What Goes On Inside a Winter Hive?

By Kent, Master Beekeeper

In cold weather, honeybees, one of the few insects who survive winter as a hive, cluster in a well-defined manner to keep warm. A cluster begins with an interior temperature in the mid-fifties, and contracts and expands as the temperature falls and rises.

But, how does this work? What happens in the cluster? We turned to Master Beekeeper Kent for answers, along with a few other sources.

Bees create a cluster around the queen, her survival is critical. The bees within the cluster move about freely—in cold weather there is an almost constant circulation in the cluster.

At the core of the cluster are the “heater” bees, who will have their heads in the cells on each side of the comb, and will be working their thoracic (flight) muscles in a method different from flight (the muscles contract against each other, not against the wings.) Heat is created.

The next layer of bees will be the “replacement” bees who are either returning from, or going to, the food source. These bees will next replace either the “heater” bees, or the “insulator” bees.

The outer layer of the cluster is comprised of the “insulator” bees. These bees strive to maintain a temperature of 48-75° F.; the inner cluster ranges from 64° F. to the low 90s, largely depending upon whether brood production has begun. The insulator bees do not participate in working their muscles to keep the hive warm—they are strictly insulation. If, on these outer ring, their thorax dips below 48° F., they can no longer activate their flight muscles. Inevitably they fall into a coma, and fall off the cluster where they likely perish.

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