It’s the end of November in Michigan, we’ve already had several snow falls, the temperature today is 29 degrees outside, and I just killed a mosquito in our bathroom.
It always amazes me how resilient insects are. In the winter, I often look across our field covered in white drifts of snow, sometimes several feet deep. The beehives that border the wood line stand huddled against the wintry blasts with nothing but a few bales of hay protecting them from the cold. The honeybee colony will survive the winter. They will cluster together and share their combined heat to keep the hive around 80 degrees. Most of these bees will see the coming spring, but not so for the bumblebees.
Foraging into the cold
As the temperatures begin to drop in the fall, you may see bumblebees flying around on days when your honeybee colony is tucked in toasty warm in the hive. The bumblebee can tolerate lower temperatures than the honeybee. Their larger size and more woolly exterior help them to produce more heat, thus allowing them to forage longer into the cold season.
Bumblebee hives are usually built near the ground or in abandon rodent holes. These low profile shelters offer better protection from the winter cold than an exposed honeybee hive.
As autumn approaches, under the ground, the bumblebee colony is busy raising the last bees of the season.
The late fall babies will be future queens and drones. The young drones from other hives will mate with new queens and these fertile bees will leave the hive to hibernate and start colonies of their own in the spring.
Plight of the bumblebee
Unlike the honeybee, the bumblebee’s story is a sadder tale. As the temperature begins to drop, the rest of the bumblebee colony will die off, leaving the young, lone queens to spend the winter underground with an abdomen full of fertilized eggs.
She fills up on honey and nectar to sustain her through the coming months and she spends the winter alone, with the promise of a new colony residing completely within this single important bee.
In late fall, the new queen finds a patch of well drained soil and digs down about 4 inches. This spot is usually on a north facing area, as the more direct southern sun may warm the soil too much and bring her out of hibernation dangerously too early.
Queen bumblebees have been known to hibernate for up to 9 months and in temperatures reaching -5 degrees Fahrenheit.
In hibernation the queen is protected from cold, starvation, and most predators. Her body is able to take a good long rest before her busiest time in the spring.
A busy spring
When the weather warms, the lone queens find a good nesting spot and begin laying her first fertile eggs that she has stored all winter.
Unlike the honeybee queen who has servants to dote on her every need, the bumblebee queen is a salt-of-the-earth kind of girl. She raises the first generation of bees alone. She cares for the young colony until her first batch of worker bees are able to contribute to the hive.
The bumblebee queen not only lays her eggs, but she also broods them. Just as a bird will sit on her eggs to keep them warm, a bumble does the same.
So as we hunker down for the winter to come, it’s amazing to think that below the ground, below the snow are thousands of little queen bees all over the world who hold a generation of promise for the coming spring.