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Where Do the Bees Go During Winter?

I’ve been keeping bees for almost a decade and while honeybees are all the rage right now, there are several hundred native bee species in Northern Nevada and each plays a vital role in our high-desert ecosystem. I’d like to start by discussing some of our local bees before we dive into the western honeybee or Apis mellifera.

Bumble Bees: Who doesn’t love bumblebees and we’d all like to think they have a lovely winter home in some warm locale. Perhaps a nice townhome near a golf course in Scottsdale Arizona? Sadly, the fact is that they don’t migrate any further than our backyards. Bumble bees live in small colonies and often nest underground. As the weather begins to cool in the fall a young queen emerges and quickly mates. After she’s mated the remaining members of the hive die-off and the new queen goes into a form of hibernation, alone. She emerges in the spring and soon become the founder of a new colony.

Solitary Bees: Our Northern Nevada natives include Mason Bees, Leafcutter Bees and Carpenter Bees. There are many more but as the name(s) imply, they work hard and live by themselves. Most solitary bee species overwinter in a birth cell or sack inside of a tube or tunnel. Some species in an adult form, others over-winter as larvae, they all time their emergence with the warming weather. These tunnels are often holes left in trees by beetles or birds, smaller species often use hollow plant stems. All of us humans can help these species in very inexpensive and practical ways, follow this link to discover how. Here’s another great link if you’d like to learn more about native bee identification.

Honeybees: Originally from Southern Europe and the Middle East, their annual adaptation to our winter climate is nothing short of amazing. These distant cousins of our native, solitary bees live in large colonies and they require a sizeable population as they over-winter inside their hive. Honeybees start by thinning their numbers a bit in late summer - early fall. The queen lays fewer eggs and the workers (all female) proceed to shove the drones (males) out of the hive to fend for their themselves. As you may have guessed, things do not work out very well for the boys after that point. As the weather gets cold the bees begin to cluster around the queen and her brood, I think of this as a month’s long slumber party. The center of this cluster can reach temperatures of 90+ degrees Fahrenheit and believe it or not they accomplish this by shivering/vibrating while changing places within the cluster. It’s also notable that winter bees have the ability to change their physiology, they become fatter and live significantly longer than their skinny sisters did in the summer. All this effort and activity requires a lot of energy and for that they will need plenty of food, mostly honey, to sustain their energy.

Wait! Don’t humans harvest their honey? As a backyard beekeeper, I certainly harvest honey and fortunately for me, honeybees are over-achievers. They typically collect and process 2 – 3 times the amount of food they will need so I’m careful to harvest just enough for me while leaving an ample supply in place for them. In addition, most beekeepers feed their bees a mixture of sugar and water at least a couple of times through the winter months. A poor substitute for nectar in my mind but my bees seem to love it and I’ve been told that feeding in this manner helps them maintain their hygiene through those months that they’re cooped-up inside the hive.

So, to answer the question directly, the bees will be in the same situation as most of us humans this winter, stuck at home.

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