Bumble bees hibernate, honey bees do not

Although honey bees and bumble bees are closely related, their winter behavior is very different.

A colony of honey bees will live throughout the entire winter, actively keeping the nest warm and safe. Although a winter colony is much smaller than a summer colony, it will nevertheless contain thousands of individuals. They eat and work all winter long–activity which requires a large cache of stored food.

Bumble bees do not maintain colonies throughout the winter. Instead, the last brood of the summer colony will contain a number of queens. Each of these queens will mate and then find a nest in which to overwinter. She alone will hibernate until spring.

While the bumble bee queen hibernates she is neither eating nor working. Her depressed rate of metabolism allows her to live for long periods while burning very little fuel.

In the spring, she must work hard. She begins by finding a suitable nesting spot. Next she builds a “honey pot” from wax and will use it to hold a small store of honey. She will also collect pollen, and make a pile of pollen mixed with honey called “bee bread.”

Here is where it gets weird. Much like a chicken, the queen bumble bee will lay her eggs on the pollen and then sit on them to keep them warm. During the development of the young bumble bees, the queen will eat the honey she stored in her pot.

The first batch of young bees will be mostly workers—bees who can take over the household chores and foraging while the queen continues to lay eggs. Later in the season, she will lay some eggs that become queens and drones. These bees will be the ones that are responsible for the next generation.

This life cycle is found in bumble bees throughout the temperate regions of the world. Some tropical bumble bees may have small colonies that survive for several years since there is no need to hibernate.

Not sure if you are seeing a honey bee or a bumble bee? This page my help!

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Bumble bee on clover. Photo by the author.
Bumble bee on clover. Photo by the author.

Comments

Emily
Reply

The information is good, but I want to know is there a certain place for the bees to hibernate.

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

Only the queen bumble bee hibernates over winter and she does it in a small nest in the ground, often in a hole made by a mouse or vole. In the early spring, she begins to lay eggs in there and starts a family of many (female) worker bees and a few (male) drones.

Michael
Reply

I’m here in Chignik, Alaska and we have bumble bees buzzing around, and I had to find out if they hibernated, they would have to here, the winter is long and brutal. Thanks for the info

Paul brimicombe
Reply

Walked into a lot of honey bees and learnt something new. They don’t hibernate.

Linda
Reply

I’ve found 4 large queen bumblebees on my bedroom window sill, obviously have come out of hibernation early due to the mild spell and probably been feeding on my winter flowering honeysuckle. It’s now freezing outside… I’d hate them to die….what is the best thing to do? At the moment I have them in a large jar with some sprigs of the honeysuckle in it, in a cool place in my house.

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

This is so, so sad. The problem is these queen bumble bees need to forage, build nests, and start to raise brood. But the warm weather brought them out when there is little food available—not much pollen or nectar—and while there is still the danger of freezing. Once out of hibernation there is very little chance of them surviving under these conditions.

Bumble bees are unique in that they have internal thermoregulation that allows them to forage in very cold temperatures. But still, if it is too early for the bulk of the flowers, they will die.

You can probably keep them alive for a few days, but they are wild animals that need to do what nature intended. Without that chance they will probably succumb.

I’m glad you wrote about this; people need to know what is happening to the environment worldwide. I’ve heard more “warm weather” stories this year than ever before.

Linda
Reply

I know! :( I’ve had to make the hard decision to give them a chance to return to the wild…..obviously living indoors in a jar is no answer and if they lived on and laid eggs I’d have worker bumblebees everywhere in my house lol!

I’ve found a very big plastic container and lined it with polystyrene and shredded paper, and put the jar inside with the opening facing inside. Put some dry soil and leaves in there plus a sponge soaked in 50/50 sugar/water mix and more sprigs of the honeysuckle. It’s in a very sheltered spot on my garden under the winter flowering honeysuckle and covered with cardboard and more dry soil. My theory being they may be able to find their way back to where they came from, but if not, at least they will have some protection to at least give them a chance. I’m still hoping I may see some offspring later in the year.

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

I’m impressed. That’s about the most someone could do to give them a fighting chance. You obviously know a lot about bumble bees. Best of luck and please let me know what happens.

