Bees couldn’t possibly live in the Arctic Circle, could they?
As it turns out, yes, but the living conditions up north are not for the faint of heart.
The boarder of the Arctic Circle follows the red line shown in the map below. As you can imagine, the temperatures remain on the cool side year round.
The temperatures during the 2-3 months of summer range from -10 degrees C to 10 degrees C, which is 14 degrees F to 54 degrees F. It’s cold, and I would hardly qualify those temperature ranges worthy of the description “summer” at all, but that is the Arctic summer!
These conditions are very challenging for most species of bees to survive, but there are two very special bee species that have worked out ways to survive the cold temperatures of the Arctic Circle. One is bombus polaris (a social bee) and the other is bombus hyperboreus (a parasitic bee, much like the cuckoo bee).
There are a few characteristics of these bees that contribute to their survival success. They both have a very thick coat of fur all over their thorax and abdomen, thus insulating her from rapid heat loss. Their resting abdominal temperature is higher than their bumble bee cousins living in warmer climates, probably due to the hearty coat.
She can also thermoregulate her body up to temperatures as high as 38 degrees C!! Thermoregulation is a skill bumblebees have, whether they live in the Arctic Circle or not. Heat is generated by the wings in flight, and accumulates in the thorax. Flight muscles need to be warm to work, the way to keep flight muscles warm is to use them. Bumble bees flap their wings 200 times/second while in flight, generating lots of heat, and thus requiring lots of energy. She needs to eat constantly, requiring lots of flowers!
As, Dave Goulson put it in A Sting in the Tale, “a bumblebee with a full stomach is only ever 40 minutes from starvation.” So, the next time you are outside and happen to notice a bumblebee fumbling around on the ground, offer her some honey or sugar water; you just might save her life!
The queen b. polaris hibernates for 9 months under the frozen ground. When she emerges in June, she only has between 2 and 3 months to build two colonies of bees. One colony will serve to build the second, and the second will create new queens and drones (males) to mate and carry on the next cycle the following spring. Very few queens survive to create a new colony the following year, so it is in the best interest of b. polaris to create as many as possible before season’s end.
To start her colony, the b. polaris queen will lay up to 20 eggs and maintain the nest temperature between 25-30 degrees C, by vibrating her wing muscles. She will do this for a few days until the eggs hatch into larvae. She builds a small honey pot near where she sits atop her eggs so she can feed on it and replenish her challenged energy stores. Once the eggs have hatched she has 10 days (those are some fast-growing babies!) until they are adult bees capable of sharing the colony responsibilities. So, the queen flies solo, collecting pollen and nectar to feed her young. When she leaves the nest, it is at risk of dropping in temperature, so she doesn’t leave for long. Such a dedicated mother!
Once her colony has workers to share duties, the queen will continue foraging, while still laying eggs. This is different than her warmer climate cousins, but b. polaris need all the wings they can get in achieving two generations of bees in 2-3 months! The second colony will consist of drones (males fated only to mate and then die), and fertile females (fated to mate and then hibernate until next spring). With approximately 14 days from egg to adulthood, time is of the essences, and so is the importance of every bee’s efforts!
Bombus Polaris is like a lone ranger bee, always foraging and on the lookout for the cuckoo-like foe, Bombus Hyperboreus. B. hyperboreus is a parasitic bee, meaning she looks to overthrow the existing queens of b. polaris colonies. She doesn’t waste any time, because she isn’t capable of doing so, raising worker bees of her own. She plans a sneak attack on the existing b. polaris queen, and plots to commit murder. If she is successful, the polaris colony will raise her drones and fated queens into adulthood. She will stay put laying eggs, while the colony assumes all other responsibilities.
B. hyperboreus has tactically evolved to ride the coat tales of another bee species, and thus saving time and energy in creating her progeny. This is the tale of two bees, one landscape, and a race against the changing of seasons. It seems like a recipe for doom!
However, there is one benefit of living in the Arctic Circle; the 24 hours of daylight! Bees can forage round the clock; resting minimally. B. polaris colonies do just that, whether they are working for a polaris or hyperboreus queen.
Bees are in the Arctic Circle, which means flowers are also present! With out forage, there are no bees. The flowers of the arctic, just to name a few, consist of arctic poppies, arctic roses, arctic willows, arctic orchids, and more.
These beautiful blooms emerge as soon as the snow melts, as their time for reproduction is also very short. Bees search frantically for blooms such as these to continue species’ existence, just as these flowers frantically bloom to attract the bees and continue species’ existence!
This is truly fascinating that any bees could live in the Arctic Circle! I am even impressed with the existence of flowers!
Bees are important to countless ecosystems, and even if they don’t produce lots of, or even any, honey for us to consume, their importance is undeniable!
Thank you for joining this incredibly important movement to save our bees!