Help Honey Bees Survive This Winter

By guest blogger Heather Mattila, assistant professor of natural sciences at Wellesley College

Honeybees are far and away the most important pollinator in today’s agricultural landscape. They pollinate more than 400 crops worldwide, help to create about a third of the food we eat, and contribute an estimated $12 billion to our nation’s food supply.

All summer long, worker bees can be seen buzzing between flowers, collecting pollen and nectar and, in the process, pollinating vast tracts of crops (upon which we depend) and producing an abundance of honey (some of which is ferried away by beekeepers to local markets for us to enjoy). As summer draws to a close and the weather starts to cool, one of the questions I get a lot is, “What happens to bees in the winter?”

People often guess that honeybees hibernate; others presume that colonies die as cold weather approaches. Fall’s first frost does kill most members of bumblebee and yellow jacket colonies, leaving lonesome queens to establish new nests each spring.

But honeybees are different.

They’ve evolved a strategy for winter survival that is unique, one that relies heavily on frenzied visitation to flowers throughout the summer and a Herculean group effort in the months beyond. Believe it or not, their success in this endeavor depends on choices that you make for your yard and garden.

Honeybees need their calorie-rich, carbohydrate-loaded honey to keep them alive during the winter; it’s the perfect furnace oil for colonies. Worker bees eat this liquid gold and use the energy it provides to fuel rapid contraction of their wing muscles. Pumping these muscles without flying produces heat in the same way that shivering helps us to warm our own bodies.

As temperatures drop, honeybees cluster together within their hive to share the warmth that their “shivering” generates (picture a ball of bees a foot in diameter and sliced through by sheets of honeycomb). At the core of this cluster, worker bees keep themselves and their queen at a temperature that is only a few degrees lower than that of a healthy human. The cluster’s outer layer consists of tightly packed, slightly cooler workers that insulate the core as effectively as bird feathers or mammalian fur—don’t worry, everyone gets to rotate. This remarkable group behavior allows honeybees to keep the inside of their home virtually tropical while the rest of the natural world remains frozen beyond the hive’s walls.

Here’s where we come in. Honeybees in temperate climates have only a limited window—about 60 days in total—to stockpile the food reserves that they will live off for the rest of the year. This means that we need to do everything we can to create an environment that lets bees succeed as pollinators when the going is good. Here are three ways you can help bees survive winter:

• Plant late bloomers. When it comes to enhancing your garden’s fall bloom, consider adding late-flowering plants like goldenrod and asters that are critical to a colony’s final push to bring home food for the winter.

• Avoid systemic pesticides. Certain pesticides have toxins that invade all plant tissues (instead of just living on the plants’ surface), and bees bring these chemicals to their nests when they collect nectar and pollen. A group of chemicals called nitroguanidine/neonicotinoids has been shown to contribute to colony collapse disorder.

• Encourage early-spring blooms. Spring brings welcome relief for honeybees with a chance to restock dwindling floral supplies. Flowering trees—willows, maples, and the like—provide some of the earliest opportunities for bees to forage, so try to encourage their toxin-free growth when you can.

Like us, bees use their social skills to get through tough times. Our food supply rests on their success, so knowing how honeybees can achieve it, and how we can help, brings us one step closer to maintaining our strong working relationship—which means healthier crops, greater variety in our diet, and an abundant honey supply for all. Do you keep bees? Tell us about it on Facebook.


Heather Mattila is Knafel Assistant Professor of natural sciences at Wellesley College.  She studies the organization of animal societies, insect communication, and the evolution of cooperation, using






Bee Photo: ingridtaylar


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28 Responses to Help Honey Bees Survive This Winter

  1. Sharon August 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    I have my first hive this year. Since May 15 when they were set up as a swarm in a hive at Northampton Community College they have produced over 50 lbs of honey all of which we are happily leaving in the hive for winter “stores”. They are important contributors to the NCC Community Garden and have been incredibly busy this summer. We are hoping for the best for winter!

  2. Donna in Delaware August 29, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    I was passing a house one day, not too far from mine. When I turned the bend in the road, I noticed this huge bee hive in a maple tree in the front yard. I’m sure that it is bursting with bees and honey. So far, they have not had it taken down. It’s scary to see. I hope that no one gets stung. I’m not even sure that they know it’s there. We are in NCCo. Delaware, and this is the first bee hive I’ve noticed around here in 7 years. I’m surprised because people use so many herbicides around here.

  3. Carol September 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    I was particularly interested in how the honey bees stay alive during the winter. I will take your advice as to what to plant to help the bee hives up the street and will pass on the information to another friend who took some of those hives to her home to help them survive. I realize how important they are to our balance of nature. Thanks…

  4. Thomas September 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    This is stupid and useless. Colony Collapse Disorder only affects commercial hives that pollinate commercial crops using commercial pesticides. Apis mellifera is not even a species native to the New World. They are severely inbred now and geneticially susceptible to many diseases. Commercial beekeepers transport the hives during the growing season to pollinate specific crops at specific times. In the winter bees are fed sugar water. There is nothing you can do with your personal garden that will have any effect whatever on commercial bees.

