Where do Bees go in Winter?
Bumblebee queens have a yearlong lifespan. In late summer, these buzzers busy themselves with producing new broods of males and queens that will fly off and mate with bees from other nests. Once mated, the new queens begin the hunt for a dry, soft patch of soil to build a burrow after gorging themselves on pollen and nectar. This burrow is where the queens will hibernate for up to 9 months over the winter, surviving temperatures of down to -19°C.
Bumblebee queens emerge in late spring/summer and will then resume the laborious process of building a nest for her new brood. Old queens, workers and males won’t survive the winter.
You would be forgiven for believing that all bees hibernate, and in truth most do. But the reality is that some, in particular the famous honeybee, don’t sleep the winter months out in a padded nest. Instead, they perform an act known as overwintering, a feat far more special.
Towards the end of summer, much as hibernating bees would do, honeybee workers begin the process of stockpiling pollen to turn into stores of honey. When autumn arrives, the queen will produce new broods of ‘winter bees’ who are fatter in body than their summer sisters and have a much longer lifespan. While summer bees only live for 4-6 weeks, winter bees can live for up to 6 months.
As the days grow colder and shorter, the worker bees (female) throw drones (male) out of the hive where they are left to freeze overnight. This is because drones are next to useless over the winter months when the queen will produce little to no new broods, and therefore they will simply be a drain on vital food resources.
The next step for the colony is to buckle down in the hive and form a winter cluster around the queen to keep her warm. Every honeybee takes her turn on the outside of the cluster, vibrating to maintain temperatures of up to 30°C in the centre. On warmer days the cluster will become less dense allowing some bees to venture out of the hive and perform ‘cleansing flights’ and access water to mix with their honey as they cannot digest it in its pure state. Beekeepers will commonly leave stores of sugar syrup on top of their hives for the bees to access easily.
Then, come spring, the cluster will deform and the newly born summer workers will leave the hive once more to forage for pollen.
Solitary bees differ in species, and this means they all behave in unique ways over the winter months.
Most solitary bees have a lifespan of a year and will start the mating process soon after they emerge from their winter nests. The female will collect pollen continuously over summer and use it to fill carefully built cells within her chosen nesting spot. In each cell she will lay a single egg.
For some bees, such as mining bees, the eggs will hatch and grow into adults before summer is over and hibernate over winter. For others, like the Leafcutter bee and Wool Carder bee, the eggs will become larvae over winter within their nest cells and emerge the following spring as adults. Like caterpillars, some will also build a cocoon after consuming the nectar to house them until the warmer months.
Cuckoo bees are a subset of bee known as ‘kleptoparasites’. This means they invade the nests of other species to lay their eggs which will then hatch and take over the nest, similar to the behaviour of the cuckoo bird. In other words, they like to bee a nuisance.
Cuckoo bees are solitary bees and predate other species of bee. Their winter behaviour generally follows the pattern of the specific species they predate. For example, the Gooden’s Nomad bee will lay its egg in the nest of a mining bee. When the young Nomad hatches, it will kill the host bee or destroy the host eggs, and then live out the remainder of winter hibernating in its host’s nest and emerge the following spring.
Female cuckoo bumblebees take over bumblebee nests in the summer, killing the bumblebee brood and allowing bumblebee workers to rear their young. As autumn approaches, the new cuckoo bumblebees will leave the nest to mate. Females find a cosy spot to hibernate over winter.
How to bee friendly in winter:
- Build a log home.
When doing your final garden trimmings in autumn, try not to throw everything in the bin. Leave small piles of logs and shrubbery scattered around as these will create perfect hibernation spots for bumblebee queens. It is also worth noting that some bees like to make their nests in the hollow stems of dead plants, so be extra careful not to disturb these during your gardening process.
- Build a bee hotel.
These give solitary bees places to lay their eggs in spring and shelter their young over winter. It is best to put them up in spring, as this is when most solitary bees begin the nesting process. Of course, you can now buy bee hotels from most homeware stores across the country, but these are often unsuitable. This, however, is not a grave issue because there are many ways to make them from home.
Here’s a great example from the Wildlife Trusts on how to fashion your very own bee hotel:
This is a fantastic guide from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust on things to consider when placing a bee hotel in your garden: