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2013-2014 Winter Honey Bee Losses Are Likely To Be Large


Dead honey bees in a colony with inadequate food reserves. (Urbana, Illinois)

Over the next few months we will hear news of this winter's honey bee losses in North America. The news won't be good.

Although official loss tallies have yet to be released, persistently cold weather across the northern part of the continent has made the 2013-2014 winter an unusually difficult one. Beekeepers relying on standard fall harvesting and feeding regimes are almost certainly discovering, as spring arrives, that their preparations were inadequate for at least some colonies.

Honey bees survive winter in a remarkable fashion. Rather than slowing into diapause the typical insect way, letting the body's natural anti-freeze proteins do the work, honey bees instead maintain the center of the nest at room temperature. They create heat by metabolizing honey, and the honey furnace is powerful indeed. Hive temperature doesn't waver even at - 40º outside. Honey is fuel, and in cold winters bees need more fuel than in warm winters. They are like us.

I mention the weather as a preemptive debunking of agenda-laden claims to come.

Recent bee declines, and especially the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, are often co-opted into the advocacy efforts of groups against cell phones, pesticides, and any number of other issues. While these organizations are well-intentioned, their efforts have tended to overstep the scientific research on Colony Collapse. The best studies point somewhere between inconclusive and a complex blend of various factors. If this season's losses are high, we will likely be hearing more of the loosely-tethered campaigning. Be appropriately skeptical that anything other than weather (and, if you like, climate change) is behind the latest bee-pocalypse.

Colony Collapse, whatever the cause, is marked by a lack of adult bees in the hive in early spring. It's as though the worker force flew off and never returned, leaving behind a queen, some young bees, and otherwise healthy-looking brood.

Regular winter loss, on the other hand, ends with adult bees inside the hive, tragically face-down in the cells as they ate through the final honey stores:

Colonies that perish from starvation are found with many workers face-down in empty honey cells, having eaten the last of the stores.

These bee deaths are sad, but they are not a symptom of some global conspiracy. They are simply what happens when lazy beekeeping meets a harsh winter.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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