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How Honey Bees Survive the Winter
As Winter gives way to Spring, let’s look at how honeybees survive the cold months of the year, so that we may be able to help them better prepare for what is truly one of Nature’s greatest feats of survival.
According to Drew Burnett, beekeeper and founder and CEO of Drew’s Honeybees, honey bees stay warm by forming a cluster. They come together, with older bees on the outside and younger bees on the inside, and “vibrate their indirect flight muscles to produce metabolic heat” says Burnett. Similar to when humans work out, our body heat increases due, in part, to muscle contractions. Honey bees regulate the temperature of the cluster by how much they exert themselves and how tightly they cluster, loosening the ball when the outside temperatures begin to rise. The honey bee’s hair also has properties similar to down. When they form a cluster, their hair interlaces, adding an extra layer of insulation.
A honey bee colony begins to form a cluster around 40 degrees Fahrenheit and will stay in that configuration as long as the outside temperature remains at that level or lower. Honey bees do not gather nectar and dehydrate it into honey during this time – instead, they produce excess honey when “the weather’s amenable and the nectar and pollen are abundant,” Burnett says, so they have enough to last them the entire Winter. They will, however, break the cluster when the temperatures rise. Beginning at 50 degrees Fahrenheit they will leave the hive to take “cleansing flights,” meaning they go on a short flight to relieve themselves.
A member of the order Hymenoptera, honey bees are the only insects in that order that evolved this wintertime adaptation – most burrow and go dormant. This behavior is innate, but honey bees from warmer climates may have trouble surviving in colder climes. Burnett himself lost a strain of honey bees to the cold early in his career, partially due to them being a strain of Italian honey bee bred in Georgia and therefore not adapted to the cold, as well as Burnett not being “an able beekeeper” as he says. Where he fell short, he explains, was in his lack of controlling the mites and pathogens that plague honeybees.
Mites can be a large problem for all bees, but particularly honey bees who are trying to survive the winter. A specific mite, Varroa destructor, jumped to the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) from the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) in the 1950s, later coming to the United States in the 1980s. The honey bee had no evolutionary preparation for this pest. Due to this, the mite population of Varroa can quickly spiral out of control, leading to the hive to collapse due to the pathogens transmitted by the mite. This is an immense problem for both managed and feral honey bees (bees that survive without beekeeper intervention). However, researchers and beekeepers have developed treatments to limit mite populations in managed honey bee colonies.
Researchers and beekeepers have observed that some bees exhibit hygienic behaviors, such as grooming. Honey bees will also remove brood (larval honey bees) infested with mites from the hive before the honey bee reaches maturity. While this kills the disturbed brood, it interrupts Varroa’s incestuous lifecycle, keeping populations at manageable levels. Managed honey bees have their beekeepers to help them. “There are natural and Organic acids that you can apply to a hive,” Burnett says, “the vapors of which are lethal to mites at levels tolerable to the honey bee.” Burnett uses two acids — formic acid, which is produced by some ants as a defensive response — and oxalic acid.
“You need to make up for that lack of evolutionary preparation by controlling mites through artificial means,” Burnett says.
There are very few surviving feral honey bee hives due to mites, the pathogens they transmit, and pesticides. Accordingly, researchers go to great lengths to rescue feral honey bee colonies because a colony may be a trove of valuable genetics that enabled them to coexist with mites without the predictably disastrous results. According to Burnett, survivor feral honey bee colonies are essentially the beginning of an evolutionary response. “Nearly all unmanaged hives that encountered Varroa destructor perished. The few survivors have a genetic makeup allowing them to thrive despite Varroa. Varroa culled they herd, they survived”. Researchers want to know why so they can facilitate the process.
Mites are not alone in threatening the world’s foremost pollinator of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans we love. According to Burnett, Climate Change causes a lot of “worrying behavior” in honey bees, including but not limited to “swarming” (the process of honey bee hive reproduction) in the at the Fall, the wrong time of year. When hives swarm late, they invariably die in the ensuing Winter as they do not have the time to “fill their pantry for the long winter.” Drew has also witnessed northward march of pests. The small hive beetle, in particular, is a problem. It is usually kept at bay by cold temperatures, never surviving Winters north of the Carolinas. As our winters have become milder, the beetle has become a fixture of beekeeping in ever northern climes.
While combating Climate Change and restoring functioning ecosystems does not fall on one individual, Burnett says there is plenty any single person can do to help honey bees. “The main thing you can do is maintain an ecosystem with your plot of earth and not spray herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides,” he says. “Bees need plenty of forage… a manicured lawn is about as beneficial as a parking lot is to a honey bee.” He also noted that some beekeepers keep honey bees in cities successfully. If anything, the lack of agricultural chemicals present in a city – due to the overall lack of agriculture – can be especially helpful to honey bee colonies.
Twenty percent of all proceeds from Drew’s Honeybees go to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station Honeybee Program at Lockwood Farm in Hamden, Connecticut. Researchers at Lockwood farm have made discoveries that contributed to the Green Revolution, feeding us all.
More information can be found at www.portal.ct.gov/CAES