Every bee is different, and their winter behavior varies according to a number of factors, including their species, life cycle, and social structure. One thing remains the same no matter what, though—bees have to combat the cold just like everyone else.
Why Are There No Bees in Winter?
There’s a reason why we say “busy as a bee.” Bees are not lazy creatures at all, to the point that they spend most of their short lives working. It doesn’t matter if it’s a honey bee, solitary bee, colony bee, or what have you—one thing I’ve noticed in studying them, is that each bee’s life revolves around reproducing in some way or another.
In colony bees, life centers around the queen bee—who is seen as the mother of the entire hive. Worker bees spend their lives taking care of her and the brood, to make sure that the colony will stand strong. Potential queens are given special preference, and the drones (males) have no other purpose than to mate.
Solitary bees don’t live in groups, but they have the same mindset. Their main goal is to mate, settle, and breed new solitary bees.
What does this have to do with their winter habits? Well, everything.
Bees spend their busiest months—spring and summer—mating, foraging, and settling, so that they can lay their eggs in a safe and comfortable spot, to continue their beelines. The reason they do this is that they feed on nectar and pollen—both produced by flowering plants in these seasons.
When the plants wither in fall and winter, bees can no longer feed off of them. Instead, they make sure they have enough supplies to last through the cold, and retreat into their nests to see it through.
So where do they go, and what do they do in that time?
Do Bees Hibernate or Migrate?
It’s not silly to think that bees migrate. Many animals do, including other insects, like some beetles, dragonflies, and even butterflies. Since bees are pollinators, it makes perfect sense that they would follow the flowers, but they don’t.
Just because bees stay put in winter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they go into hibernation. Some bees (like bumblebees) do hibernate. Others don’t. Instead they “overwinter” or hide away until it’s over.
The difference between the two is this:
Hibernation specifically means that a creature will sleep the winter away. They feed more than usual to conserve fat and energy in their bodies and then fall into a state of dormancy. In this time they don’t work, they don’t mate, they don’t feed, they don’t do anything, except rest and wait until it’s warm.
Overwintering means that the creature is still awake and somewhat active, but they stay at home. They’ll prepare for the winter by stocking up on resources so they don’t have to leave their habitat.
Most bees overwinter instead of hibernating. What they get up to in that time is interesting, and just goes to show how determined bees are when it comes to survival.
What Do Bees Do When It’s Cold?
The simple answer is that whether or not bees hibernate, what they get up to in winter is survive. You’re probably looking for more information than that though. So—to elaborate—what a bee does during winter depends on its type and life cycle.
Honeybees overwinter. Worker bees are responsible for everything except reproduction in a colony, so the success of a hive overwintering depends on how well the workers prepare for it.
In their active months, workers will collect enough food to see them through the cold. They use some of the nectar that they forage to make honey, and then they use the honey to preserve their pollen.
They store this “bee bread” in honeycomb cells and tap into it when resources are scarce, like in winter.
As for their behavior, a honey bee’s winter focus is exactly the same as in spring and summer—to take care of the queen and the brood.
To stay warm, honey bees huddle together, with the queen and the young in the center, where they will receive the most warmth. The size of the huddle, and how close they snuggle, depends on how cold it is. On warmer days, the huddle won’t be as tight.
Honey bee workers are serious about survival, and if they don’t have enough resources to last the winter, they will force the drones (who serve no purpose at this point) out of the hive. Drones don’t have the means to survive on their own and are led to their deaths by this action.
In general, honeybees (except for the queens) have very short life spans. Most of the workers won’t live to see winter, and the ones that do will die shortly after spring returns if winter itself doesn’t kill them.
Bumblebees have a much simpler approach to winter—sleep it away. Still, only queen bumblebees hibernate. The rest of the nest won’t live to see winter.
After mating, a bumblebee queen will fill up on resources, find a nest that’s big and comfortable enough for her and settle into it. She then goes into a state of dormancy. Her metabolism lowers to its minimum, so she burns almost no energy. Whatever resources she has reserved are enough to see her through.
At the dawn of spring, she’ll awaken and find a new nest where she can lay her eggs. So begins a new bumblebee colony, and the cycle will repeat.
Solitary bees, on the other hand, don’t have one method of surviving winter. They’re known to overwinter, but how they do so varies from species to species.
Generally speaking, solitary bees will settle into nests (like bumblebee queens) that are big enough to house them and their stored resources. Some solitary bees will find nests that can hold their eggs or larvae as well.
Solitary bees, however, have very short lifespans and by the time spring arrives, they begin to die off. At this point, new eggs have hatched or fledged, and these bees take over reproduction from the older, dying ones.
Do Winter Bees Exist?
Yes, but not in the way you might think. Is there a special type of bee that is most active during the cold months? Not as far as we know. But bees who overwinter, mostly colony bees like the honeybee, are referred to as winter bees.
Winter bees live slightly longer than summer bees, and their role in the hive is much different. They’re not foragers or scouts and are often fatter and fuzzier, to provide more warmth to the queen.
Bees still exist in winter, they’re just hidden away. Their means of survival depends on their social behavior, species, and life cycle. Most of them prepare for winter and make sure that the young will thrive when spring returns.
Since bees are pollinators, their habits revolve around the availability of flowers. Since almost all flowers die off in winter, it makes sense that bees won’t come out to find them.