Bees Without Winter (yet…)

Posted on Dec 18, 2015 | 8 comments

My buddy at the feed store said the other day, ‘Your bees must be enjoying this warm December.’ We haven’t had any winter to mention and it’s nearly Christmas. Growing up in Alabama, that was perfectly normal. Here at 3000′ in the mountains of North Carolina it is very unusual…

hives in snow

Snow in Feb 2014 I think

This was taken year before last at Five Apple Farm (and just before I went through and brushed the snow off the bee entrances of the hive). We don’t see many snows like this a year but we do usually have fairly steady cold by now. When temps are reliably in the 40’s say, the bees stay clustered in a ball in their hives. This is how honey bees survive winter, forming a honey-powered pulsing ball of vibrating bees that keep each other warm. I say pulsing because the bees gently flow while clustered. When bees on the outer surface get cold they move inward toward the 90 or so degree F center where the queen is held in tropical warmth all winter long. Bees well-warmed from the center move outward to take their shift there. And so on, all winter.

Extreme cold can be problematic for bees. There’s something of a northern limit for bees but that line is somewhere in the icy reaches of Canada from what I can tell. Two of my favorite (famous) beekeeepers are Kirk Webster and Mike Palmer, both located in the snowy mountains of Vermont. The problem up there is the bees can be cooped in the hive for months at a time. Since bees are housebroken, they hold it till a warm day when they can go outside.This is called a cleansing flight. They can hold it a long time. Don’t eat yellow snow in front of a bee hive haha!

Gratuitous Pic of the Apiary in Fall

Gratuitous Pic of the Apiary in Fall

Down south, the bees are not limited to their quarters in winter but are able to fly on warm days and because its the deep south there is likely something blooming somewhere. Heck there are a few crazy dandelions blooming in my yard right now, which feels fairly freakish. Dandelion is NOT a traditional Christmas flower here in the mountains but rather a herald of springtime.

And that’s the problem. The bees do indeed enjoy the warm temps. They fly around looking for nectar and pollen as if it’s springtime. But it’s not. And we are not in the deep south. So there’s pretty much nothing for them to eat out there.  Bees are however, both busy and determined, so they fly and fly. Then return to the hive, fill up on honey and fly and fly some more. With the exception of those few paltry dandelions, the mountain cupboard is bare.

honey in comb

What’s inside a hive’s pantry….you hope

So all that energy, fueled by the honey that must last them all winter, is being burned for nothing. This sets bees up for starvation come late winter, which is a tightrope of survival for bees already. If they have a beekeeper, that person can jump in to help with emergency feeding to save the life of the hive till real spring. But wild bees — or bees whose keepers either don’t understand this or object to sugar feeding under all circumstances — face a Donner party situation. Except bees can’t and won’t eat each other no matter how hungry they get. It’s nectar/honey & pollen, the substitutes from their steward,  or nothing for honey bees.

Then you have the cold snaps like the 20’s with wind coming tonight. The previous warmth has tricked the bees into raising brood (baby bees) too early. They won’t be able to keep the brood warm during the cold snaps and that will cost the hive both the brood and more bees, another drain on colony resources.

So while I’m enjoying the sunshine and and the huge extension on tree-planting season, the half-spring/half-winter is hell on my bees. I worry for them a lot. I left what I thought was plenty of honey for winter on the hives, but that wasn’t accounting for a climate-changey or crazy el nino thing or both. Clearly in the future I will have to add a bigger margin of error into the honey I leave on the hives — and the sugar feeding I may have to do for hives that didn’t manage to put up enough for winter…and climate change.

Maybe eventually they can eventually adapt for wild swings in what a winter (or spring or summer) looks like. It’s process that works in the long, long term sometimes.  Then again, Mother Nature is fine and willing to cut her losses on any species that can’t adapt to the situation, no matter how precious, amazing, dear or handy with their opposable thumbs the species happens to be.

Meanwhile I’ll be right with my hives, captain-with-the-ship style though I hope it doesn’t come to that and in all honesty the roles are likely reversed.  I could tell my friend at the feed store was startled when I told him all this. Like me before the bees came into my life, it’s just not the first thing to pop into your mind on a beautiful spring-like day in December.   I could tell he got worried about the bees some too, ‘Well dang,’ he said, ‘I didn’t think of all that.’ Me neither, back then.

with love,


ps. In case you missed it, I posted a couple of favorite winter greens recipes at the blog:  As always I’d love to hear from you, the comment box is below.  (If you are reading on email click here.)

bee painting

Love this little painting!




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  1. Best of luck to you and the bees Lee. I, too, didn’t know this about bees. It is scary. This warm spell has seemed eerie to me, too.
    Merry Christmas to you and Mendy!

    • Great to hear from you Jan! Hope you and Leo are doing great!

  2. Well, I can see your priorities clearly here, dear Captain of the Hive Ship. So thanks for pausing in the creation of bee/sugar/vinegar cakes long enough to help me wrap a few packages and get them out to the opposable thumbs! You are a great beekeeper and I BELIEVE your bees will make it. Of course, I run on intuition rather than science and the no news is the only good news principle of dealing with many of the world’s crisis.

    • You are funny. 😉 I thank you for all your bee-encouragement through these years!

  3. Keep writing! I will be pulling sentry duty on my bees as we go through winter too. Let’s hope we got them ready enough.

    • Here’s to it Susan.

  4. I just found your website and subscribed to your newsletter. We recently moved to Bakersville where I am attempting to establish a “sortof” sustainable permaculture homestead on 1/2 acre of pure rock. Lots of fun!!

    Do you know of any organic/homestead local folks who meet to share their knowledge, experiences, etc?


    • Welcome Jackie! My previous homestead in the Ozarks was the rock/gravel sort too. Soil building it is then! I’m not aware of any organized local groups that meet but there’s LOTS of growing going on and I’ve found folks open to trading farm visits and talking that way. Also, the Organic Growers School coming up in March ( ) is the motherlode of info as well as making contact with folks. 🙂