Posts Tagged ‘cleansing flights’

Winter bee cluster. Photo courtesy of Steven's Bees.

Winter bee cluster. Photo courtesy of Steven’s Bees.

The cold temperatures have finally set in here in Seattle, causing my bees to go into cluster mode. If you’ve seen “March of the Penguins” then you can imagine kind of what it looks like inside the hives right now. The bees have amassed into a ball, with the queen in the center. The ball is constantly churning as the bees on the outer edges move towards the warm center. They displace the warm center bees who move to the outside and begin to work their way back in. In this fashion, the bees all get a turn at being warm.

Like other insects, bees are cold-blooded. So, how are they generating heat during these cold days?  Unlike other insects, honey bees do not hibernate nor do they die during the winter (if all goes well, at least). Instead, they eat their honey stores and use that energy to power their flight muscles. Without flying, they “shiver” their way through winter, generating heat like little bee-sized space heaters.

All of this heat-producing work is done by special “winter bees” who were reared at the end of summer. Unlike summer bees that live for 45(ish) days, winter bees will live for 4-6 months. Winter bees are physiologically distinct from summer bees, with fatter bodies to sustain them through the cold. They will never forage nor make honey. Their sole job is to get the hive through the winter.

Since the bees are eating and working, they have other biological needs that must be attended to. Warm days of 50 degrees or higher prompt the bees to make “elimination runs” or “cleansing flights.” Being the hygienic little animals that they are, the bees “hold it” until they have a chance to leave the hive. After a long cold snap, it can get quite crowded on the landing board on the first nice day.

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