Linda

I don’t! I just googled to try to find out what the best thing was that I could do . . .it said they usually use holes left by mice etc. and the sugar water mix was the nearest thing to their natural food, so I just tried to simulate that and add a bit more insulation as the weather has suddenly turned extremely cold. (I’m in Southern UK BTW.)

Once the cold spell is over, they will have plenty of food from that bush . . . it swarms with bees and birds from Feb onwards; it’s joy to see them enjoying it so much . . . Maybe I should have put a coloured mark on “my” bumblebees to see if they make it!

I’ll be checking their hideaway though so will let you know if they stay or go.

Thanks for your support!

Rusty

Linda,

I knew you were in the UK based on your ip address, but I didn’t know which part. Everything you read about bumbles is correct. I’m glad to hear your spring starts early (at least by my standards). That means if you can get them through the cold snap, they have a fighting chance.

On behalf of the bees, thank you so much for making this effort! We need more of you.

Linda
Reply

Thank-you Rusty!

I’d read a few years ago that bumble bees are rapidly falling in numbers, so I was very surprised to find 4 of them all at the same time, so had to try to do something.

I’m now thinking that the mass of small bees (they are shaped and coloured like bumble bees but much smaller . . . also make a lot of noise!) on my bush in the spring are the worker females, would that be right? I’m normally wary of wasps and bees if they fly at me as I’m hypersensitive to wasp stings, but these little ones took absolutely no notice of me when I was in the garden right next to them pegging out the washing!

I reckon they have a nest nearby due to the early spring food source, now I think about it I have noticed an odd bumble bee hovering around there on the milder days in winter.

In case anyone else is interested this is the bush I have:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lonicera_fragrantissima

Now just need to keep my fingers crossed for them!

Rusty
Reply

Linda, if they look like bumble bees they probably are. The queens are much larger than the workers and I have read that there can be a great variability in bumble bee size, even from the same nest.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty, and Linda – what a fascinating story. Any chance of pictures? I’d like to know how to recognize a bumble bee queen.

Also, about your winter-flowering honeysuckle – do you know the species name? And Rusty, any thoughts about whether it would be a good idea to plant one here? My thought was that if it is warm enough for them to fly out, I could have something blooming near the hives. But we have roadsides covered with Amur honeysuckle and it is definitely crowding out native growth, and we do not need any more invasive species.

My bees have been out and about in our warm spell, which is ending today. At least it is raining, so they won’t be caught away from the hive. My greatest fear was that the water maples would start blooming, and they would start harvesting, and either be caught out when it turns cold, or bring in nectar that they’d be unable to condense when they went back into cluster.

It is going from near 70, down to 30 by night. And luckily, the maple buds are still tight. Best of luck to your bumble bees: they are among my valued pollinators, for tomato and eggplant.
Nan

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

Oddly enough, Linda anticipated your request. I haven’t checked it out yet, but I will.

Linda
Reply

Thanks Nancy!

The queens just look like bumble bees but are much bigger and chunkier’ my ladies were all a good one and a half inches long. Not sure how I first thought they would be queens but when I checked out the life-cycle I read that only the queens over winter so that confirmed it.

There is some blurb about the bush on the link. Left to grow wild, it can be a pain, but I cut mine right back in the spring after it’s flowered and it’s stayed manageable. I get a lot of tits nesting in it too, as the branches grow quite intertwined and they seem to love the nectar or sap from the flowers . . . they spend a lot of time looking as if they are running their beaks up and down the stems anyway!

It’s very easy to propagate. A friend of mine gave me a stem which he just stuck in a pot and it rooted quickly, but it was about 4 years before it started flowering. The flowers come out before the leaves and the scent is amazing! Mine has been flowering now since just after Christmas . . . that’s about a month earlier than usual.

I had a quick peek in my “bumblebee house” today, couldn’t see them so they may have gone home, but it was very cold last night so they may have buried themselves at the back in the soil . . . I wasn’t going to risk disturbing them, so will just wait and see.

