Although honey bees and bumble bees are very closely related, their winter behaviors are 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 that requires a large cache of stored food.
Queen bumble bees hibernate underground
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 safe nesting place in which to spend the winter. This is usually just a small hole in the ground or another protected spot just big enough for her. Only the queen bumble bees hibernate until spring. The rest of the colony dies.
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.
The queen selects a nest in spring
In the spring, she must work hard. She begins by finding a suitable nesting spot, often an abandoned mouse nest or similar hole. 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.
New bumble bee workers take over the chores
The first batch of young bees will be mostly workers—bees who can take over the household chores and forage 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 comparison may help!
Honey Bee Suite