Bees of many types are valued for the role they play in pollination. They can be seen working busily during the warm season. But, as cold weather arrives the fate of these insects becomes a concern. Do they survive the harsh months of cold – do bees die in Winter? While honey bees are known for their remarkable Winter strategies, other species face the cold season in different ways.
The months of cold temperatures are a challenge for all cold-blooded insects. Many bees die as Winter approaches. Honey bees survive Winter in a unique way. But, each species has its own method of ensuring the family line continues into Spring.
The End of the Bee Season
A lack of numerous bugs and insects during the cold months is noticeable (maybe you enjoy it). But, they don’t disappear on a certain day – it is a gradual process.
What month do bees die off? In the US, most Summer insects are gone by late October – certainly after a few killing frosts. Of course not every single bee dies with the arrival of cold weather.
General Life Cycle of Bees
Bees, whether honey bees or others, undergo a fascinating life cycle that is vital to their overall survival. They develop through 4 life stages: egg, larvae, pupa and adult.
The rate at which the process moves is different for each species, but the general progression is the same. In some insects, the life span naturally ends with the end of the warm season.
The life cycle of honey bees (Apis mellifera), contains the same development stages. However, unlike other bees, the colony (family-unit) overwinters as a group.
Understanding this basic development cycle is important for comprehending how all bee species adapt to the challenges of winter. Yes, many bees die in Winter – in fact, from an individual point of view – most of them do.
Winter Mortality in Bees
Bees belong to the order Hymenoptra – a diverse group of insects that number over 20,000 species. Each has developed their own way of surviving the Winter cold. Their annual life cycle, diets and even types of nests all fit into the plan for their specific species.
Here are a few examples:
Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) – Bumble bees and honey bees have very different lives. The Bumble colony does not survive the cold months as a family. When the first freeze comes – the field workers and males die.
Only the mated queens live until Spring. They hibernate under bark, leaves or garden debris awaiting the return of Spring to begin a new nest and family.
Mason Bees (Osmia spp.) – There are many varieties of mason bees. These solitary bees nest alone in cavities such as mud tunnels, empty stems etc.
Like Bumble bees, many of the mason bees die in Winter. However, they leave behind a nest provisioned with developing young to become the next generation of the family.
Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa spp.)– Another solitary insect (often mistaken for Bumble bees) are the Carpenter bees. They are good pollinators but homeowners dislike them because they tunnel into wood (the side of your house, deck etc.)
Adult carpenter bees die when Winter arrives. But, they leave behind developing pupae in protected wooden tunnels. These bees will emerge as adults in the spring.
Honey Bees in Winter
Honey bees colonies do not enter a hibernation state. They cluster together inside the hive on cold days-living off honey stored during Summer.
In general, a beehive should not die during Winter. A healthy colony of honey bees with ample food stores should live from one season to the next.
Yet, even within a healthy colony, not every bee will live from October to April. Some bees will die every day.
On warm Winter days, house bees throw the dead bodies out of the hive. This can be alarming to a novice beginning beekeeper going through their first Winter.
But, seeing some dead bees in the snow in front of your hive is no cause for alarm. This could just be a symptom of good housekeeping.
In recent years, the percentage of honey bee colonies that die over Winter has grown. Our colonies are struggling to deal environmental issues, as well as, new bee pests and disease.
Not all bees hibernate during Winter. Many of the solitary bee species do enter a state of hibernation. However, honey bees do not hibernate – they cluster inside the hive to keep warm surviving on stored honey.
While winter is a challenging time for all cold-blooded insects, the solitary bees are most affected by severe cold. Some, like honey bees, have developed different strategies for surviving the cold.
There are several ways you can help bees survive Winter. Provide housing for solitary bees – leave some garden debris, don’t rake all the leaves – someone may be hibernating in there. Plant flowers that provide important late season pollen and nectar – this helps bees to be healthy and well fed before cold arrives.
There are many diverse strategies used by bees to cope with the months of cold temperatures. Some bees die in Winter but leave behind mated queens or developing young that will come out in Spring to start anew. Others, overwinter as large families, surviving on the rewards of their work during the warm season. Though they are different – all contribute to the diversity of the ecosystem.