In the summer months, it is not uncommon to see different species of bees fluttering about in parks, fields, and even backyards as they search for sources of food. But when the colder winter weather sets in, the bees seem to disappear. So, where do they go? Do they die off, or do they have a special hiding place that they disappear to when it gets cold?
What Happens to Bees When it Gets Cold?
Where bees go in the winter depends on the species of bee. Bumblebees usually die off before winter comes. The old queen, males, and workers have an annual lifecycle and once a new queen has been produced and has mated, she will hibernate during the winter months. The rest of the colony will die, and the new queen will burrow under a stone, log, or soft earth to stay warm and dry and avoid the frost. They tend to pick spots that are not in direct sunlight so that they do not emerge too early on, say, a sunny winter’s morning.
In warmer states, some bumblebee queens do not hibernate at all and will start a new nest once the old colony dies. This is known as an overwinter nest.
Things are different for honeybees. In the winter, honeybees retreat to the safety of their hive, and they will all gather in a huddle around the queen. The size of the colony in the winter is much smaller than it is in summer, with many of the worker bees having died off. Winter bees are those that have been born in the fall and have the specific job of keeping the colony alive during the winter. These bees are fed a very low pollen diet, which causes them to grow a large body with an enhanced metabolism and immune system. Winter bees live for six months instead of the usual six weeks that spring worker bees tend to live for.
Honeybees do not hibernate over winter. They stay awake and eat honey, with the winter bees working hard to keep the temperature of the hive steady. They do this by beating their wings, which then provides warmth inside the hive.
Like bumblebees, solitary bees also have a one-year lifespan. They spend their lives foraging for food and will lay eggs in a nest that they have built in a cavity or underground. The solitary bee will collect nectar and pollen and will gather it into a ball, which is designed to feed a growing bee. Once the solitary bee has laid the egg and gathered the food the larva will need, it will die off. The new adult bee will emerge from the hive the following spring or summer.
How Can We Help Bees Survive the Winter?
If you are worried about bees surviving the winter, there are things you can do to help. One of the best ways to help bees is to make your yard bee friendly. When preparing your yard for the winter, leave a few piles of leaves and twigs instead of raking and collecting it all. This will give solitary bees a place to hide and lay their eggs. It will also supply a shelter for hibernating bumblebees.
You can also grow some winter plants such as crocus and winter honeysuckle. The folk at Project Honey Bees, makers of bee jewelry that helps to fund bee conservation, say that ivy is another good plant to grow in the yard because it provides a shelter for bees from heavy rain downpours. And it can also offer a later source of nectar for some bees.