What happens to bees in the winter?

Paul Hetherington

10 February 2016

Have you ever wondered where bees go in winter? And how does the weather affect them? Paul Hetherington from Buglife explains.

As 2016 draws to a close, we hear of record December temperatures in the mid teens for successive years, and it seems that we're skipping winter and going straight from autumn into spring. Not only are successive winters the warmest since records began, they are also the wettest.
So how has this extreme weather affected our vulnerable bees? And what happens to bees in winter anyway?

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Where bees go in winter

Tawny mining bee
Tawny mining bee, one of over 200 UK species of solitary bee. By Claudia Watts

While honeybees hunker down in their hives, other bees are more exposed to the elements.

Queen bumblebees hibernate underground or amongst logs and stones, which means they are vulnerable in times of heavy flooding. 

Some solitary bees make nests in the ground too, with the larvae spending the winter in burrows preparing to emerge in the warmer weather. Unfortunately heavy rainfall can inundate their homes and wash away the loose soil of nesting sites.

Bug hotel
Insect hotels with hollow stems make good winter homes for solitary bees

The moss carder bee - one of our scarcer bumblebees with strongholds in the North - may have been affected by the recent catastrophic floods in Scotland, Northern England and North Wales. We'll know more when spring arrives. 

Moss carder bee
Moss carder bee. By Craig Macadam

Plants flowering early affect bees

Bees which emerge this spring may have difficulty finding food because of the warm weather we've been having. Some plants started flowering (and therefore finishing) early, putting them off-kilter with the life cycles of the bees which rely on them. 

Lesser celandines are a good source of pollen and nectar for bees emerging in February and March for example, but were seen flowering in December in many places. This may be an even bigger issue for some solitary bees, which rely on just one or a few flower types.

Fortunately though, it hasn't all been doom and gloom for our wintering bees.

Warm winter boost for bumblebees

Buff-tailed bumblebee

The exceptionally mild weather has allowed bumblebee colonies that are active in winter to thrive.

This recent phenomenon takes place mainly in gardens in Southern England, where colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees and early bumblebees take advantage of winter flowers such as mahonia.

Bumblebee numbers were up in December 2015 compared to the previous year - and bumblebees were even seen flying on Christmas and New Year’s day.

Seen a winter bumblebee?

Bee on crocus
Crocuses provide pollen and nectar early in the year

If you have seen a bumblebee about this winter, you can submit your sighting to iSpot.

Records like these help us to build up a picture of how bees are doing across the country, across the seasons. You can also join Friends of the Earth's Great British Bee Count from 19 May - 30 June.

In the meantime, why not help bees by supporting a permanent ban on bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides. Just click the link below.


Join the generation that
saves our bees

Pictured top right: Hairy-footed flower bee in nest


Paul Hetherington is Director of Fundraising & Communications for Buglife, a charity dedicated to the conservation of inverterbrates

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Bee in burrow