This is a great question and one that is asked quite often. If you are a beekeeper, you know the answer - it all depends on the type of bee.
The European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), which is the domestic bee kept in hives across Canada, do not hibernate. They remain active in the hive all winter.
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Feeding begins again in late winter when honey bees are most at risk. With food stores almost depleted, the temperatures are still too cold for foraging. In Northwestern Ontario, colonies often make it through the harshest period of winter only to perish when wet, cold spring weather persists for several weeks. Many beekeepers winter their colonies in a building to prevent moisture from getting into the hives.
The winter habits of bumblebees (Bombus) are quite different.
The Bumblebee is just one species of wild bee we frequently see working the plants in our gardens. A queen establishes an annual summer colony, but the colony is not maintained through the winter.
Here's what happens ...
The summer colony produces both queen and drone bees. As the season comes to a close, queens and drones mate. While the drones die soon after, the queens fly away to nest alone for the winter. An abandoned mouse nest is a favoured site.
During winter, the queen bumblebee doesn't eat or work; instead, she truly hibernates. Her metabolism slows, allowing her to use little food as the winter months pass. Come spring, the bumblebee lifecycle begins again. This is the pattern for the many wild bee species that work fields, crops, grass verges along the highway, and thankfully, our gardens.
Want to learn more?
Lifecycle of Bumblebees
Lifecycle of Honey Bees (print)
Lifecycle of Honey Bees (video)