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Where do bumble bees go in winter?

Do bumble bees fly south? Hibernate? Keep themselves warm like honey bees? Why don’t we see them flying around on a warm winter day?

Even though honey bees and bumble bees are closely related (both in the family Apidae) and even though they are both considered social bees, their life cycles are very different.

A mated bumble bee queen overwinters in a small nest in the ground, just big enough for her. The nest is usually 5 to 15 cm below the surface, and the opening is often obscured by mulch or leaf litter. As temperatures get colder, she produces a chemical in her body (glycerol) that keeps her from freezing, and she remains buried all winter.

After she emerges in the spring, the queen searches for a site to use as a nest. Queens can often be seen examining holes in the ground or nests that have been vacated by other animals such as rodents or birds. The queen may go in and out of a potential site many times before moving on or finally making a selection.

Once she has decided on a site, she begins building a nest, laying eggs, and foraging for nectar and pollen. At first, she does all the work by herself, but after the first batch of brood is hatched, the new workers assist in foraging, nest building, and raising their sisters. Eventually, the queen will have produced enough workers that she no longer has to leave the nest, and egg-laying becomes her full-time job.

The size of the bumble bee nest continues to increase all summer and into the fall. But at some point, often late in summer, the queen begins to produce virgin queens and males instead of just workers. These new queens and males will mate with bees from other colonies.

After mating, a new queen will go off and find a place to spend the winter just as her mother did. The rest of the colony including all the workers, the males, and the original queen will perish with the approach of winter. Each of the hibernating queens, by herself, will awake in spring and begin the daunting task of building a brand new colony from scratch.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Bumble-bee-on-herb-robert
A summer bumble bee forages on herb-robert. Photo © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Mark
Reply

Thank you for the neat summation of a bumble bee’s life cycle. Last summer I started _really_ noticing bumble bees and I have a feeling I’m going to be at/for them even more as time goes on. To me they’re inexplicably charming and I love to see them in the garden or looping around me as they visit the flowers around the patio.

David R
Reply

There is just so much in this world that is so remarkable, I never get tired of studying how nature “gets it done.” Thank you again Rusty for sharing!!

Schmadrian
Reply

I’ve a question for you. I live in an old Victorian home. This morning I was sitting at my desk working when I heard this constant drone. I figured it was someone doing lawn work nearby. Then I looked up to see a huge bumble bee trapped between the glass and the screen at a window. After a good twenty minutes of strategizing, I finally managed to capture it and set it free via a kitchen window. (No small feat, as I’m pretty uncomfortable with bees, wasps and hornets.) So my question is: Where did it come from? It can’t have gotten in via the window; it’s sealed up tight. Is it a safe guess that it was in here somewhere all this time, through the winter? I should add that this is the second one that’s been in my apartment over the past week, as spring has sprung. Any input would be greatly appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Schmadrian,

I know this isn’t very helpful, but we have modern vinyl-framed double-paned windows. Every spring, dozens of mason bees get in the house. When I go outside, I can see them go in the drain holes that are part of the window frame (I grew up in an old Victorian home, so I know they don’t have such things). Anyway, from the inside it seems absolutely impossible that they could get in the house from the drain hole because it is sealed. We’ve held up burning matches looking for airflow, but nothing. We’ve nearly torn the windows apart looking for the connection, but we can’t find it.

My point is that the bees probably came in from the outside, but you’re never going to know how! They may have come down the chimney or through a door, too. With only two, I wouldn’t worry too much. I’m glad you put it outside instead of killing it. Bees away from their nests aren’t aggressive towards humans. As long as you don’t accidentally grab it, you shouldn’t get stung.

Schmadrian
Reply

Thanks, Rusty.

Yesterday I realized a possible answer: this being an old Victorian home, there are crawl-spaces at four different places within the apartment. Cubby-holes, if you will. They’re locked, but there’s a space at the bottom of each door. A mouse darting across my kitchen floor from one to another reminded me of them. Perhaps this is how both bumblebees arrived.

