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

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!

AJ
Reply

Hi, I’m in UK northeast, I have a honey bee nest on/in my chimney. In July/August when it was very hot, there was a swarm of honey bees on the outside of the chimney. I’m not sure if the swarm flew away or took up residence in the chimney. I used to have a lot coming into the house through the fire (not in use) but just last week I had another just one come through. I was wondering if I have a bees nest inside the chimney or would most of them be gone? I got advised that once the queen flew away that the rest would die within 2 weeks. Not good for fans of bees, but it seems they stayed and sort of got smaller and smaller. Will they come back next year? And is there a nest? I don’t mind bees but I’m very frightened of them. Thanks for your help. Hope I’ve explained ok!

Rusty
Reply

AJ,

Impossible to say from here, but it sounds like a swarm landed on your chimney during the summer and left again. That would be normal. It sounds like you had them coming through the chimney, but not anymore. They may have been looking at the chimney as a potential nest site, and then decided against it. If they had chosen the chimney, I think you would have seen many, many bees in your house–not just a few–plus you would have seen hundreds around their outside entrance.

It’s possible for another swarm to come by next year, but not very likely. I wouldn’t worry about it before it happens.

AJ
Reply

Thanks Rusty! There was quite a few flying about the chimney coming and going but they just seemed to become fewer over the weeks. Maybe they were left behind and tried to create their own nest.

Thanks again for your help

Bee man
Reply

The bees have brought me into their nest and are telling me that I am going to become bee man! I cant believe it! I’m growing wings and chatting with the hot queen bee. She says she is ready for a serious relationship.

Give some advice please!!!!!!!! I want to make this work :)

Jason
Reply

Hi,

I am in the uk, I was up in my loft yesterday and saw a large honey bee just sitting on the side of a box up there, with its tail pulsating. I have always been a bit of a wimp with bees and wasp so got out quickly, it was flying around the light bulb as I left.

Never expected to see one in January right in the middle of winter but it has been very mild so far, was about 9-10 degrees yesterday. Am very curious as to why it may be there and does it mean there could be a hive up there or is it likely to just be a stray bee found its way in there?

Thanks for any help

Rusty
Reply

Hi Jason,

I can only speculate, but I would say you probably saw a bee that left her colony to go out on a “cleansing flight,” which is beespeak for potty break. It happens on warmish days in the winter and it helps keep the hive clean inside during the long winter months. Sometimes one goes astray, gets lost, gets trapped, or for some unknown reason doesn’t make it home.

On Monday of this week we had some warmer weather here, and I found several bees on the sunny wall of my house. I assume they went out for cleansing, and then spotted the nice warm wall and just hung out for awhile. In fact, a number of beekeepers have reported to me that they found bees outside this winter.

Anyway, that is my guess. I doubt you have a colony up there because, if you did, you would probably have seen a bunch, not just one.

BEVERLY
Reply

LAST YEAR I HAD A NEW ROOF PUT ON MY HOUSE AND THE ROOFERS FOUND A BEES HIVE WITH HONEY AND LARGE COMBS IN BETWEEN TWO x FOURS.COMB AND HONEY WAS REMOVED BY ROOFERS AND ROOF PUT ON. MY QUESTION IS WILL THEY RETURN THIS YEAR?

Rusty
Reply

It is highly unlikely that a new colony of bees would move in where the old one was, especially with a new roof. I don’t think it is something to worry about.

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website