All summer long, we see busy bees gathering nectar and pollen from our flowers. But when the weather turns cold and the flowers die, where do the bees go? What do they do?
Thanks to a popular children’s book about a honey-loving bear, many people think our little pollinating friends spend the winter in an oval, yellow home that hangs from a tree. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Types of homes
Illinois is home to more than 400 native bee species. Over 70% of these species make their homes in the ground. These underground homes are made in abandoned rodent holes, under leaf piles and rotten logs, in thick grass tufts, and in human-made debris piles. Very often, they are near wildflowers.
The other 30% of our native bees are cavity nesters. They use spaces in dead wood, hollow stems or brush piles.
Some underground bee homes are busy hives with hundreds of bees. These types of bees are called social bees. Fuzzy, plump bumblebees are social bees.
To know where the bees go and what they do in winter, it’s helpful to know their life cycle.
A young queen bumblebee gathers food and puts it in an abandoned mouse burrow or similar tunnel in the ground. She then lays a few eggs in this nest. Once these eggs hatch and grow into adults, they become worker bees. All worker bees are female.
All summer long, the worker bees will gather food, tend to young bees and larvae, and care for the queen. The queen’s only job is to continue to lay eggs that hatch into more female workers. The colony grows in numbers, and the queen will probably never leave her underground nest again.
Some of the queens’ eggs will develop into males and some into females. These late summer hatching females will become queens and mate with these males. Then, these males, all the workers and the old queen will die.
The new, young bumblebee queens will leave the nest in search of a cozy place to spend the winter. Once she finds a crack under a rotting log or a pocket under a leaf pile, she will crawl inside and stop moving and eating. Her entire body will go into a deep rest called diapause. She will sleep in this place all winter long. When the weather warms in spring, she will emerge and begin the life cycle again.
Unlike social bees, solitary bees make their own small nest that is not part of a large colony. Over 90% of bees in the world nest in this way.
Words to know
Cavity: An empty space in a solid object.
Diapause: A period of suspended development in an insect.
Larva: The active, immature form of an insect.
Native: A plant or animal of indigenous origin or growth.
Mason bees are solitary bees. They nest in the hollow stems of flowers, thick grasses or other plants. After mating in spring, the females begin looking for good nesting places. The females gather pollen, mix it with a bit of flower nectar and place it inside the nest site. She then lays one egg on top of this nectar and pollen mix. Afterward, she uses mud to make a wall around the egg to protect it from any harm.
Each egg has its own very tiny room or cell. She makes one or two of these little cells every day. She does all this work without help from other bees. In about a week, her eggs hatch, and each larva inside its cell feeds off its tiny pollen ball.
After about a month, the larva spins a cocoon around itself and begin its transformation into an adult bee. By the time the larva transforms into an adult, it is too cold for it to leave its little cell. Nesting season is over, and the bees that were active and flying all summer die. All winter long, the young bee inside the plant stem will rest in diapause until it emerges to lay eggs in spring.
The remainder of Illinois’ native bees have life cycles and nesting behaviors much like bumblebees and mason bees. So our native bees don’t go anywhere in winter! They stay right here with us all season, covered by leaves and tucked into the soil, cozied up under logs and snuggled into grasses.
How you can help
Knowing that they are with us all winter and that they have similar needs means you can help most of these important pollinators at home. Here’s how:
Grow native plants at home. Native plants bloom at just the right time to provide pollen and nectar when bees need it most. Choosing to grow plant species that have hollow stems provides bees a safe winter home.
Leave gardens “messy” during the winter. Don't cut down plants after they finish blooming in summer. Leaving the leaves and dead flowers in your garden gives bees a place to snuggle in for a winter sleep. And it's less work for you!
Tell your friends! Sharing your knowledge about where bees go, what they do and how we all can help them ensures that these important pollinators are around forever.
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