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Cold Can Destroy Invasive Insects, but Bees Winter Well

January 15, 2014

Experts are hopeful the very cold winter conditions in the northern United States will cause a sharp decrease in the number of invasive pests like the emerald ash borer this spring and summer, because  the overwintering larvae are susceptible to cold.

But do frigid conditions also endanger those benefactors of humankind, the honey bees? How do they make it through the winter? The answer is, honey bees have a special way of coping with the cold. This photo was sent to David Westervelt, our chief of Apiary Inspection here at FDACS-DPI, by a Canadian colleague, Geoff Wilson.

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Find the bees. They’re not in the shed; they are in the snow under those bushes. They will spend the rest of the winter under the snow cover.

“The temperature when I was taking the pictures was a balmy -4F, but we have been to -36F a couple of times this winter,” Wilson wrote. “There are a few dead bees on the snow – a good sign, but I am not really sure how they got out.”

The colonies are stacked two high and wrapped together in blankets of insulation underneath the heavy show cover. They will stay there until the spring thaw. Inside, the honeybees have formed a “winter cluster,” which has one purpose: to keep the queen alive and warm. Clustered around the queen, the bees flutter their wings and shiver. This keeps the temperature in the cluster between 46 degrees on the outer edge to 80 degrees in the center, where the queen is. Worker bees rotate from the outside to the inside of the cluster, so no individual gets too cold. The colder the weather is outside, the more compact the cluster becomes. (See more here)

Westervelt said colonies usually make it through the northern winter just fine. One danger, though, is a potential build-up of moisture. That can make it actually rain inside the hives, causing the bees to freeze.

Wilson sent the photos last year after Westervelt sent him photos of bees in warm and sunny Florida being loaded for transport to warm and sunny California for pollination duty.

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