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Honey, it's cold outside: Winter brings slower season for beekeeping

Liz Lindsey prepares her hives for winter.
Liz Lindsey prepares her hives for winter.

In the spring and summer, Orange County bees are buzzing with activity, but in the winter, the hives settle down. Across the United States, bee colony losses for the 2014-15 year averaged 42.1 percent.

“In fall, the bees start to reduce their colony size,” beekeeper Marty Hanks said.

“The first to go are all drone bees. They are kicked out and not allowed back in.”

Drones do not help the worker bees gather pollen and honey or clean and heat the hive. Their only function is to mate with the virgin queen bees.

Winter weather puts stress on the bees, so the workers stay in the hive and form a cluster around the queen. They heat the hive by moving their wing muscles, vibrating the air and producing heat.

Beekeepers do not interfere with the hives in the winter, but they work hard each summer to ensure that the hive has a good chance of survival.

“I was lucky and did not lose bees last year,” N.C. Certified Master Beekeeper Liz Lindsey said.

“I attribute this to my breeding bees for genetic diversity, not gentleness; allowing them to keep adequate stores of honey; and, when possible, placing bees away from pesticides.”

Lindsey keeps bees in Orange and Durham counties, including at Transplanting Traditions, an organic farm at Triangle Land Conservancy’s Irvin Farm in Orange County.

Chris Apple, co-president of the Orange County Beekeepers Association, has three hives. She said up to 30 percent of her hives can be lost each winter. Hanks said he also experiences a 30 percent loss of beehives each year.

“Bees at this time may die from lack of honey, not enough bodies in the cluster to maintain warmth, and it is a time when some succumb to the ravages of diseases brought upon by Varroa mites, a parasite of bees which transmits diseases,” Lindsey said.

She said bees need about 45 pounds of honey per hive to survive the winter.

“Bees are very meticulous about their housekeeping,” Apple said. “Every time a day dawns that is semi-sunny and above 50 degrees, they will leave the hive to relieve themselves.”

Because pollinators are declining, Lindsey emphasized the need for more beekeepers to learn bee breeding and preference their health over their gentility.

“I take some stings for the team,” she said.

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