Bees in the Snow

Bees that died in the snow, December 23, 2021.

New beekeepers (and some of us old ones) worry when we see ‘lots’ of bees in the snow during winter. The black dots (above) are frozen stiffs – bees that left their hive and didn’t make it back. To me, this is a really sad sight, but not a disturbing one.

If we assume that northern hemisphere honey bee colonies drop their populations from 30,000 bees in late October to 15,000 in late February, that’s over one hundred dead bees every day. We’d much rather see them outside the hive than piled up on the bottom board. One might argue that the dead bees in front of the hive might have lived all winter. Perhaps they were otherwise healthy bees looking for winter flowers. That’s possible. It’s also possible that these were weakly bees taking cleansing flights (honey bees will not defecate inside their hive unless the entire colony is weak and dying). The poor insects were not strong enough to make it home after visiting the bushes.

Regardless the cause, a few dozen bees in the snow does not generally mean trouble for the wintering colony. More worrisome is a prolonged cold spell (Calgary, where these colonies live in my backyard, is at the beginning of two weeks of minus 20s). When it’s especially cold, the bees don’t even try to fly out to exercise their monthly constitution. That’s when we should worry.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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5 Responses to Bees in the Snow

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always believed the older bees eat more and create heat….when they’re full they make their end of life exit. Had farmers in SK phone and tell me they’re coming out and being lost in the snow….always told them that was a good sign…..things were normal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Bees in the Snow - One-Bee-Store

  3. The Apiarist says:

    Hello Ron
    I’ve often wondered whether undertaker bees still operate in the midwinter. I can’t remember seeing them, but haven’t looked carefully. There may not be any suitably-aged bees to act as undertakers and/or the corpses might not produce sufficient volatiles to make them recognisable. We’re in the middle of a cold period here (though not Calgary cold) so I’ll go and look on the next warmer flying day.
    With Best Wishes for Christmas and the Season ahead,

    PS Enjoyed reading Langstroth (again) today as well …


    • Ron Miksha says:

      That’s a great point. At least some of the dead bees may have been dumped outside the hive by other bees. I don’t know if they do this on mild winter days, but likely they would. (Not today though, the high is minus 24!)
      Thanks for the note – and Best of the Holidays to you!


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