Ever Wonder How Bees Survive Through Winter?

Every bee species has developed its own distinct way to thrive and survive in winter. Here are examples including bumblebees and carpenter bees.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Lisa Zins/Flickr

As the first snow of the year falls outside my window, I think of the silence and stillness of the natural world during this time of year. It’s easy to hear the sounds of summer if we think of them: the humming and buzzing of life in the air around the flowers. But what happens to bees, wasps and butterflies? We know Monarchs migrate south, we know our honeybees cluster tightly into their winter bee ball, and we know that a good number of summer insects perish simply because their life cycle comes to an end. So how do they reappear each spring? Many bee species depend on the strength, creativity and tenacity of their queens to ensure the survival of their species.

Bumblebee queens bear the full responsibility of their species on their little fuzzy shoulders each winter. Before temperatures get dangerously low, the queen buries herself in winter burrows, under leaf litter and rocks, and between logs. Like the yellow jacket queen, she will emerge in the spring to lay eggs and continue the species. In very mild climates, or in moderate climates with a spontaneous mild winter here or there, bumblebees can sustain their colonies to live year-round and boost their numbers. While this has been wonderful for increasing bumblebee populations overall, it’s a concerning result of trending climate change that is turning winters warmer than usual.

The carpenter bee queen mates in the fall and immediately works to find shelter for the winter. These bees are named for their preference of drilling holes into wood to make nests, which are easy to spot. They leave holes in home decks in addition to little piles of sawdust, much to homeowners’ dismay. The queen drills her nest a few inches deep into the wood then lays her eggs. The eggs are sheltered from the winter in the home she provides, and the bees emerge as adults in the spring.

Like carpenter bees, the hornfaced bee is another solitary species. Like the honeybee, the hornfaced bee lives for only about six weeks in the height of summer. But in the way they face the winter, these bees are very different. Hornfaced bees don’t have a single queen; all females mate and lay eggs. Each female will make her own nest in the beginning of summer, where she lays her eggs and fills it with pollen. The eggs hatch into larvae, which consume the food stores their mother left for them. When the food supply is gone, the larvae spin a cocoon and remain inactive there through the summer. In the fall, each larva molts into pupa and rides out the winter as an adult. They emerge in spring fully grown.

Each bee has developed ingenious techniques to survive and thrive from the mildest weather to the harshest climates. We hope they continue to do so amidst changes to our weather patterns and destruction of their habitats. Homeowners and gardeners can do their part to protect bee populations by eliminating use of chemical sprays and encouraging neighbors and municipalities to do the same. The home gardener can also leave some overwintered leaf litter as winter habitats for bees and other insects. It might not look like much to you, but it can mean survival for your bees.

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