As Northeast Ohioans welcome a weekend forecast of warmer-than-usual weather, one unlikely group is preparing for changes in temperature: Lorain County’s honeybees.
When temperatures drop below 40 degrees in fall and winter months, bees huddle together in their hives until temperatures rise again, typically in April or May. But when winter temperatures reach into the fifties and sixties, as is expected to occur this weekend, honeybee behavior is a different story—one that ranges from helpful to harmful, depending on the beekeeper you ask.
Beginning in October, bees cluster together out-of-sight and quite literally “shake the cold off,” said Bonnie Pierson, beekeeper and mentor with the Lorain County Beekeeper Association (LCBA). “Bees do not hibernate or go dormant when temperatures drop. Instead, they use energy from honey they stored the previous spring to vibrate their thoraxes and generate heat in their hives,” Pierson said.
The stakes are high for Ohio’s honeybees. If they do not keep the temperature of their hive at a comfortable 45 degrees, their colony is at risk of death by freezing. When the queen begins to lay eggs in mid-January, her brood must be incubated at temperatures in the mid-nineties. But when higher fall and winter temperatures heat up the hive, bees no longer need to generate warmth and are free to go on what LCBA President Denzil St. Clair refers to as “cleansing flights.”
Likening bees to humans and house pets, St. Clair said that “bees will not expel waste in their hive.” “They will store it in their midgut and will expand to the point of bursting before releasing it inside, sometimes waiting four to five months. When temperatures get warm enough, that’s when bees can go outdoors and let it all out.” Following a cleansing flight, grasses and trees may be coated in a fine, pollen-like yellow dust that may sound magical but is at the end of the day bee poop.
Warmer winter temperatures also offer beekeepers one of their only opportunities of the season to evaluate the health of their hive. “Opening the lid on your hive when it’s too cold out can wipe out the bees,” said Jon Reichel, former apiary inspector for Lorain County. “But when it gets up to fifty or sixty degrees, you can sneak a quick look to see how they’re coming along.”
If Reichel notices something out of the ordinary--a dramatic decrease in the size of a hive, a lack of available honey stores, colder-than-usual temperatures--this is one of the few times he can intervene. “Occasionally there is still honey available to the bees, but it’s farther away in their hive. While they’re on a cleansing flight, I may move it closer for them,” Reichel said. In the past, Reichel has also added insulation to his hives in colder weather and served his bees a mixture of sugary fruit juice in lieu of available nectar.
The rest of the winter season is a combination of “crossing your fingers and hoping you made all the necessary preparations. Sometimes you think your hive is healthy and then when it’s warm enough you find out that the bees are all dead.”
Every few years, the national media attributes a theory to Albert Eisntein: that “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” Although researchers have been unable to verify that Einstein said those words, I asked St. Clair to imagine a “worse-case scenario” for Ohio’s bees.
“A month-long cold spell,” he said. “Below-digit temperatures are okay, as long as they’re not too long.” St. Clair told me that long-term cold temperatures can result in bees having to exhaust more energy (and honey) to keep their hives warm. If a colony did not built up sufficient honey stores the previous spring, long periods of extremely cold temperatures can put bees in danger of starvation.
Tim Moore, a former Lorain County apiary inspector, offered another end-of-the-world scenario, one that has become more common in recent years. If fall and winter months are unseasonably warm for extended periods of time, bees can deplete their honey stores early by being overly active.
“As soon as it starts to get warm out, bees will go in search of nectar. Only, if this happens in February there isn’t any nectar for them to collect” because plants have not blossomed yet, Moore said. After expending energy foraging, bees return back to their hive and need to consume more honey than usual. If warm spells go on for too long and a hive has not sufficiently stored honey, its bees may starve.
According to Reichler, who maintains fourteen hives of his own, this was the case for certain colonies last winter, which saw unusually warm temperatures in February and an unexpected cold snap in March. “Not only was March of 2017 cold, but there was so much rain,” Reichler said. “You’d think that rain is a good thing because it keeps the plants that bees pollinate alive, but it also washes away nectar.”
When Reichler performed his routine inspections following last year’s winter, he noticed an unexpected trend: “I looked at a lot of hives, and many of them, if they weren’t dead, did not have a lot of honey stored up. That was when I began to worry for this year’s winter.”
Reichler said that in a given year, he expects that “30% of hives will be lost to extreme temperatures, pests, or honey shortages.” But for the first time in Reichler’s three-year career as county inspector, he reported that people were losing their hives before winter had even began. “They just didn’t have enough honey built up because of the temperatures and the rain. I’m personally very worried about the next few months,” he said.
What’s more, following last year’s winter Reichler reported that Lorain County’s hives were more likely to contain pests, including the native small hive beetle, which can “empty a hive of its honey.” “To me, that’s a sign that a hive is weak. If bees are healthy, they’ll take care of pests on their own,” Reichler said.
But Barbara Bloetscher, state apiarist with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, is less troubled by this year’s winter than she is by the bigger picture. “At least the last three years we’ve had this problem,” Bloetscher said in an interview with the Associated Press last year.
As several local beekeepers confirmed, the health of Ohio’s bees depend to a large degree on winters that are “not too cold and not too warm.” As Reichler put it, “Ideally, it would be 40 degrees all winter.”
Extreme temperatures join pests, vandalism, herbicides, and general pollution on the list of threats to Ohio’s bees. On Thursday, NASA issued an annual report on global temperature data that listed 2017 as the second-hottest year in recorded history.
Bees pollinate an estimated one-third of the food produced in the United States and their survival may be considerably more important for Ohioans. Ohio farmers rely on bees to pollinate an estimated 70 crops, including apples, peaches, strawberries, grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, celery, and several varieties of peppers.