When you really love bees the winter can be a very long few months without the uplifting sound of their buzz. Most of our wild bees are ‘hibernating’ in various stages of their lifecycle. Out in the garden on a sunny day a few shrubs may be humming with sporadic bee activity because honeybees can and do forage when temperatures allow.
Solitary bees in winter
Our solitary bees are tucked up for winter. Amply supplied by their hardworking ‘mother bee’ with a stash of nectar wetted, protein rich pollen. Each larvae, pupating adult, or newly transformed bee is hunkered down in a parallel universe created by its solitary and very independent mother. The intricate and elaborate nests and individual nest cells of these bees sometimes beggars belief. But they spend months in their cocoons until not only the weather is conducive for them to emerge, but more importantly the plants they need for pollen and nectar and in flower. The 250 or so species of solitary bees are absent from our winter gardens. The earliest emerge in late February or March and the cycle begins again.
Bumblebees are also hunkered down. Before the bumblebee nest reaches its peak in mid to late summer, the new male bees hatch and emerge from the nest. Once they leave the nest they don’t return, and have to support themselves supping nectar from flowers, patrolling their patch and waiting for their queens. This earlier emergence helps to dissipate the males and reduce the chance of them mating with their sisters. Soon the virgin queens will hatch from their cells and emerge into the wild. They will mate, feed up and then find a safe place to overwinter, hunkering down in loose soil, compost heaps and flower pots, hopefully undisturbed for winter. Amazingly they can spend seven or eight months in this state of suspended animation. Often choosing north facing banks where the odd sunny winter day can’t quite reach to wake them from their slumber.
Winter active bumblebees
So …. to find a bumblebee out in your winter garden is unusual. But in recent years, especially in southern parts of the UK winter active bumblebees have been recorded. Mostly these are buff tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) feeding on winter flowers. Look out for the huge Queens in autumn and winter feeding on mahonia, winter honeysuckle and other winter flowers. For instead of overwintering a few Queens have been discovered making a nest in late summer and autumn. A nest that will exist through the winter with the foraging activity of workers who collect nectar and pollen to sustain the nest. Male bumblebees have been found in February, presumably as these nests start to complete their cycle. If you find winter active bumblebees try and record them. Take a photograph, note the date, the plants they are feeding on and report your find to BWARS which is running a Winter Bumblebee Project to understand this new behaviour.