Bumblebees Have Colonized a Freezing Barren Arctic Island by Mistake

Bees may have colonized a freezing Arctic island in Russia's north by mistake, having been carried there by violent storms.

Five bee species were found living on Kolguev Island in the Barents Sea by scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Urals Branch, Russian news outlet TASS reported.

Bees are able to travel over large distances, meaning it is likely these species migrated from the mainland over 40 miles away, lead researcher Grigory Potapov told the news outlet.

But Kolguev Island is not their typical habitat.

Stock image, Queen Bee and Arctic Storm
In this combination image, Arctic winter storm and a close up of a Royal bee (Inset) on green leaves in the morning iStock / Getty Images

The island is based in the tundra zone—a region just below the ice caps of the Arctic. This means harsh winds blow constantly around the island, creating difficult conditions for the insects.

"It is fascinating that such a diversity of bumblebees has colonized so barren an island far north of the polar circle. Winters are extremely long and harsh and overwintering [queens bees] must be able to survive freezing temperatures for many months," Lars Chittka, author of the new book The Mind of a Bee and leader of Queen Mary, University of London's Bee Sensory and Ecology Lab, told Newsweek.

"Spring and summer combined there last only 3 months, and in this short period, queens have to secure a sheltered nesting site, build honeypots and brood chambers from wax, lay eggs, keep the brood warm, collect nectar and pollen from flowers, and raise workers, males and new queens before freezing temperatures kick in again. It's testimony to the extreme resilience of some bumblebees, their ability to keep warm by using flower nectar as an energy source, and their sheltered nest constructions further providing warmth for their young."

Chittka said it is likely that this particular colonization may have occurred by mistake.

"Such colonizations happen when an inseminated queen bee manages to cross the sea to make it to an island—but a queen deliberately flying out over open sea (when a body of land is not visible as the flight target) would risk almost certain death. So the queens that started these populations most likely got to the island by accident, perhaps displaced by violent storms. The vast majority of queens so displaced would not have been so lucky as to find an island along the way."

Climate change may explain how the bees are able to survive in such conditions, as they may not be as cold as they were previously.

"It is perfectly plausible that climate warming contributes to the chances of survival of the bees—milder winters will mean that more queens survive, longer summers mean there is a longer time window to visit flowers and provision the young," Chittka said.

But climate change also poses negative effects for the species.

"Kolguyev Island was in the news a few years ago because the local reindeer population nearly completely collapsed- in part a result of mismanagement, but also a result of weather changes," Chittka said. "Icy rains had covered the already sparse vegetation resulting in starvation of the reindeer—but where reindeer can't access the leaves, bees also can't access the flowers either. And when there's no nectar, there's no energy to keep warm—which is essential to survival in such arctic conditions."