  5. Kev C September 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    Thomas says:
    September 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm
    This is stupid and useless. Colony Collapse Disorder only affects commercial hives that pollinate commercial crops using commercial pesticides.


    CCD affects all bee colonies of Apis mellifera. The pesticides affect other pollinator species as well. Domestic colonies seldom gather pollen and nectar from their own immediate surroundings, leaving these for last resort. They will forage in next doors gardens and even in neighbouring fields. Hence why pesticides are a problem. The average bee will travel easily 5 miles for food and they will do this continually for the better part of 6-8 weeks which is virtually their entire life cycle. The first 2-3 weeks are spent in the hive administering to the brood and other tasks. Once out and about they travel continuously looking for food. In 6-8 weeks a lot of land is covered. So the comment above by Thomas is clearly based on incorrect advice.
    CCD can affect all colonies of Apis mellifera regardless of whether they are commercial or domestic. The impact is clearly greater with commercial colonies due to the sheer numbers. Most households that keep bees will have only a small number of hives, between 1 and 5 usually, whereas commercial outfits have many hundreds of colonies.

  6. Faith Voigt September 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

    Useful information, coming a little late for effective action this autumn.

    Care2, can we have a repeat publication next spring and maybe a reminder in June or July next year, to catch people when they are preparing their flower schemes?

    Thanks and good luck to everybody on the team

  7. Ruth September 10, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Anything to help these little creatures out!

  8. Wendy September 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    Great info. Last year, we had a honeybee swarm break off from the main group and use one of our trees for a couple of days. We called our local bee man but they had gone by the time he arrived. He and we were very happy to know they are/were doing so well here.

  9. Thomas September 10, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    I used to work for commercial beekeepers. Agricultural pesticides are generally only applied to commercially pollinated crops before and after they bloom. Otherwise they would kill the bees outright and defeat the whole purpose. As the bees are moved from crop to crop, they are exposed to residual commercial pesticides all year long, even including in the corn syrup used to feed them through winter.

    Escaped and stationary hives forage on wildflowers and do not have anywhere near the exposure to pesticides commercial bees do. Hummingbird feeders also atract bees in winter. Plant flowers because you like them and make water sources easily accessible to insects so they don’t drown, but don’t breed West Nile virus.

    Just don’t think you are having any impact on CCD:

  10. Terrie Hahn January 22, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    I have a question. I live in Central Texas. We’ve had a few warm days and we’ve seen a few bees. I put out our homemade gingerbread house and wet it down a little for the bees – like sugar water. One landed on it and then 10 minutes later there were several dozen. It didn’t get eaten by critters overnight as it does other years. So today the bees are back in huge numbers kind of swarming on top of one another on parts of the gingerbread house. I thought I was doing a good thing, but maybe not? I’m in a 5 acre subdivision, but I don’t believe any close neighbors are keeping bees. I had assumed these are wild honey bees.

  11. Dave June 23, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    I haven’t heard of gingerbread houses to feed bees, that’s a new one.

    You could be nosy and watch which direction the bees are leaving and arriving from, the term ‘bee-line’ was made for a reason 🙂

  12. September 7, 2013 at 2:13 pm #


    I was about to re-pot one of my indoor plants today when I noticed a bee between the soil. He seemed to have created a little nest of some sort. I just left the bee to it, in its original pot on the window sill. I am curious to know what the best thing is to help him survive. Do I water the plant or leave the soil to dry? Is it likely that the bee will stay there for the winter?

    Any help/info much appreciated.


  13. Mark Cegielski February 23, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    Re Thomas says:
    September 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm
    This is stupid and useless. Colony Collapse Disorder only affects commercial hives that pollinate commercial crops using commercial pesticides.

    Maybe Thomas has spent too much time with commercial beekeepers. As a backyard beekeeper in CT I can assure you the problem is widespread and not limited to commercial operators. Every beekeeper I know has suffered major losses in recent years (all 4 of my hives last winter and 3 of 4 hives this winter).

  14. ulla March 14, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    I found a bumblebee this evening on the sidewalk. It was on it’s back but I picked it up anyway and took it home.
    It is moving a little and sits in an empty aquarium on a plate with some Manuka honey. It moved toward the honey. I am wondering what I can do to give it a chance to survive. I also have royal jelly I could feed it. Perhaps buy a real terrarium with a warming lamp.
    Any suggestions are very welcome.

  15. Linda March 30, 2014 at 2:31 am #

    I truly appreciate the balance of Nature and all of that good stuff, but some of you are forgetting that a bee sting could be deadly.

    Last year a colony was formed under my deck, which is only a foot above grown. I promised I would leave it alone, even though it meant I couldn’t go in my yard all summer (not eAsy after a Long cold winter.