Sharon
Reply

Just want to know what to do with a bumble bee that we found on our hearth, looks like she’s come from out of the chimney we guess, we know she should be in full hibernation, in a jar at mo with lid with holes in, and paper, shes resting on that, but not practical, was going to put her in a nest box in garden thats got a nest in for her to hide in, but not sure, we love all wildlife so want to do the right thing, any suggestions please.

Rusty
Reply

Sharon,

Another reader had four bumble bees arrive on her porch and this is what she did:

“I’ve found a very big plastic container and lined it with polystyrene and shredded paper, and put the jar inside with the opening facing inside. Put some dry soil and leaves in there plus a sponge soaked in 50/50 sugar/water mix and more sprigs of the honeysuckle. It’s in a very sheltered spot on my garden under the winter flowering honeysuckle and covered with cardboard and more dry soil. My theory being they may be able to find their way back to where they came from, but if not, at least they will have some protection to at least give them a chance. I’m still hoping I may see some offspring later in the year.”

I would do something along that line. Put some nesting material in the jar and bury it sideways in the soil and cover with leaf litter. Leave a small entrance tunnel and perhaps a little sugar water. It’s hard to know what to do when they come out of hibernation early.

Sharon
Reply

Thanks Rusty, we will try that, hope snow gone a bit more for tomorrow, thanks again.

Jeff
Reply

Hey there,

Seattle Wa, here. I have noticed that when I bring wood in for my fireplace that an odd bee or two will wake up from hibernation. Does that make these queen bees? Is there any saving them at this point?

Jeff

Rusty
Reply

Hi Jeff,

It depends on what kind of bee it is. In bumble bees, only the queen overwinters. But in many other species of native bees both the males and the females overwinter in the pupa or adult stage. In most cases, the males emerge first and hang around waiting for the females so they can mate. When bees emerge early there is little to be done for them. There is probably insufficient pollen and nectar for them and, even under the best of circumstances, the average active life span is only a few weeks.

Once they leave their burrows, they don’t go back in; and even if they did, there is no food for them in there. Unusually warm weather in late winter is hard on the wild bees.

terry
Reply

Do all bees make honey? If I find a nest this year will it still be in the same place next year?

Rusty
Reply

Terry,

Honey bees are the major producers of honey. There are several different species of honey bee in different parts of the world, and they all make honey. Bumble bees actually make a little honey, but a very tiny amount, just enough for the baby bees. In tropical areas, stingless bees also make honey.

If you are referring to a bumble nest, it probably will not be in the same place next year. If you are referring to feral honey bees, the nest might be in the same place the next year.

Linda
Reply

Just a quick up-date, as you asked me to let you know…..we’ve just had 3 milder, sunnier days and today my bush is swarming with little bumble bees! So even if they are not from my “ladies” I rescued….the bumble bees live on in my garden! :)

Rusty
Reply

That’s really good news, Linda. Thanks for letting me know.

Megan Hollingsworth
Reply

I am in Livingston, MT and swear I have not yet seen one bee of any sort! ?!?!?!?! I am missing them…and so troubled in their absence this year… ???

George J Gruen
Reply

Hi Rusty. It is a nice article you put on your HP, just write what you know, not what you think you know. Her honey storage is not made from wax; it looks brown like a small potato and tears like paper. Her larva hatches in that small honey filled paper ball. As a child I stoll their nest ball :-(

Best regards,
George.

George J Gruen
Reply

Did you know that a drone has no father? There isn’t one in the colony. Only the mother of the bees and drones are there. It not only sounds strange, but it is a true fact that a male bee has no father. He has only a grandfather. But don’t get this wrong. It’s not the way you may think. Nature has many surprises. This is one of them.

The queen collects the sperm in her body. It’s her option to choose which egg gets fertilized. The queen bee lays and fertilizes all female eggs. Male eggs don’t get fertilized by her.

All female honeybees have stingers just for fending off intruders. Male bees (drones) have no stinger. The queen uses her stinger only to fight a rival queen to death. If you are holding a queen loosely in your fist she will not sting your hand, but honeybees will sting you.

