Have you ever wondered what happens to bees and other insects in the winter? During the warm summer days, it’s easy to find these insects flying around all over. However, as temperatures start to drop, you’ll notice that you don’t see them so often. Bees are cold-blooded, so their body temperatures are similar to that of their environment. Since they can’t regulate these temperatures to stay warm, they employ strategies throughout their life cycles to generate heat and remain active.
Various bee species have unique ways of coping that match their life cycles. Depending on their species, bees could survive the winter by hibernating, overwintering, or other strategies. If you’ve wondered, “where do bees go for the winter?” you’ll find the answer here.
As mentioned earlier, various bee species in the insect world have different survival mechanisms. Like other insects, bees adapt to different winter habits when they notice the warm air fading.
For instance, in milder weather zones, you may find bumble bees active through the winter. This is primarily due to the climate affecting hibernating patterns. It’s an excellent example of the effect of climate change and milder climates on how bees survive.
Generally, most bees look for ways to stay warm as the summer and spring pass. Not all bees use hibernation as a way to survive the early winter and late winter.
However, some of them will hibernate through the winter underground. These bee types remain hidden in the long cold months. Here, they find dark spots where they become inactive and still. A typical example of a bee that exhibits this pattern to survive is the bumble bee. This species adopts true hibernation to survive the winter and prepare for the heat of the summer.
When bees go into a winter snooze, they seek shelter from the harsh winter. In many winter periods or cold climates, bees can’t find flowers to feed on to survive. As a result, they have to conserve energy for the heat and when flowers bloom in the spring and summer.
Apart from bumble bees, other types of bees like honey bees and solitary bees have different modes of survival when the temperature falls. Below, we’ll examine how solitary bees, honey bees, and bumble bees navigate winter periods. This includes how they prepare during the late summer before the weather begins to get cold and harsh for survival.
Several bee species protect themselves from the winter’s cold through a process called overwintering. Here, they stay in a particular place through the winter season and then later emerge in the early spring as the flowers begin to bloom again. Solitary bee species are best known for this behavior.
Most solitary bee species have a year life span. This translates into how they behave as the weather and seasons change from summer to winter and spring.
During their existence, the female bee will construct an underground nest or prepare a cavity to lay eggs. This nest serves as preparation for the winter to ensure the survival of the young. This is also part of the adult’s active season.
Afterward, the female will collect pollen and nectar to bring to the nest she has created. The nectar and pollen she has collected then form into a ball known as bee bread. This bee bread later serves as food for a young growing bee.
Back in the nest, the female bees lay eggs on the bee bread, and then she seals the nest up for protection. When the egg begins to hatch, the larva goes through a transformation as usual. This process entails moving from larva to pupa and then fully developed adults.
Afterward, this new bee adult emerges when the heat comes out, thereby surviving the winter. Interestingly, not all the young solitary bees come out of the nest in the same year. Some may remain in the nest through several winters before emerging. As a result, some of these bees will overwinter either as adults or as pupae.
After the solitary female bee works through the active season, which is usually a little over a month, she dies. However, she will have worked to leave enough food for the offspring, which helps them stay alive for the warm season.
Some bees, like Mason bees that are active in the early spring, have enough time to pupate in the hot weather. These species overwinter in cocoons as hibernating adults. Since some of the offspring will have less time to develop into adults, they end up overwintering as larvae. Regardless, these bee variants will usually come out of their nests around the same time of active periods as their parents. Subsequently, this process takes place over and over again.
For people who own gardens, it’s beneficial to know that solitary bees sometimes take shelter in hollow plant stems. Some of the species are quite tiny. As a result, it may be difficult to notice them immediately. Since many people tidy up their plant stems in preparation for the winter, it’s essential to pay attention. This will prevent destroying beneficial bee nests.
Just like various bee variants, honey bees exhibit different behavior in warm and cold climates. Typically, their behavior targets the colony's survival while protecting the queen.
In hotter environments or climates, honey bees will most likely be active throughout the year in hotter environments or climates. Here, their stored honey functions as fuel for reproduction in the colony. On the other hand, when the honey bee is in a colder region, it becomes less active. Unlike other species like solitary bees, the honey bee doesn’t necessarily become dormant or inactive.
So, where do honey bees go in winter? Once the temperatures fall, and the insects can sense a change, the honey bee queen and worker bees come together. Usually, this behavior from the queen and workers happens when the temperature moves below 10°C1.
After spending all summer and fall foraging, female worker bees gather food reserves for the colony. These reserves are created to last them for the entire winter season.
The queen bee and worker bees huddle together and shiver their wings. The shivering process provides warmth for their cluster.
We can also refer to this as the winter cluster or thermo-regulating cluster. Winter bees, as they are sometimes also called, tend to be fatter, with more food stores to last the cold months.
The purpose of the cluster shivers is to protect the queen and ensure the entire colony's survival. The temperature within the hive can sometimes reach 97°F as the bees vibrate their wing muscles for warmth2.
The order is as follows: the young bees move towards the middle of the cluster while the older worker bees stay outside. As mentioned, they move their wings in a shivering pattern that begins to generate heat in the hive. The bees also have hairs on their bodies that support trapping heat. Collectively, this helps to create even more warmth for survival.
As part of their behavior, as the weather or season gets cooler, the bees form even tighter clusters for the survival of the colony. A honey bee colony with adequate food storage will most likely survive the harsh weather and enable them to emerge in spring.
Bumble bees are a type of colony-dwelling species with a life span of one year. They usually live in large cavities or underground. During summer, the female and male bees hatch and leave their individual colony for mating purposes.
When autumn approaches, you’ll find fewer species of the bumble bee foraging. As a result of their natural lifecycle, most of the bees in the colony end up dying, leaving only the new queens alive. Before this, the worker and male bees from the reigning session will die when the temperature drops.
Bumble bees have a level of tolerance for cold but will freeze when the temperature drops below -7.1°C. On the other hand, the new queens find a resting place where they hibernate over the winter period. As mentioned earlier, this usually happens underground.
The queen will feed to build up fat reserves, ready for survival and to prepare for hibernation. Hibernation sites also vary, and some species prefer tree bark. Due to disturbances while hibernating, they may also change their spots for rest. This makes the newly mated queens the only surviving members of the parent colony. They are capable of surviving on their own, unlike some other species.
After locating a site, the queen plays two roles. She must create and protect the nest while also foraging for the few offspring. If she’s able to make it through this phase, she then stays inside the nest to focus on laying eggs. When spring arrives, the surviving queens emerge from their sites. They usually come out when the temperature indicates that it’s safe to create a new community.
Due to climate change effects, bumble bees’ hibernating patterns are changing. Since some winters are getting warmer, some species stay active in milder areas. They then forage through the season. As a result, it disrupts resource utilization and the bees’ colony structure. Adverse weather is also one of the reasons some bees are now endangered.
Bees exhibit different survival strategies when the weather changes. This ranges from hibernation to overwintering and depends on the species. Since it’s crucial to protect bee diversity, it’s helpful to understand their behavior and habitat requirements.
Calovi, M., Grozinger, C.M., Miller, D.A. et al. Summer weather conditions influence winter survival of honey bees (Apis mellifera) in the northeastern United States. Sci Rep 11, 1553 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-81051-8
Britannica. (n.d.). Thermoreception in Invertebrates
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.