes are sometimes given. On mild days the bees will take the feed and place it around the brood nest where it is available for them to use.

Milder winters cause more beekeeping problems in that the bees will not form a cluster but freely walk around eating precious stores then not have enough when it is very cold and maybe starve. Also if it gets too cold for too long, the bees won’t be able to shift in the cluster to access their food.

Dwindling populations are one cause of colonies dying. When this begins to happen, the amount of bees in a cluster become less. Fewer bees place a stress on the remaining bees to maintain cluster temperatures during very cold weather.

Some bees die much before their time for other reasons which include mites, bacterial diseases etc. On milder days bees take cleansing flights as they do not defecate inside the hive. If they cannot get out for a long time then they could develop dysentery (nosema)


Pinner & Ruislip Beekeepers’ Association was formed in 1954 by the amalgamation of the Pinner BKA and the Ruislip BKA.

The Pinner Beekeepers’ Association was established at a meeting at “Newlands”, Pinner on Friday 17th 1928 and in 1929, with an annual membership fee of 5 shillings, the membership comprised of 100 enthusiasts.

It’s uncertain exactly when Ruislip Beekeepers was founded, but both clubs were active in the 1930s. After the 2nd World War, the realisation gradually dawned that the area couldn’t support two clubs, so the two groups amalgamated.

From our records it appears that the first Honey Show was held by the Pinner Beekeepers, in conjunction with the Pinner Horticultural Association in 1932 on September 24th.

In 1986 our association was granted charitable status (No 290514).

Authors Note:

You may care to visit their website at to read the above article in its unabridged form, I am sure they will welcome your visit.

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