Their little bodies vibrate. They form a tight ball cluster around the queen and dislocate their wings so they can move their muscles without flapping. It sounds violent, but they do this to keep warm. It’s one of the ways the honeybee has adapted to the cold.
The success of the honey season is dependent not only bees and flowers, but also on the weather, and winterizing a honeybee hive is not a simple task.
Alida and Lorne Prins of Gull Lake Honey Company have been in the industry for three years. They said it’s typical in this region to lose 25 per cent of a colony over the winter.
“If you say compare that to cattle or any other industry if you lose 25 per cent of your livestock in a season is kind of an unrealistic number. But for beekeepers, it’s something that we yearly have to go through,” said Alida.
“We do everything that we possibly can to reduce that number,” Lorne added.
The commercial honeybee is not a native species to North America. They are able to withstand the cold, but not an Alberta winter cold.
“It is a pretty harsh climate for them to over-winter in without any additional support,” Alida said.
There are three factors in winter preparation for beehives: feeding, treating, and insulating.
Once beekeepers pull the last of the honey for the season, they will provide replacement food for the colony. The colony needs this replacement food to survive the winter and the replacement food also increases the likelihood of the colony’s survival.
The raw honey in this area – from clover and canola – explains Alida is naturally hard and crystalizes.
“It’s a lot of work for them to reconstitute that very cold hard honey. The sugar syrup that we provide them is a lot easier for them to reconstitute and feed. It’s kind of a help to them,” she said.
Beekeepers have a number of methods they use to keep colonies warm. One way is to simply bring the hives indoors. Other methods include reducing the entrance to hives to limit the amount of cold air, insulated pillows and insulated wraps.
“The bees have a remarkable ability to withstand cold, but they’re very vulnerable to draft. If they have cold blowing through the hive, they will not survive the winter,” Lorne explained. “So, we’ve provided them an insulated tarp that really cuts down on the windchill and it allows them to consume less of their food stores to maintain their temperature inside the hive.”
Hive temperatures can reach between 17-20 degrees and up to 35 degrees at the core. The Prins’ describe the heat that each colony produces as the equivalent of a tea light candle. However, overheating and moisture build-up can have negative consequences for a colony.
Diseases and pests can also ravage a hive in the winter months. Beekeepers monitor hives and treat them as necessary with antibiotics, antimicrobials and miticides. These treatments are usually administered outside of the honey production season.
“The biggest risk to the bees over the winter are varroa mites. It is a parasitic mite that attaches itself to honeybees, it’s a fairly complex relationship, but essentially they weaken the colony to a point where the colony can collapse during the winter months – if the infestation is too high,” said Lorne.
Hive management also includes being aware of the age of the queen, said Alida, and queens typically live for three years, or three seasons.
“If a queen dies mid-winter or late fall that colony will not survive to the spring, and there’s nothing we can do about that,” she said.
Last winter was catastrophic for beekeepers in Alberta. The industry reported huge losses in hives due to a cold and rainy winter prep season and a harsh winter.
The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturist (CAPA) released a report Sept. 11, on colony losses for the 2020 season. Alberta reported the highest winter colony loss out of all the other provinces. The national average winter loss was 30.2 per cent. Alberta’s winter loss was 40.5 per cent.
The report stated the reason for these losses were: weather, poor queens, starvation, and ineffective varroa control.
Alberta is Canada’s top honey producer and produces 41 million pounds annually, according to a government press release. This contributes $67 million to the economy.
Bees also play a role in pollinating crops.
Devin Dreeshen, minister of agriculture and forestry said, “The market value of honeybees to the pollination of pedigree hybrid canola and canola crop production is estimated to be $650 million per year.”
“Bees are essential to Alberta agriculture, not just as pollinators, but as a thriving industry all on its own,” Dreeshen said.
The Prins said they have had some challenges over the years, but no catastrophic winter losses.
“We did get into beekeeping during the three poorest seasons in a row that Alberta beekeepers have experienced … the last three years have been the poorest, if not the poorest in forty to fifty years,” said Alida.
Despite a poor honey crop this summer – due to poor weather – the weather has been cooperating this fall and the bees have had time to properly prepare themselves for winter.
“A good haymaking summer is a good honey making summer and a good harvest fall is a good winter prep fall,” said Lorne. If the grain farmers can get their crops off, then typically the beekeepers can get their bees ready for the winter.”