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Bee keepers brace for sting from cold weather

February 3, 2019
Shonyo

Schrödinger’s cat, a famous thought experiment, postulates that until a hypothetical cat in a box is observed, it’s both alive and dead at the same time.

After bitterly cold temperatures, Rochester beekeeper James White says his beehives are like that box.

“Right now, my bees are both alive and dead,” White said.

After two days with temperatures dipping below minus-20 degrees, area beekeepers are bracing for loss. Winter is usually rough on bee colonies even without extreme temperatures.

“This was so cold, we’re in a different category,” White said, who has been beekeeping for about 12 years.

White has 15 colonies at five locations in Rochester. If temperatures rebound to near 40 degrees Sunday as forecast, he plans to check on them to see how they fared. Opening a hive in temperatures below that could kill the colony inside. Until the cold breaks, most keepers will remain uncertain about the status of their colonies.

With other stresses on bees including parasites, pesticides and loss of foraging habitat, the cold weather is another added stress bees — and their keepers — didn’t need.

“Even if you do everything correct, you’re lucky if you can get one-third of your hives through the winter,” he said.

Sales for bee colonies are up, said White, a member and mentor with the Southeast Minnesota Beekeepers Association. He said organization members have reserved about 450 packages of bees for spring.

The Bee Shed in Oronoco also saw an uptick in bee orders for spring, said co-owner John Shonyo.

“I think a lot of people are anticipating bee loss and are buying them just to be safe,” Shonyo said.

Shonyo said the recent cold isn’t something he has experienced in his decade of beekeeping.

Shonyo and his business partner Chris Schad sent most of their colonies to California in October, where they will help pollinate for almond producers there. The colonies will then be shipped back to Minnesota in March, Shonyo said.

Initially, Shonyo wondered if the effort was necessary during the mild start to the winter.

“Now, we’re happy we did it,” he said.

The Bee Shed kept about a dozen hives to winter here in Minnesota. Shonyo said beekeepers can take steps to give colonies a better chance at surviving the winter. They can check and treat for parasitic mites, control moisture, and ensure the colony has enough honey in the hive as a food source.

Shonyo said he leaves about 60 to 80 pounds of honey per hive for the winter. White said he leaves 80 to 100 pounds.

Bees consume more food to keep the hive warm in cold weather. Shonyo said he will likely add some more food, likely sugar or fondant, when he checks on his hives this weekend.

However, even providing enough food doesn’t guarantee a colony will survive extreme cold. Bees cluster to stay warm in cold weather. Extreme cold can prevent bees from accessing the food even if it’s nearby, White said.

“They could starve right in that ball without getting 8 inches away to get the honey,” White said.

Despite the cold, Shonyo said he’s not giving up on his colonies he kept here.

“Bees are really resilient,” Shonyo said. “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion this cold killed all of them.”

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