Dear Carla,

I keep mason bees. They sleep in cardboard tubes all winter long. I worry about my little bees until I see them chew out of their nesting tubes in the spring.

I talked about how mason bees and all kinds of bees survive winter with my friend Brandon Hopkins. He’s an insect scientist at Washington State University. He manages the honey bees on campus.

The honey bees we see in North America today first arrived with Europeans in the 1600s. We love honey bees because they pollinate our crops and make delicious honey. But there are lots of bees that have always lived here—like bumble bees, squash bees and mason bees. Those are native bees.

Most native bees survive the cold by overwintering in the nests where they were born. That could be tucked into the soil or leafy debris. It could be nestled inside hollow plant stems, holes in wood or tubes like my mason bees. Some native bees like bumble bees live in colonies. Only the queen survives the winter. She digs into the earth or finds a hollow tree and hibernates there.

Photo: Wiki/Beatriz Moisset

The best thing you can do for native bees is protect their nests. Look around and think like a bee. Where would you nest? Look for places with loose soil or leaf litter. Look for hollow stems or holes about the size of a bee.

Then, ask people to leave those places alone until June. That means no digging, no raking up debris or pulling out dead plants. That will give the bees time to leave the nest.

You can also help by planting flowers that bloom when bees need them most.

“One of the difficult times for bees is early spring,” Hopkins said. “Planting things that bloom then is very important for bees’ survival as they recover from the long, hard winter.”

Some early spring flowers probably already grow near you—like dandelions and clover. Some people let these flowers grow in their yards all spring to make better habitats for bees.

But bee keepers do more to help honey bees survive the winter. That’s because honey bees are livestock. Humans keep them for agricultural purposes—kind of like cows or pigs.

In the winter, honey bees snuggle together in the hive. They make sure the queen is in the middle of the cluster so she’s nice and warm. They vibrate their flight muscles to heat the hive. Hopkins told me that, even when it’s bitterly cold outside, the hive stays about 75 degrees.

That takes a lot of energy. That’s why honey bees preserve nectar as honey. That’s their winter food. Hopkins told me a colony of honey bees needs a whopping 40 to 60 pounds of honey for winter.

That’s why bee keepers only harvest extra honey and leave lots for the bees. Then they check on the bees all winter. If the honey runs low, they provide honey from another colony or sugar syrup. Sometimes they put boards of fondant or sugar candy into the hive, too.

When spring comes, honey bees and native bees finally leave their nests. I love seeing them zip from flower to flower, knowing I helped make their spring better—just like they do mine.


Dr. Universe