What do bees do in wintertime?

Every animal on the planet has its own way of dealing with the winter cold. Birds emigrate south, bears hibernate in dens and humans stock up on firewood, snacks and netflix-series. Most bees and wasps hibernate during the colder months and in many species only the queen will survive, emerging in spring ready to rebuild the colony. Honeybees however remain active throughout winter, feeding on the honey they've produced and stored during summer.

The survival chances of wild honeybee colonies depend entirely on their food supply so the distribution system must follow some harsh rules. Male drones that are no longer useful now are forced out of the hive by worker bees and left to starve. The ultimate goal is to make sure the queen survives and when the temperature in the hive gets too low, honeybee workers will huddle together and start shivering to create a thermoregulating cluster that produces heat. They vibrate their flight muscles while keeping their wings still which raises their body temperature. Thousands of shivering bees are able to raise the temperature in the hive enough to keep the queen in the centre of the cluster warm. Industrial honeybees produce two or three times more honey than they would need to survive, so beekeepers can harvest the surplus while leaving enough honey in the hive.

Bumblebees have a very different strategy since they have an annual life cycle. Only the young queens survive while the workers, males and older queens die off before winter time. Typically, the newly-born queens will look for a place to hibernate and to start a colony like an abandoned mousehole. As winter comes to an end, the hard-working females lay their eggs sealed inside seperated chambers, each provided with food stores of pollen and nectar. They even line their nests with waterproof secretions, to protect their young from damp.

Solitary bees finally are very diverse and they cope with winter differently depending on the species and the climate they live in. Generally, all adult solitary bees will die off before winter, when the new eggs have already been laid safely inside a nest in a cavity or burrow. Some solitary bees will grow from egg to adult over summer, and survive their first winter by sitting in their cocoon in a sleep-like state called torpor, which allows them to consume little to no energy. Other solitary bees are so tiny they can survive winter inside the stem of a plant.

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