A warm fall or winter can spell trouble for bees short on stores. If you’re one of those beekeepers who leaves just enough food for bees to make it through the colder periods of the year (and who isn’t these days?) then extra inspections to check stores may mean the difference between survival or demise of a colony during a warmer than usual period.
Like any cold blooded organism, bees are more active in warm weather. Heat buildup in a colony leads to a cause effect relationship that can become disastrous if carried too far. Increased activity by bees that are warmed up may stimulate the queen to lay eggs. This leads to a further rise in the colony’s metabolism, and as a consequence, more food is consumed and heat is produced.
This principle is well understood by those who routinely winter bees indoors in temperate climates. This is done using nucleus colonies (“nucs”) kept at clustering temperature (2-8 degrees C) by either heating during cold snaps or cooling by circulating frigid outside air through the building when too warm. This keeps the population in a steady state and food consumption is minimal.1
Although southern areas don’t have the extreme cold temperatures characteristic of more northern climes, the beekeeper must still be on guard against starvation. Again, the more bee activity, the higher the probablity colonies will run short on stores during the critical spring buildup. Ironically, this can happen even during a light nectar flow when resources brought in cannot compensate for the population’s need. The basic wintering axiom in temperate climates, therefore, applies no matter what the geographic location: “bees don’t freeze to death, they starve to death.”
Although a large number of foraging bees is desired by the honey producer/commercial pollinator, the queen breeder and those in the package bee business want young bees. No matter the final goal, most beekeepers attempt to equalize the population strength of colonies they manage. This eliminates the need to treat each hive as a separate entity, which can be time consuming and costly. The ability to estimate a colony’s strength at any one time, therefore, and make subsequent management decisions to correct imbalances are important beekeeping skills.
1 D. Murrell and D. MacDonald, The Alberta Beekeeping Manual, Agdex 616-4, Alberta Agriculture, pp. 57-58, 1984.