Bitten by the cold

Alberta beekeepers had smooth sailing through January. It was so mild in southern Alberta that one beekeeper wrote to ask if bees could be swarming. Swarming to the toilet, yes. Literally swarming with queen in tow, no. But the activity was enough to concern a new beekeeper, I suppose. My own two backyard hives in Calgary acted like they owned the skies and the whole world was their personal sanitation system. (It wasn’t really that bad.) I think there were some record high temperatures last month. We had a chance to peak under the covers at the bees. In my case, I was not impressed with our backyard duet. They were buzzy, but not especially well-populated.

January became February and the tropical vortex was replaced by a polar vortex. It’s lasted two weeks already. What will be the effect of prolonged arctic cold? The good news is that mountain pine beetles, which have been killing millions of Canadian trees, have finally been dealt a setback. Not permanent, but it could buy the trees another year or two of life. But what’s bad for the beetles could be bad for the bees. After the mild days of January, the bees have cancelled all their ‘swarming’ plans. They are now clustered tighter than bugs in rugs.

The picture above is interesting in a couple of ways. I’m experimenting with polystyrene hives with no extra insulation wrapped around them. Having snow on the covers could mean one of two things – either the insulation is keeping all the heat inside, or the bees are dead and there is no heat to lose. I hope it’s the first reason.

So what should a beekeeper be doing in this cold? If your hives went into winter well-provisioned, well-wrapped, and well-populated, you don’t need to do anything. The January thaw gave the bees a chance to take cleansing flights, move closer to honey stores, and let the outer-cluster bees come in and the inner-cluster bees go out. The February cold weather will delay some brooding, but that won’t be a problem yet.  When If it warms up, we might start feeding. In a short while, a bit of fondant might be a good idea.

On a colder note, last week my wheelchair got stuck in the snow at the university. It was minus 25. I spend fifteen minutes, or more, trying to push my chair through the snow by turning the chair’s hubs with my bare hands. (I can’t wear gloves because some paralysis has affected my hands.) By the time I pushed myself into the building, I ended up with mild frostbite. It’s recovering nicely, likely with little lasting damage. If you’ve never seen a slight touch of frostbite, here is a picture of my right hand, taken three days after freezing. The dark areas were against the icy metal on the wheelchair for just a little too long. As soon as I could, I slathered aloe vera and honey (yes, honey) on the burns. So far, the skin hasn’t even blistered. I hope my bees are as lucky.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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24 Responses to Bitten by the cold

  1. Your poor hands!
    I hope your bees survive the cold. I’m intrigued to hear the results of the polyethylene hives.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ray says:

    It may be of interest Ron but most in the UK seem to put fondant on the inner cover at the beginning of winter just in case the bees need it. This winter, much like yours, and like most winters in the UK, we have cold spells and mild spells. The bees have been out in force the last few days as we have temps up to 15 degrees celsius but I’m sure winter hasn’t finished with us just yet!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks for the idea of putting the fondant on in late autumn. Some beekeepers in the southern USA use fondant (aka hard candy or sugar boards) to stimulate the bees in late winter. But I think that shouldn’t be a problem in the December darkness of the UK or the extreme cold here in Canada. It would give the beekeeper some peace of mind during the long winter.
      It looks like the UK is in for a mild spell for the whole week ahead. What are the bees working?


      • Ray says:

        The bees are mostly on the bulbs; daffs, snowdrops, aconite, plus of course helibores. Forecasters say it could be 18C this week, that’s about 65F in old money!


  3. Anonymous says:

    I am so worried about my bees two hours north east of Edmonton… the weather in the last couple of weeks has been as cold as minus 40 and not above minus 30 for days 😦


  4. avwalters says:

    We wrap our hives with rigig insulation–as result that I think should be the near equivalent of the polystyrene hives. The downside is that, in the past, I could tell if the bees were still alive with a stethoscope. Now, there’s no way to get a read on the hives. The wrap takes the highs and lows out of the equation, but it also maintains the temperatures, so that the hives don’t necessarily respond to a warm snap with cleansing flights. It’s just cross your fingers and wait for spring…. (and here’s to a full recovery from the frostbite.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Emily Scott says:

    Really sorry to hear about your hands. Wish someone had stopped to help you – or was no-one around? Must have been so painful.

    I’m never sure whether to worry more or less about cold weather. Some beekeepers in the UK say a properly cold winter is better as the bees use up less honey reserves that way and aren’t tempted to waste time flying at a time when few flowers are out. My bees are on their second slab of fondant this winter. But then when it’s very cold – but not as cold as you guys have it! – I do worry.

    Today was beautiful and I spotted honey bees and bumblebees foraging on heather. Crocuses and daffodils are out now in Cornwall; also the magnolias and fruit trees have just begun blossoming.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      I am so envious! Heather, magnolias, crocus, daffodils, fruit trees. Sounds like the land of Oz compared to what we have here today. Our crocus and willow start in late April – just another 70 days or so!


      • Phillip says:

        I’m envious too. I’m on the most easterly portion of the island of Newfoundland in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. The ocean is a kilometre away from my house and I can actually see what’s called the Labrador Current (a frozen arctic current) from my beeyard. It’s so cold and damp it isn’t funny. Today we’ve got -30 degree windchills and for the first time ever, I’m worried some of my colonies might freeze to death.

        Emily, my bees don’t get to taste crocuses or daffodils until April (hearing the same from Ron makes me feel better). Flowering trees don’t usually blossom until June. I’m moving to Cornwall.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Emily Scott says:

        I’m feeling very lucky! Spring must seem even sweeter for you when it comes.


  6. gregmbutler says:

    Yikes !! What a horrific story . Very sorry to read this – hope your’e coming along with speedy recovery.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am safe to assume that polystyrene hives bodies have a higher R-value than wood? And by that I would also wonder if they would discourage excessive warming during those “false Spring” temperature swings and thus not encourage early brood production? (Or am I just talking through my hat?; )


  8. mijoka says:

    Hello Ron
    Hope it is getting warmer in Canada
    Just off the presses , the French organization of Health has taken a stand {ANSES} , all pesticides will have to pass the test “no bee killed ” in order for any chemical Co to market their drugs . As posted by Pollinis a group dedicated in preserving the bees , one giant step toward cleaner food supply which will affect everyone . Sadly a bit late for all the Farmers which paid the ultimate price by using so called safe pesticide .


  9. Pingback: Bitten by the cold | How To Start Bee Farming

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