Bees are not complicated, but have more unimaginable surprises,

Best regards,
George J Gruen

shaun
Reply

I have a bee’s nest in my loft. The hole where they come in and out is at the back of the house. The house is having work done on it and is empty apart from the builders in the day. The hole is roof height, so not sure which bee this is. Can someone please advise on what action needs to be taken?

I am in the UK . . .Derbyshire

Rusty
Reply

Shaun,

The very first thing you have to do is figure out what it is. It could be a bee; it could be a wasp. Get a net and catch one, then show it to a beekeeper or send me a photo. There is no best way to handle it unless you know what it is.

Rebecca
Reply

My 6 year old wants to know how bees know their jobs?

Lee wod
Reply

What is it with bees? They sting and are all over my garden—big bumble bees. I can’t park properly cos of them?

Rusty
Reply

Lee,

Maybe your inability to park properly has nothing to do with bees. Just saying. At any rate, bees are what make your garden work. Gardens without bees do not prosper. By they way, did they really sting you? Or are just afraid they might?

Beverly
Reply

Rusty

We have a large bee’s nest in a bush in our back yard the size of a very large football that small children and pets play around and we need to know how to get rid of it before someone gets hurt.

Rusty
Reply

Beverly,

Based on your brief description, it sounds like wasps, not bees. The first thing to do is identify for sure what it is.

kelly
Reply

Hi.

For the second year running when digging up a very late patch of veg (mostly potato both years) I have found at least 4 – 5 very large bees. They are all curled up and when disturbed in the soil they begin buzzing and don’t look very happy. (I have tried to recover them.) I managed to get a good look at one and can only describe it as a larger than a regular bee about an inch or so, with quite a fat bottom which was pulsating?

Can anyone advise me what they are, why they are there and what is best to do?

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Kelly,

You don’t say where you are writing from, so I can’t narrow things down (Although, I would guess Great Britain, based on English.) Anyway, just for starters, there are about 20,000 species of bee worldwide, so it’s hard to know which is the “regular” one.

I can tell you that of those 20,000 species, at least 70% of them live underground. When you dug them up, they were probably in a resting or hibernating phase preparing for emergence next spring. Many hibernate as pupae, but some as adults. They “don’t look very happy” because they probably cannot survive being dug up at this time of year.

There are also many wasps that live in a similar fashion, and look very much the same as bees, and they don’t fall in the same group with the 20,000 bee species. In fact, I recall there are about 100,000 wasp species. Because of the vast numbers, I can’t even guess what you might have.

There is really not much you can do except re-bury them in the same soil type and the same depth and hope for the best.

Derek
Reply

I’ve been growing bee attractors in my garden in KANSAS (zone 6)… Things like passion fruit vine and sun flowers… Something I have noticed recently are that the bumble bees occasionally stop and rest on the passion flower for five to ten minutes… They just take a nap or relax on the flower… The ones I see doing this usually have huge loads of pollen on their backs and backs of their legs.

I have seen a dramatic decrease in the honeybee population in the past two years. So, I am hoping to keep my bumble bees, parasitic wasps, and feral bees happy (because hand pollination really sucks).

Rusty
Reply

Derek,

Here’s a short article about how honey bees sleep: http://www.honeybeesuite.com/do-honey-bees-sleep-of-course-they-sleep/. I’m sure it is similar with all bees. Also, I often find bees asleep in flowers in the early morning, covered with dew. These are usually males because in most native bee populations, the males are not allowed back into the nest.

Toni
Reply

I have a bees nest in my roof. They have entered through a small hole where wasps got in to form a nest 3 years ago. I want the hole filled in and have been told that they should now have died but how can I be sure? I am afraid of more bees being hatched there next year and finding an exit into the house.

Rusty
Reply

Toni,

You don’t say where you live or what kind of bee lives there. If they are honey bees, they will probably stay there until you take them out or until the colony dies. If they are a type of wasp, and if it will soon be cold where you live, they will die when the weather turns cold. The same is true for bumble bees. Are insects flying in and out of the hole? That would be a good clue. Other than that, I don’t have enough information to give you an answer.

karen
Reply

Hi, Rusty. I live in downtown Toronto on a ravine and I recently have noticed quite large bumble bees frequenting my terrace for the tall purple flowers I planted this summer and they absolutely love them. The flowers are nearing their end and I would love to put out more for the bees. Are there any particular fall plants/flowers that would be of interest to the bumble bees? Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Just about anything in the Asteraceae family, including goldenrod. Heirloom species are better than hybrids for attracting bees.

