Why Do Bees Disappear in the Winter?
It’s not something that people tend to think about often, but every creature has to face the winter, and each one will deal with it in a different way. Animals either stay put and confront the cold, migrate (leave), or hibernate (sleep until it’s over).
It’s not just birds that migrate. Some mammals, insects, and even reptiles choose to leave in search of warmer weather. Likewise, it’s not just bears that sleep the winter away.
What about bees? Their wings are much too small to carry them great distances, yet they’re not really built to survive the cold either. So what do they do when the cold sets in?
It’s quite simple when you think about it. Bees rely on flowers to survive, and flowers are usually seasonal. They blossom in spring and wither in fall, and the bees have no choice but to follow this pattern.
Bees work hard every day to make sure they have enough food to live on. When you see them buzzing about, it’s because they’re on the job—either scouting for food or foraging for it.
When winter comes, and the plants die away, bees are left with literally no reason to go outside. This is why you’ll be hard-pressed to find one in the cold.
Still, that explains why they vanish, but it still doesn’t answer the most interesting question: where do they go?
Do Bees Hibernate?
This depends on the type of bee. Some bees do hibernate, others only seem to.
To hibernate, by definition, means to go dormant throughout the winter. Animals that hibernate typically overeat before they sleep. This is to ensure that their body fat will last them (and keep them warm) for the entire duration of the cold months.
Some bees do hibernate. Our best example of this is the bumblebee, but even so, it’s only the queen bumblebee. The rest of the nest, unfortunately, don’t live long enough to feel the cold.
Honeybees and most solitary bees don’t hibernate. Instead, we call what they do “overwintering.” This means that they retreat into their hives to protect themselves from the cold, but they don’t sleep it out.
What’s the Difference?
Think of it like this—a bumblebee will have to fatten itself up to survive the cold (as if they weren’t already chubby). A honeybee has to stock up on supplies, because even though it’s not going to bed, it won’t be able to leave the nest to look for more.
Either way, whatever a bee takes with it before it closes up shop for the winter, is what it has to work with until spring returns. The only difference is that hibernating bees are not awake to experience winter, while overwintering bees most certainly are.
In the case of solitary bees, they face the winter alone. Honey bees (and other colonial bees) see each other through to warmer days, but the objective, as usual, is still to protect the queen above all else.
How Do Bees Survive the Cold?
You might be wondering how bees can last all through the winter, especially in colder countries where they are no match for the harsh conditions. A bee’s survival has everything to do with its life cycle, as most of its winter habits affect its spring behavior.
Bumblebees, as I mentioned, don’t live long enough to hibernate (except for the queens, of course). The last bumblebees to hatch in the summer are the queens. They go off to mate, then find a nest to hibernate. By the time this happens, the rest of the bumblebees in a nest have reached the end of their lifespan.
Once a bumblebee queen settles into a nest that is just big and safe enough for her, she goes into a state of dormancy. Her metabolism slows down to the point that she burns very little energy. Whatever food she has stored in her body will last all throughout the cold spell.
When spring returns, she wakes from her slumber and goes off to find a new nesting spot, where she lays her eggs and breeds a new colony. By the end of summer, new queens are born, have fledged and mated, and the cycle repeats itself.
Honeybees, on the other hand, don’t hibernate. They stay awake and busy throughout the winter, though not as busy as usual. Their winter habits are actually the sole reason why honey bees make honey in the first place.
Honey is a preservative. It won’t expire, and it keeps their pollen fresh enough to eat some months later. A fair amount of the foraging in spring and summer is in preparation for the cold. They’ll store what they can save in honeycomb cells, cap it with wax, and wait until they need it.
In winter, when resources are rationed, honeybee workers are known to force the drones out of the hive. This is because drones contribute nothing to hives. Their only purpose is to reproduce. When food is scarce, they become a waste of resources and energy, and are no longer welcome in the hive.
Often, they’re driven to their deaths. Colony bees, especially drones (since they cannot forage or sting) simply don’t have the means to survive on their own.
As for the rest of the colony, worker bees will huddle around the queen and brood to keep them warm, in much the same way that penguins share their warmth with each other. The colder it is, the closer they remain.
Honeybee workers do not have long lifespans though, and shortly after winter, the workers will die off and the queen will birth a new colony.
It’s difficult to say what solitary bees get up to in winter because there is much variety in species.
In general, solitary bees will overwinter in nests that they build for themselves and their newly laid eggs. Most solitary bees don’t live very long, though, and by the time these eggs hatch (in spring), they’re forced to fend for themselves.
This is just a general explanation. Some solitary bees live longer than others, and their lives (and overwintering habits) revolve around producing more workers. Others are fleeting and die after reproducing.
The winter habits of bees are diverse. Some bees, like bumblebees, hibernate. Others, like honeybees, overwinter for the sake of the colony. Solitary bees, who have no colony, may or not overwinter, depending on their life cycles.
To garner an exact understanding of the hibernation or overwintering behavior of bees, we would have to look at the exact species. One thing remains clear though—with all bees, their winter objective is to survive long enough to produce younger bees that will take over once they die.