When Winnie the Pooh went out fetching jars of honey, he didn’t make it a year-round practice. Every winter, the bear would take a break for a few months where he’d stay in the den and spend most of his time sleeping.
In biology, we call this hibernation. Most bears follow this trend of deep sleep throughout the snowtime. But do you know what other animal loves to hibernate? It is small, striped, and makes a buzzing sound. That’s right - the bee!
Most people have never even thought of the idea of something so tiny ever needing to take some time off from their regular activities. Well, it is not entirely wrong to think like that.
In reality, honey bees do not hibernate because they must continue to provide nectar and honey for the queen bee and workers who are, in fact, on a period of deep rest.
While the bears hibernate to preserve their food stores a bit longer, the queen bee does so as a form of safeguarding herself from the harsh conditions of the outdoors.
The queen can hibernate for as much as nine months - the equivalent of a full-term human pregnancy. Could you imagine sleeping for three quarters of a year?
Bees themselves do not live for much longer than 152 days. That means they spend the majority of their lives in a state of inactivity. The queens usually outlive the workers in the colony.
hese smaller insects only survive for up to about 49 days or 7 weeks in the hive.
The good thing is that those queen bees, in their prime, often lay up to 3000 eggs daily, so the number of deaths in the colony are replaced soon after by new buzzers.
The life cycle within their small ecosystem allows the bees to maintain a constant community of vibrant workers, drones and a queen.
Indeed, the members of the hive have more going on than we would expect. And their hibernation is no exception to the rule.
So let’s clear the air…
We all expect the bees to remain in their conventional hives during hibernation. But the truth is, this is not typical of the young female bumblebee (the queen).
Usually, the queen bee would opt for burrowing deep into the soil or tucking itself securely beneath tree logs and rocks to avoid the extra chill of the colder months.
However, recently, experts have noticed a new trend: Instead of remaining put, specific varieties of queen bees now leave their regular nests during this season to create new hives.
Because of this, the bumblebees are slowly normalizing end-of-year flights from one nest to another. If you have a knack for knowing your types of bees, then keep an eye out for the Tree bumblebee this year-end, especially if you live in an area with a lot of winter-blooming flora.
Although it is not a new phenomenon, the average honey bee will remain within its hive during hibernation.
Unfortunately, the other type of adult bee - the solitary bee - does not usually survive long enough to see the hibernating months. These bees have broken away from the hives and do not participate in corporate honey production.
If they do make it to the cold season, they form cocoons or pupa and spend the months inside their protective cases.
Try to imagine the bee in a pod similar to the caterpillars, just before it emerges as a butterfly. As the temperature levels rise again, the solitary bees break out and continue their lives independently.
Bees usually work hard during summer and spring, when things are still warm. But as soon as autumn hits and the temperature begins to drop, they start preparing for deep rest.
But with the honey bees remaining in their hives for months, how can they survive without honey?
Naturally, bees go out during the blooming season to collect nectar for honey production. This is particularly important because honey is the bee’s prime energy source. They process nectar, feed on it, produce honey and store it in the honeycomb.
So without honey, things will pretty much begin to shut down for the insect. And this should be easy for us to understand because our bodies function in the same way; we cannot perform at our best when we are low on energy.
During hibernation, the honey bees which remain within the hive need to be constantly provided with honey. They may not be up and about as usual, but they still require a certain energy level for everyday functions.
Remember: Bees hibernate when the outdoors are cold. Bees stay inside the hive to protect themselves from freezing, which means they need to create an atmosphere within their hive that is almost identical to the conditions throughout the year. The primary state that we are speaking about here is warmth.
Teamwork indeed makes life easier. One method that the honey bees use to establish warmth within the hive is by gathering in clusters. This is to produce enough natural heat from their bodies to provide a good atmosphere for them all. The question then is, “where does this heat come from?”
Again, it all goes back to honey. Scientists refer to the process by which all living organisms produce their energy as respiration. You may have come across this term at least once in your life - most likely in grade school.
When we described how the honey bees use nectar to produce energy and honey, we described their respiration process.
