What happens to the bees when the weather grows cold, where do bees live and hibernate in winter, and how do they survive the low temperatures and stormy weather? We may still see bees around in the autumn on dry days, feeding from the flowers on ivy - hedera helix, and pollinating autumn raspberries (and other late crops). But what then - where do bees go in winter?
Given the many bee species in the world, there are of course, varied hibernating habits. In addition to which, one key factor is climate – in exotic locations, species may be active throughout the year. There remains sufficient abundance of the right kinds of foods to keep the bees active.
In cooler climates where there are far fewer flowers from which to feed in the winter, bees need to shelter from the weather and conserve their energy, until the flowers are blooming again.
In the UK and Europe, as autumn approaches, fewer species of bumblebee are seen foraging. The natural lifecycle of bumblebees means that most of the colony will die, and only the new bumblebee queens will survive. They will mate, and importantly, feed to build up fat reserves ready for their winter snooze (hibernation).
Hibernation sites vary, but it seems most bumblebee species prefer to nest in soil banks and slopes, and preferably in the shade or in a North West facing position (Goulson).
However, I have read reports of bumblebee queens being disturbed during their hibernation, because they have been found hibernating in a pot in the soft potting compost, or in a pile of wooden logs.
In the UK, Bombus Pascuorum, the Common Carder (pictured right), is one of the last of the species to emerge, and one of the last to enter hibernation.
In milder climates – and even in milder weather zones of the UK, bumblebees have been known to remain active through the winter, foraging on mahonias and exotic species of plants found in park lands.
In areas of South East Asia and South America, there are bumblebee species that have no annual life cycle as such. Instead, nests can be large, and even reach up to several thousand workers (Michener & Laberge 1954; Michener Amir 1977). In Brazil, the species Bombus incarum can produce as many as 2500 new males and queens in a single nest! (In the UK, colony size varies, but will perhaps reach 150 – 400 workers. Read more about British Bumblebees or Bumblebees of North and Central America).
The honey bee queen and workers huddle together to keep themselves warm during the winter months (by this time, there will be no males (drones) in the hive or nest).
In beekeeping, the beekeeper may insulate the hive. In the wild, however, honey bees may be
protected from the elements within the trunks of trees or caves. In the wild, honey bees have their honey to
sustain them (the honey is winter stores).
In some countries, again, bees are active all year, so that honey is essentially fuel for reproduction and swarming.
In countries such as the UK, with its cool winters, solitary bees, depending on the species, may hibernate as mature adults, or they may hibernate as larvae and mature the following year. Mining bees, such as the Ashy Mining Andrena cineraria, hibernate underground as adults in their natal cells.
bees are very tiny and may hibernate in hollow plant stems – something I
keen to remind gardeners of, as they begin to tidy up for the winter -
especially if they are thinking of burning the plant stems!
I encourage gardeners to leave the hollow plant stems until the following year, or if necessary, leave the stems in a corner of the garden out of the way. If you would like to help raise awareness of this fact, then feel free to share the image below on social media!
- Interestingly, according to the book The Bees In Your Backyard, not
all larvae of solitary species the emerge from the nest in the same year, and instead, they have a very long hibernation period! For example, whilst some Habroda species emerge from their 'nest' in the same year, others may remain
in the nest for up to 2 years – although the book also points out that some
species will delay emergence for 7 or even 10 years!
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