BTW: these would have been queens, yes?

Rusty
Reply

Schmadrain,

Most likely they are queens. Only the queens overwinter, and they may have spent that time in the crawlspace.

Heather
Reply

Hello, we have recently decided to do some renovations to our porch area. Have had a bumble bee hive in the wall 3 years in a row, found this out when removing the side wood panels and saw the old hives. Decided to do some research and made them a home for themselves. We moved the hive very carefully that was located within the insulation and placed it in the box. I sure love having the bumble bees around since they are located near my flower bed. They are so interesting to watch, my whole family loves to watch them. We sit near their hive daily and watch them. They never have been aggressive. Usually just buzz by back to the hive. They took to the box well after moving. It seems they improved with the move, the hive has transformed and has grown. I was just wondering how do I entice the new queen to come back to the box? Do I leave it out through the winter? Do I replace the bedding with new or leave the old hive there? I live in North Dakota so it is quite a few months of winter. I would love to attach some photos but have not figured out how to yet.

Rusty
Reply

Heather,

That sounds like so much fun. I would just leave the nest box alone and leave the bedding in place. There is a good chance that one of the new queens will choose to live in it next spring.

Kristina
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Thank you so much for the lesson on bumble bees. I live in Missouri, it is just starting to feel like fall around here. Some leaves are changing, but it will probably be another 2 weeks or so before things really start to get colorful. My husband and I have been working out in the yard today and I noticed on one little hill side there are probably 20 bumblebees flying around. They are flying just above the ground. They will land and crawl deep into the grass, they crawl back out, fly around some more….. Is it possible that we have 20 queen bees trying to hibernate in the same place, and if so does that mean we will have 20 nests near our home in the spring?

Rusty
Reply

Kristina,

It’s hard to say. Usually numbers of low-flying bees in the fall are males looking for females. However, if you think they are females searching for overwintering spots, you could be right. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I suspect only a very small percentage of mated queens actually make it until spring. Some get eaten, some starve, some freeze, some die of diseases or parasites, and some are lucky enough to make it. So even if you are correct and they are mated queens, I don’t think you will be overrun by bumbles in the spring.

Carol
Reply

Hi, I live in New Zealand and it is now in the winter season. Not overly cold here in Christchurch but we sometimes get snow. Yesterday I noticed a bumble bee lying on my path near the house. I thought it was dead and went to move it but it stretched its wee legs and I could see its body was moving. I gently manoevered it onto a pot with some flowers so it was sheltered overnight. This morning it was still in the same place so carefully moved it into a very warm sunny place and made up a small mix of honey and water which I placed in front of it and really enjoyed watching Mr/Mrs Bumble gobble it up. Question is will this bee survive or is it actually in the process of dying? Is there anything else I can do? They are really beautiful creatures.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Carol,

I don’t know much about your climate, but the bees survival probably depends on how much warm weather you have and how many flowers are in bloom. It is probably a queen, because only the queens overwinter in colder climates. She may have simply emerged too early or was dug up accidentally, perhaps by an animal. My guess is that she probably won’t make it.

Marilynn Wiens
Reply

We are building a front porch. With removing the cement in the front we uncovered a bumble bee hive. We moved the hive into a wooden box with a lid plus 2 openings on each side. We can hear the bees buzzing inside but I’m worried where to put it for the winter. Do I cover the box with rocks, cement or soil? Thanks for your advice! I live in Windsor Ontario Canada, so our winters can be way below freezing. Don’t want to loose our little friends. Thanks again! Marilynn

Rusty
Reply

Marilynn,

The little colony will not survive over the winter no matter what you do at this point. Only newly mated queens will survive, and they will not live in the nest. Each one will go out and find a hole in the ground or in another protected spot and hibernate until spring. The rest of the bees, including the workers, the males, and the old queen, will all perish with the advent of cold weather. In the spring, the overwintered queens each will start a new colony.

