Life of Honeybees in Turbulent Weather Times Not So Sweet

WHIG Standard By Elliot Ferguson June 14, 2019 / updated June 15, 2019

Beekeeper Elaine Peterson lifts a frame out of one of her hives at her property north of Gananoque. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Beekeeper Elaine Peterson lifts a frame out of one of her hives at her property north of Gananoque. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Beekeeper Elaine Peterson had one bit of advice as she walked up to the hives she keeps on her property north of Gananoque.

“When you open a hive, they say you shouldn’t stand in front of it,” she said, lifting the lid off the top of a stack of three white boxes.

“You’re in their flight path.”

Within minutes, thousands of honeybees buzzed around her, bouncing off the mesh hood she wears that has become the most recognizable part of a beekeepers uniform.

This day she was in luck.

Beekeeper Elaine Peterson takes a frame out of one the hives in an effort to create a new hive at her property north of Gananoque.(Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Beekeeper Elaine Peterson takes a frame out of one the hives in an effort to create a new hive at her property north of Gananoque.(Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Hanging off one of the frames she removed was a new queen cell, the structure where new queen bees are grown.

Peterson removed the entire frame, placing it in a new hive box. From that queen, a new hive will eventually grow.

It was among the first hives Peterson had split this year.

“I am so late this year,” she said. “Usually I would be halfway through splitting the hives. I can’t get into the fields. It’s just been so wet.”

After 25 years of beekeeping, first as a hobby and now as a retirement job that has her with 200 hives distributed around farm fields in the Kingston area, Peterson said there have been subtle changes in the seasons, but she admitted that many effects may be so slight they have either gone unnoticed or she hasn’t chalked them up to climate change.  

The interior of a honeybee hive at beekeeper Elaine Peterson property north of Gananoque. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

The interior of a honeybee hive at beekeeper Elaine Peterson property north of Gananoque. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

“I believe in climate change. I’m not an idiot,” she said. “I don’t actually see great differences or I don’t attribute it to climate change.

“I’ve known it’s happening. I’ve known all these years only because in September you used to take all the things off the hives because come October you were packing them,” she said. “I pack them in December now. For me the season is shifting.”

Beekeeper Nancy Cole prepares her protective clothing before going out to her hives at her property near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Beekeeper Nancy Cole prepares her protective clothing before going out to her hives at her property near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

The change in the seasons is something beekeeper Nancy Cole has noticed at her property near Colebrook.

“They say bees in the environment are similar to canaries in coal mines. They are sort of the indicators,” Cole said. “I’ve noticed a difference in the past 10 years.”

Cole said she and other local beekeepers who are members of the Limestone Beekeepers Guild have become accustomed to losing about 25 per cent of their bees during the winter. In the past three years, her losses have been close to 50 per cent, and last year she lost 80 per cent.

“I lost a lot because of the cold spring, which is climate change, really. Our seasons are changing,” she said.

The constant rain this spring has put honeybees about a month behind schedule, said Curtis Brunet, who tends about a half-dozen hives on his one-hectare property north of Lansdowne.

“I am hyper aware of what is happening in the weather,” Brunet said. “If I didn’t have bees, I wouldn’t be so aware of exactly how many days it has been without rain, how many days it has been with rain, how many days has it been over 10 C.”

Honeybees in Canada have about three months to build their hives and make enough honey to make it through the following winter, the season when many hives succumb to the temperatures. 

Beekeeper Curtis Brunet adds smoke while opening a hive on his property north of Lansdowne. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Beekeeper Curtis Brunet adds smoke while opening a hive on his property north of Lansdowne. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

The rain and cold kept Brunet away from his hives for most of May, the month when honeybees get started preparing for the next winter.  

“I didn’t get my hives split in time because every time I tried to come up here, it was either raining or it was too cold. Usually I am into the hives at the beginning or middle of May. By the end of May, I should have gone through my hives, reversed them, done their antibiotics. By now, they are making honey.