    I called a bee keeper after one of them stung my brother but was told it was too small a colony to be interested in.

    Anyway, one day I ventured out to water my flowers a little too early and the bees came at me. I’m deadly allergic, so I walked backwards away from them and tripped on a step, fell and broke my toe and ankle — at my age healing took some physical therapy :(.
    So, all I want to know is if they will be in the yard this summer or if they died off — sorry hoping for the latter.

  16. Steven January 3, 2015 at 11:31 pm #

    started one Russian Honey Bee Hive last late spring. One deep, one medium, three shallow boxes. I used plastic foundation. All summer they were very active. I feed sugar water and pollen patties. Not all the time. But a lot. Winter has shut them down. Warmer weather Thanksgiven got a lot of them out and about. I feed them sugar water. Now no activity again. This cold time has left a lot of dead bees in frout of the hive. Will they make these last sixteen weeks? What could I do to help. Never took any honey from them. They only filled a third of the space. I have not looked inside since cold weather. The boxes have ventilation.

  17. Julie March 4, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

    I have a single honey bee weathering around my front porch. He comes out for water when the weather is good. I’m wondering how he is able to survive the subzero temperature we’ve been getting this year. I’ve only seen the one.

  18. Kimberly Stephenson October 4, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

    I love my bumble and honey bees. I’ve been lucky enough to have hundreds of honeys visiting my garden this past summer. I noticed them swimming and drinking from the birdbath, so I set up 4 beebaths. I put rocks and sticks in them so no one would drown and also put honey and agave syrup out for them everyday. I swear they recognize the modulation of my voice, as they quickly appear when I start talking. I feel very fortunate to be their host. They have allowed me to handle them, and they have treated me with the same kindness that I have shown them. For some odd reason I only had a few yellow jackets who clearly have a menacing disposition, but they managed to contain any aggression they might have experienced towards me. I am happy to say that the relationship these bees and I have developed is one that makes feel more connected to nature than I ever have before. I never use any chemicals in my garden by the way, so all of my insect and animal friends are 100% safe here, and they seem to understand this.
    I’m sure many people think I’m a nut, but feeling a kinship with other species of life means more to me than my human relationships. I will admit to being eccentric, but I do have a clear vision of my commitment to all who depend on and live around me.
    I’m grateful for your helpful comments and the information you have provided here. Thank you

  19. Kathy Cotton October 6, 2015 at 7:53 pm #

    Kimberly, you aren’t the first person who has had a great relationship with honey bees. I have a friend who has wasps as little friends (she is house bound). With patience, she has even trained them a little. Although it seems crazy for those who can only see bees and wasps as natural enemies only, I can understand your experience, even tho I’ve never experienced it myself. You go girl.

  20. Ruth Spears November 26, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    I have a swarm that settled in a squirrel box last May. They seemed to be very active all summer. Now I guess they are all inside. (The box is 15 – 20 feet up in a tree.) I hope they last through the winter (Dallas, TX) since I enjoy having them around. I plan to plant more flowering things next spring.

  21. kor March 16, 2016 at 3:28 am #

    what to do to make Bee stay-able. Because in my country (LAOS) the Bee moving from place to place and it moving back by the season. I wan to know that what is the problem and what to do to make the Bee stay in the box forever.

  22. Wayne March 25, 2016 at 11:08 pm #

    Re Thomas says:
    September 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm
    This is stupid and useless. Colony Collapse Disorder only affects commercial hives that pollinate commercial crops using commercial pesticides.

    And to say that wild bees only pollinate wild flowers is simply not true. Bees do not discriminate when it comes to flowers.

  23. Hive World April 9, 2016 at 8:30 am #

    Really very nice to get best points about honey bees an individual asset, the honey bees bilogicial perspective although many flying. It is best referred of the bees, keep doing in the same way.

  24. RuthArt September 13, 2016 at 9:29 pm #

    Kimberly Stephenson…what a wonderful life you have and to live it among the nature around you. Thank you for sharing your sweet relationship.

  25. Jeanne Peltz August 18, 2018 at 8:42 am #

    thank you for input. I will also leave gingerbeer and sugared water in a container containing sticks/stones. The plants are organic – no pesticides/herbicides used.

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  27. Kenneth Hinckley November 9, 2018 at 3:31 am #

    Hello. A colony of bees have called called a dead tree in my yard home for several years now. They created a hole in the tree to enter and exit.

    The tree broke in two during a very windy day recently, several feet above the bee entrance, leaving the top portion of the tree open to the elements (much honey exposed and comb).

    The weather here in Indiana has dropped below freezing several days now and will soon be in the low 20’s at night.

    Should I cover the exposed opening at the top of the tree with a tarp (utilizing protective clothing and face cover)…or simply leave them alone?

    Much honecomb/honey was in the fallen tree section, eaten by various critters.

    Suggestions appreciated.


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