carol
Reply

Hi Rusty, thanks for your response to my query, it is appreciated. I am now developing a new found respect for these little creatures. I just wanted to tell you that the day I wrote my query I had fed up this little bumble bee with quite a lot of sugary water and put him/her in a nice warm sunny spot on my patio. Went back about an hour later and bumble was stretching his/her wings and as I approached buzzed into the air, landed on my arm, buzzed for a few seconds and flew off quite happily. I am hoping that bumble has found a nice warm spot to winter over in and will carry on to produce lots of little bumbles in the future. I have lots of lavender plants and also quite a few Polyanthus plants in full flower (it is the cold season here in the Southern Hemisphere now) as I like at least a little colour in my garden even in winter. I even have a flowering cherry tree in full blossom so these beautiful creatures are reasonably well catered for in my garden most seasons. Thanks again

Greg
Reply

Hi,
I am in Montreal and have a bumble bee hive under my deck from the summer (it is now September). I left them alone as I am a live and let live kind of guy, and they seem to pretty much ignore us when we are out on the deck, but I did get tagged 4 times by one particular aggravated fellow when I was out cutting the grass 🙁
Anyway, I am wondering what I can do to discourage them from setting up house there next spring. I don’t mind them in the garden, but I think we just need a bit of distance. I was thinking of opening the deck and removing the hive when it is very cold in November, but from what I am reading that won’t help. Is there any way of enticing the new Queens to a new location in the spring without harming them?

Rusty
Reply

Greg,

A bumble bee colony will not survive the winter in Montreal. In the fall the newly mated queens leave their home and find a place to overwinter. Each individual finds a hole, usually in the ground, about as wide as she is. She will spend the winter there hibernating. The other members of her colony (the workers and the males) will die with the first hard frost. In the spring, the mated females will look for an appropriate nest, usually an abandoned rodent hole or something similar. It is possible someone will select your deck again, but not a sure thing.

So, after the first hard frost, you can simply close up the hole. No one will be alive in there, so you are doing no damage. Just fill or close the hole somehow so it doesn’t encourage any tenants in the spring. When the queens come out of hibernation, they will have to find a different location to nest.

Greg
Reply

Thanks so much Rusty. I will follow your good advice.
Cheers,
Greg

Tom
Reply

I was starting to remove a large bush near my house today (Late Sept, SE Michigan) and disrupted a group of bumblebees living among the roots. There were almost ten of them and there may be more, and they all looked pretty large to me (i.e. queens). The were at first sluggish but then eventually flew away. Do they have time yet to find new homes? There are a lot of shrubs and trees in my yard and neighborhood. Is there anything I can do to help them out? Thank you! Tom

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

Bumble bee colonies die off in the fall, usually with the first hard frost. I imagine the queens you saw would have moved out within a few days regardless of what you did. Each mated queen finds its own overwintering spot, which is usually a small hole or crevice about the diameter of the bee herself. Each queen, all alone, will hibernate overwinter and then in the spring each will look for an appropriate nesting spot, often a disused rodent borrow or similar hole.

At this point there is little you can do. But I wouldn’t worry. They will do fine on their own.

Tracey
Reply

My husband and I were sitting by our koi pond where some bumble bees were visiting our flowers. Greg asked wonder what they do in the winter and five minutes later you gave us a nice summary of their life cycle – Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Tracey,

Glad to help!

Robert
Reply

Just spotted one locally, it’s the 7th of December. Not sure I’ve ever seen one this late before albeit a very mild 12C today.

Rochelle
Reply

This is the third year I’ve noticed about 100 holes in my backyard. I think they’re bees how can I stop them from coming?

Rusty
Reply

Rochelle,

You are lucky to have ground bees in your yard. Not only do they pollinate the local plants, but they aerate the lawn and keep it healthy. The holes also allow good moisture penetration. The bees will disappear after about six weeks and you won’t see them again till next year. If we humans would just stop eating, we wouldn’t need bees they way we do, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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