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Science & Environment

A Warm Winter Means Headaches For Beekeepers

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Winter is downtime for honeybees. They settle in their hives and rest. But this winter has been unusually warm in some places, and that's causing some major headaches for beekeepers. Molly Samuel of member station WABE in Atlanta reports.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: I'm at a community garden in Atlanta with Linda Tillman. She's a master beekeeper and the president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association. She's bundled up on a cool winter day.

LINDA TILLMAN: Well, we're standing by a hive that's completely silent for the radio, which I'm sorry about.

SAMUEL: Bad for the radio since I don't get to record bees buzzing, but good for the bees because this is what they're supposed to be doing this time of year.

TILLMAN: The bees are inside keeping their brood warm.

SAMUEL: Tillman says they're in their cluster together with the honey they've stored to eat through the winter - all good. The problems arise when the temperature is a little warmer, like around 50 degrees, which has happened a lot here this winter.

TILLMAN: And if it is a really warm day, they start looking for the possibility that spring is actually here.

SAMUEL: They head out of the hive on a quest for flowers to get pollen and nectar.

TILLMAN: And at this time of the year, there's no nectar, so they fuel themselves with the honey that they have stored in the hive.

SAMUEL: If the bees eat all the honey they'd saved for the winter, there's actually a risk of starvation. Beekeepers can feed their bees sugar water at times like this to get them to the spring. But there's another problem because flying around wears bees out.

GLORIA DEGRANDI-HOFFMAN: And when bees fly, physiologically, they're aging.

SAMUEL: Gloria Degrandi-Hoffman is an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture based in Arizona. She says in the spring, it's better for the colony to have fresh, energetic new honeybees ready to get out there and forage, not bees that have already clocked in time flying because it was too warm to settle in.

DEGRANDI-HOFFMAN: The population being made of older individuals - they begin to decline and can cause colonies to either die over the winter or early in the spring.

SAMUEL: Honeybees face other challenges, like pesticides and parasitic mites. But Degrandi-Hoffman says warmer falls and winters are enough of an issue that she's studying one possible solution - keeping bees in indoor cold storage facilities.

DEGRANDI-HOFFMAN: You know, you use forklifts, and you can move these colonies around. They're fastened to the pallets.

SAMUEL: We're talking big scale here. She's working with commercial beekeepers who truck their bees from farm to farm, pollinating things like almonds. In one of her studies, bees were kept in cold storage in Idaho until the spring.

DEGRANDI-HOFFMAN: You're sort of simulating the way it was decades ago, where you had October come around and it started to get cold. And by November, you know, the bees really weren't flying anymore.

SAMUEL: Here in Georgia, beekeeper Linda Tillman makes her own adjustments to the changing climate. She's held back on harvesting honey to make sure her bees have enough to get them through this weirdly warm season.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.