Energy comes in different forms, and one of the significant by-products of respiration is heat energy. By now, you should be able to put the pieces together: The bees still need nectar to be brought in so that they can produce energy to keep them warm.
And that is exactly why the worker bees keep at it, even in these harsh conditions. These are the bees who sacrifice themselves, venturing out in the cold to provide for the colony.
It can be challenging during colder seasons, mainly because most flowers will not be actively blooming at this time.
The worker bees then have twice as hard of a challenge to return home with enough nectar. It’s no wonder that they have one of the shortest life spans within the hive.
During the winter, the temperature can drop to extreme lows. When the outdoors is less than 20°C, most species of bees find it difficult to survive.
Flying will no longer be possible or easy to do in the frost. In certain areas, the plants will not be flowering. Budding takes place during the spring and by winter, there are hardly any readily available pollen and nectar sources.
What would be the point of going out anyway?
That’s precisely why they choose to hibernate between the months of late November to early March.
As soon as things begin to warm back up in the spring, the insects will get back to their regular tasks. Because they have been working on relatively low amounts of energy for several weeks, pollination will be at an all-time high in the first few weeks of spring as the bees try to build the honeycomb back up.
In these warmer months of April and May, many queen bees release a new colony to replace those lost in the previous cycle. By September, the hives will return to full honey production.
Instinct will also lead the bees to store up much larger honey quantities towards the end of October and early November in preparation for another winter season.
To lighten worker's bees burden during the winter, some beekeepers try to collect lower volumes of raw honey from the honeycomb so that enough can be left for the colonies.
If you have many bees around, a great way to help would be by planting more winter-blooming plants in your garden. That way, the bees will not have to scavenge as much through the thickness of the snow.
You could also create a haven for these tiny, winged creatures by setting up a stony area with old stems and small logs. These would be perfect for queens and solitary bees who usually take on their survival methods away from their original hives.
If you notice any small burrowing in your gardens, just let them bee. You might end up disturbing the hiding spot of a queen bee, inches below the surface of the soil.
If you’re the owner of a wooden house or contain any structure in your homemade wooden framework, then you might have noticed bees swarming around your house soon after the winter. That’s right - the bees were most probably hibernating within your home.
The Carpenter bee gets its name for this especially. These bees love to burrow through the exterior parts of your house and build their nests within the framing. They can quickly go unnoticed for several months.
It may sound cute but think of the kind of structural damage this could do to your home. Everything comes with a fee these days. When the carpenter bees burrow through the building walls, they sometimes dig so deeply into the material that their holes appear inside the house.
Now imagine having multiple bees burrow into your home over the years. This can significantly weaken the framework and result in significant expenses in the long run. It seems like honey isn’t the only thing that bees pass on to us, huh?
For bees, only the fittest survive the winters. Most species and types of bees will hibernate during extremely low temperatures. So far, these are the ones that we’ve mentioned as partakers of this season-long rest:
Queen bee (although not as much as before)
Each has their strategies of survival that work best for their needs and nature.
On the flip side, most bumblebee colonies and older bees die off by the end of the summer.
Honey bees are also quite fragile when it comes to cold weather. Because they are cold-blooded, it is often difficult for them to generate large amounts of heat energy. They cannot survive any air temperature below 41°C.
By this stage, their wings and bodies are too chilled to produce sufficient heat to warm themselves up again.
The bees will remain hurdled together to feed off each other’s heat source to increase their odds. As you may have noticed, this is not common among different types of bees.
These insects may be tiny, but they never cease to prove to us just how mighty they are. No matter rain, hail, snow, or sunshine, bees are always searching for the next means to survive. That’s what we call resilience.
Has anyone ever told you to “make your moves in silence”? We could learn a thing or two from these buzzers.
From the outside looking in, hibernation may seem like a sign of defeat; but bees are experts at taking time off from external influences to regroup and return stronger than ever.
If you’ve had your own experiences with hibernating bees or got some strategies for the winter season, feel free to share with us in the comments below.
Find out best tips for getting your honeybees ready for winter!