Heather
Reply

Hi, lovely blog/site thank you. I have what I think is one bumble bee queen crawling in my conservatory, I think she is looking for somewhere to hibernate indoors. I am in Milton Keynes England and wondering if I should find somewhere to help her sleep.

Many thanks

Rusty
Reply

Hi Heather,

She really needs to find a place outside in the ground. Bumble bee queens spend the winter by themselves in just a small tunnel. The best you can do for her, I think, is to put her outside in a protected spot. Even though the conservatory is protected, it is probably not the best environment for her. You can even poke some holes in the ground with a pencil or similar item and see if she is interested.

Linda
Reply

I agree, I think she has probably just lost her way. Luckily it’s not too cold yet here in the U.K. so probably the best thing is to encourage her to find a safe spot in the garden. You could try putting a small blob of cotton wool soaked in sugar and water to entice her into the hole…..she should be able to do the rest. Good Luck!

Heather
Reply

Thank you Linda and Rusty. She warmed herself up in the sunshine yesterday along with some sugar and water and went out and into a little hole in my raised bed. She is safe for the winter now and as I know where she is I will be careful when clearing the bed. We had a hive of bumble bees in our eaves this year and am really hoping they come back next year.

Juliet
Reply

Hi :)
I was curious to know what will happen to two little bees that have built a small hive under a cement ledge near my garage. I am in the Georgian Bay area of Ontario. The hive is only maybe two and a half inches long. Will they remain there for winter? It doesnt seem to be in a very sheltered spot. They havent moved much in the past few weeks. Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Juliet,

Without seeing the nest or the builder, it’s hard to say. However, it sounds like it may be the work of a solitary potter wasp. They build mud nests, often oval, on exposed surfaces. Inside, the eggs hatch into larvae that eat the provisions (insects if it is a wasp, pollen if it is a bee) and then overwinter as either a pupa or adult. Some bees build similar nests, but usually they complete them earlier in the spring or summer. The adult bees or wasps that built the nest will not survive the winter, only the offspring will survive. They will most probably be just fine, even in the unsheltered spot.

Lorna
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m really pleased to find you! I’ve been fascinated all summer by a hive of bumbles in one of my stables. The problem now is that I may need that stable for its rightful owner who won’t be impressed with his visitors! The hive is under the pallets where I keep the hay and straw and I’m a bit scared to move it in case I disturb a bee’s nest.

Will it be really obvious? What do I do once I have found it? Presumably it will just be the queen? Any advice you can offer will be gratefully received. Thanks, Lorna

Rusty
Reply

Lorna,

The nest it most likely empty by now. Only the new queens overwinter; the old queen and the workers die off at the end of the season. The new queens will each find a small hole in the ground somewhere to hibernate over the winter months. Then, in the spring, they will each emerge and look for a place to build a new nest. It is unlikely any of them will reuse the old nest, although it is not impossible.

If you dig down, you will probably find empty wax cells and empty honey pots but nothing more. I don’t know how cold it is where you are, but I suspect you won’t find anything alive down there now.

Linda
Reply

Hi Lorna,

I’d like to echo Rusty in not worrying too much. I’ve been lucky (and proud!) to have had bumble bees choosing to nest and over-winter in my garden for the last 3 years. (I’m in U.K.) I can honestly say that they have never been a problem. They keep themselves very much to themselves and really are only interested on a safe place to hibernate and a food source for their young in the spring…I’ve never found them aggressive and even if the queen overwinters in the stable, I doubt very much that she will bother your new resident horse. You could try planting some spring flowering bulbs which produce quite a lot of nectar…snowdrops, crocuses, tulips are all good…somewhere nearby but not in the stable and chances are the new queen will choose to nest near there instead. Hope it all turns out well and you, your horses, and the bumbles can all live happily together!

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