Curious Nature: What happens to bees during the winter? You wouldn’t beelieve it
Walking Mountains Science Center
Why not take a little time today to learn about these amazing animals that we see in our backyard and nature — bees. When we hear the word “bee,” our mind usually pictures honey bees flying from flower to flower. However, there are many other types of bees that we might see in our garden without knowing what they are.
In the Eagle River Valley alone, there are about 100 species of bees. Across Colorado, there are 946 species of bees, with over 20 thousand species (and counting) described worldwide.
Most people know about the importance of bees and what they do during the flowering season. However, few know how they survive the rigorous winter in the valley or what they do during this harsh season. As we now know, there are about 100 species of bees in our county alone and different types of bees survive the lack of food, low temperatures, and snow-covered ground in different ways.
During late fall and winter, worker honey bees (females) expel the drones (males) from the hive to save food. This is because drones do not forage for food, and workers are not able to collect much nectar or pollen during the cold season. The queen stops laying eggs during the winter, and the lifespan of workers extends from 3-6 weeks to 3-6 months. The workers cluster together around the queen to keep her warm. They vibrate their wings quickly, producing heat, and take turns staying on the outside and inside of the cluster. Honey bees may also forage on warm days during the cold season.
Bumblebees have annual life cycles, and only the new queens survive the winter. The old queens, workers, and males die due to low temperatures. Just before the start of winter, the new queens mate with the males and look for a safe place to hibernate. Their hibernation nests are usually found in the banks of north-facing slopes, well-drained soil, under logs, rocks, and abandoned burrows. These places often protect them from emerging early due to warm winter days. Such locations also protect against flooding, predators, and extreme temperatures. After winter, the queens find a place to lay their eggs and start a new colony.
Solitary bees are very different from honey bees and bumblebees. The adults have limited contact with each other, and the female adults do not have contact with their offspring. During the summer, adult females construct nests inside cavities or burrows. These nests are divided into cells.
The females prepare a “bee bread” (a mixture of pollen and nectar) and lay one egg inside each cell then seal them with waterproof secretions to avoid dampening. Depending on the species of solitary bee, the young will spend the winter in their cells as larvae, pupae, or as new adults in a state of torpor (similar to hibernation). The old adults do not survive the winter. When spring comes, the new adults will leave their cells, mate, and build nests for the next generation.
Now that we know some of the strategies bees use to get through the winter, what can we do to increase their chances of survival? Some of the advice given by “Friends of the Earth” are: plant winter-flowering plants (pansies, periwinkle, henbit), avoid digging in the garden during the winter (bumblebees and solitary bees might nest there), leave dead stems, wildflowers, and debris in your garden (to provide possible nests), move your bee hotel to a cool, dry place (like a shed), and create a bee-friendly habitat in your garden (log pile, rock, or earth bank in a north-facing area). Don’t forget to bee kind this winter and help our bees survive during this cold season.
Renata Araujo is the EVOM coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She has been passionate about bees since she took a beekeeping course with her dad in 2008.
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