GTA beekeepers nurse their hives through tough winter

Tom Nolan worries that some of the city’s residents are barely enduring a brutal winter. They’re huddling close together, to save heat and to await the start of spring.

“They go into a hibernation-like state and they form a cluster around the queen and they use their body heat to maintain a certain temperature inside the hive,” Nolan said. He’s the founder of the Urban Toronto Beekeepers’ Association and beekeeper himself.

Beekeepers in the GTA have watched their beehives struggle over recent Canadian winters. This one has been one of the coldest. So, beekeepers are doing everything they can to help their bees make it through. Stephen Rice has been a beekeeper for 22 years and agrees this winter has been a tough one.

The smell of fresh honey and pinewood filled Rice’s back house, as Rice surveyed a dead hive. The hive had only died a few weeks prior.

“If you catch them at the right point, you can warm them up and they will come back to life,” Rice said.

In this case, this hive did not come back. In the hive, the bees were in a bundle, sticking close together, presumably trying to stay warm.

Stephen Humphrey works with the Toronto Beekeepers Co-operative. He recognizes some of the defensive systems bees use to survive harsh conditions.

“They’ll do what they do to get through winter,” Humphrey said. “But they also make honey to get through the winter, because you need a food supply to get through it.”

However, under extremely cold temperature, the bees have an even tougher fight.

“If it’s really, really cold, there are stains of honey inside the hive and outside the cluster,” Nolan said, “and they can’t break the cluster (to get food) so starvation is an issue.”

When a beekeeper has a dead hive, the circle of life takes its place.

“I’ll give it [the hive] to another colony,” Rice said, “and they will clean it up.” Rice added that other colonies “are surviving,” but they have run out of food. That’s when Rice manually feeds them, maybe once a week, so they don’t run out.

Another problem arises out of the winter, besides starvation.

“Bees will not go to the bathroom inside of the hive, so they actually hold it, and they can’t fly properly until it’s around five-degrees outside,” Nolan said “so they will hold it for a month, two months.”

When it gets warmer outside, this signals to the bees to perform a cleansing flight. Which was evident in yellow spots all over the white snow in Caledon.

“The longer they hold it the harder it is on their system,” Nolan said. “If it’s too cold they can’t get out and do that.”

Humphrey knows the main reason bees have trouble surviving Canadian winters.

“They weren’t meant for North American winters,” he said. “That is not what they were built for, so [beekeepers] wrap the hives in insulating material and hopefully they make it.”