Industry News and Events

Posted:Wed, Dec 30th, 2015 1:49:33 pm

Busy Bees all the Buzz

By: Lynn Curwin, Truro Daily News.  Published December 29, 2015

What do honeybees do in winter?

If you said hibernate, you're wrong.

While bumblebees and wasps do hibernate, honeybees are busy trying to ensure their hives survive the colder months.

Tony Phillips, who has had bees since 1974, says the insects beat the cold by forming a cluster, which could contain 20,000 individual bees. They go to the centre in shifts and while there they eat honey from the combs on which they are perched, using their energy to flex their wing muscles and create heat. On a sub zero-day the temperature at the centre of the cluster could reach 35 C. The queen is protected at the innermost area.

What do honeybees do in winter?

If you said hibernate, you're wrong.

While bumblebees and wasps do hibernate, honeybees are busy trying to ensure their hives survive the colder months.

Tony Phillips, who has had bees since 1974, says the insects beat the cold by forming a cluster, which could contain 20,000 individual bees. They go to the centre in shifts and while there they eat honey from the combs on which they are perched, using their energy to flex their wing muscles and create heat. On a sub zero-day the temperature at the centre of the cluster could reach 35 C. The queen is protected at the innermost area.

"Some are lost during the winter, and winter loss is unpredictable," said Phillips. "You might have expected last winter to be bad but the snow broke the wind and helped insulate the hives. Some of them had four feet of snow on top so we had to clear the top entrance when it got warm enough for them to get out for a cleansing flight, because they don't want to poop in their hives."

Phillips has seen bees that are lured out too soon fall to the ground when they flew from the warmth of the sun into a shadow.

Phillips keep some of his 150 hives in a dark storage room for the winter, while others are in an outdoor area with southern exposure and trees on three sides. The indoor space is kept between 5 and 9 C because that is the optimum temperature to reduce the need for feed, and thus reduce the need for an early cleansing flight.

Bees seal any cracks in their hives with propolis, a shellac-like substance they collect from plants. But top ventilation is needed to allow moisture to escape.

"In our climate, if that moisture cannot escape the hive, it may condense and freeze and the cluster may become immobilized in a palace of ice," said Phillips.

Summer bees live for about six weeks, working as a collector for about three of those weeks. Winter bees, which are created in late August or September have a possible lifespan of 250 days. Most of those in Nova Scotia are Carniolan honeybees, which are native to north central Europe and survive the Canadian winter better than the Italian honeybees.

To make money with bees in Nova Scotia it is important to have pollination customers, and Phillips has blueberry farmers who "hire" his bees part of the year. Hives need to be moved a minimum of five kilometres so the insects don't return to their former site.

Phillips calls the hive in winter "an emblem of endurance and hope" and says beekeeping is "endlessly fascinating - even in winter."

Tony Phllips is not worried about the honeybee population dying off since the number of hives kept globally is increasing.

Most losses, he says, involve native pollinators, not honeybees. If one plant is removed from the environment it could mean a two-week period with no pollen for native bees, resulting in many deaths.

Native pollinators are much more likely to survive in wild areas of Nova Scotia, where there is a wide variety of plants, than in areas with a monoculture.