“This year in particular we have had a crazy spring.”

Beekeeper Curtis Brunet carries a frame full of bees over to a new hive on his property north of Landsdowne. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Beekeeper Curtis Brunet carries a frame full of bees over to a new hive on his property north of Landsdowne. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Honeybees, the only insect that makes food that humans can eat, are critical to agriculture as a pollinator.

But for their importance, the honeybee faces critical threats, including disease, mites and chemicals such as neonicotinoid, an agricultural insecticide that many beekeepers consider among the most lethal threats to honeybees.

Climate change is just one subtle threat on a long list of challenges to honeybees. 

“We are beginning to see some changes that aren’t good news,” said retired college instructor Bill Kirby, who keeps about 16 hives on his 24-hectare property near Yarker.

A closeup of honeybees at a hive near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

A closeup of honeybees at a hive near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

“It’s not to the point that the world is ending as far as honeybees are concerned, but the variability of the weather is an additional stress on an already stressed population.”

Timing is the key to the survival of a honeybee hive.

When warmer spring temperatures arrive, a queen bee starts making more workers who, in turn, start making honey to feed the hive.

“What seems to be happening is the temperatures are different, as is the rainfall, and the sunlight, the heat, those have an influence on the beehives,” said Kirby, who has been a hobby beekeeper for 40 years.

A honeybee lands at the entrance to a hive near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

A honeybee lands at the entrance to a hive near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

“When this spring happened, and last spring, there were not the flowers that there should have been at the time when they should have been there.”

If the spring weather cools, hives that have already created more bees than can be fed will starve unless they are supplied extra food.

Beekeepers are known for keeping track of the weather, and it wasn’t just this spring that seems to be different, Brunet said.

Beekeeper Bill Kirby checks one of his hives on his property near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Beekeeper Bill Kirby checks one of his hives on his property near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Winters in recent years have been getting harder for honeybees to survive, and the milder seasons have become difficult to predict.

A couple of summers ago, the Kingston area baked under the driest summer conditions on record, conditions that had a knock-on effect for honeybee hives even in the following summer. 

“Too dry, too wet, too cold, too hot,” Brunet said. “We can see our winters getting harder. The length of those really cold, cold spells, like -20 C, that is really tough on the bees. And then when you get those springs where it rains every single day, that screws everything up. Flowers and trees are not pollinating at the same time, that puts the queen behind. If spring comes early, they may run out of food.

Honeybees on Curtis Brunet’s property north of Lansdowne. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Honeybees on Curtis Brunet’s property north of Lansdowne. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

“I think any change, whether they are local or global, it totally affects the bees,” Brunet said. “We are just starting to see those signs and they are only going to get more and more dramatic.”

“What’s happening in our summers is that they are either cold and wet or hot and dry,” Kirby added. “We don’t have that stable weather pattern where we get rain every couple of weeks and we get sun most of the time and the temperatures are reasonable. That affects honey production.”

In recent years, Kirby said, the shifting weather patterns have created a disconnect between what honeybees are expecting and what is actually happening in the environment.

Honey reflects sunlight in one of Bill Kirby’s hives on his property near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

Honey reflects sunlight in one of Bill Kirby’s hives on his property near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

And the increasingly unpredictable and variable weather isn’t limited to the spring. Summers are just as hard to forecast, Kirby said.

Honeybees are small. They can’t fly in the rain. When it’s hot and dry, flowers stop making nectar.

“What seems to be happening is the temperatures are different, as is the rainfall, and the sunlight, the heat. Those have an influence on the beehives,” Kirby said. “The changes in our environment are going to come faster than we actually now are experiencing and that make even more extreme conditions and irregular patterns.

“I’d like to be an optimistic person — I’ve tried to live my life that way — but I don’t think there is a great future ahead of us.”

A new worker honeybee emerges from a brood cell in a hive near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)

A new worker honeybee emerges from a brood cell in a hive near Yarker. (Elliot Ferguson/The Whig-Standard)