For some lucky parts of the country, this past winter season had several spurts of warm days, with temperatures sometimes climbing as high as 70 degrees before coming back down to the typically frigid air one expects of winter. While it was nice to have glimpses of spring and a break from the cold, there were some who took heavy hits as a result of those occasional warm spells—honeybees. One example showing itself this week involves the honeybees of Cape Fear, North Carolina. As Nancy Ruppert, an apiary inspector for the NC Department of Agriculture, put it: “Quite a few hives bit the dust…This was a winter that tested the bees, and many didn’t make it.”
Even though Cape Fear did have a recent temperature drop that wilted new blossoms, the low honeybee populations of this season can be linked back to last winter’s warm spells in that area. “You could see trouble coming back then,” said Bill Sheppard, a longtime beekeeper. According to Sheppard, there are certain conditions necessary for hives in winter—specifically, the cold temperatures must keep the bees inside the hive to keep it warm and safe to protect the queen, with them living off honey reserves saved up during spring and summer (enough to last them until next spring). Cape Fear, however, didn’t havethose conditions this year.
Trouble comes when temperatures rise above a certain level, and the bees are tempted to fly out in search of more nectar. However, there are no flowers in winter for bees to pollinate, which means they return empty-handed and hungrier than they would’ve been had they never left (since bees, like us, need more calories to move around). The bees have to dip into their honey reserves at a faster rate, thereby depleting them faster—in severe cases, bees have to suck fluid from unhatched larvae for nutrition, leading to weaker colonies later. Michael Shurman, a NC bee expert, stated in reaction to his region’s bee crisis: “The less active the hive is in winter, the better.”
With spring in full effect, it would be easy for Carolinians to assume their honeybees are out of the woods and can start building up hives again, but it’ll be awhile before nectar starts to flow, given the blossoms still being young and the recent the three-day drop to winter temperatures. Due to the honeybees’ vulnerable state, beekeepers are taking extra precautions in helping their “domestic” bees, but even others can help wild honeybees.
For instance, people can plant pollinator gardens and also delay spraying clover, dandelions, and other weeds for a bit to provide extra food sources. Luckily, Cape Fear expects warm temperatures for the next few weeks, so its honeybees can start rebuilding with help of their human neighbors. Even then, honeybees everywhere can benefit from the rest of us providing more food sources.