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Freezing temperatures could cause mass bee die-off

 
 

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Conservationists are concerned that the cold snap could kill hibernating bees, leading to a pollination crisis next summer. With temperatures forecast to plummet to –20°C in some parts of the UK, bees that are not deep underground may freeze to death.


A light covering of snow won't stop a bumblebee, but the prolonged cold snap will. (Photo: Bob White)

Whilst domesticated honeybees survive the winter in hives that are looked after by beekeepers, the UK also has 24 species of wild bumblebee that do not overwinter as a colony. Instead, just the queen bee hibernates underground until the warmth of spring wakes her. Such a prolonged cold spell may threaten to kill these hibernating queens, so bee numbers next summer could be very low.

Dr Ben Darvill, Director of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) explains: "A fertilised queen bumblebee is all that survives from one year to the next, so hibernation survival is absolutely crucial. A mass die-off in winter would have massive consequences for bee numbers in the following summer. Yet very little is known about hibernation — it's all hidden underground. We suspect that they tunnel deeply enough to avoid being frozen, but in a winter like this the ground may freeze more deeply than usual."

Low bee numbers would do more than quieten the buzz in our summer gardens. Between them, honeybees and bumblebees pollinate the vast majority of the UK's flowering crops and wild flowers — a service worth millions of pounds to the economy. Diseases have already hit honeybees hard and wild bumblebees are struggling too. They should be our free insurance strategy but sadly there are no longer enough wild flowers in most farmland areas to support healthy populations. Two bumblebee species have become extinct in the last 70 years and six more give serious cause for concern. The current near-arctic conditions sweeping the UK could make matters worse.

However, it is not yet certain that bumblebees will be badly affected, as Dr. Darvill explains: "There are bumblebee species that live right up in the Arctic Circle, so freezing conditions do not necessarily kill off hibernating queens. However, we are concerned that the UK's bumblebees are not so well adapted to such cold conditions — they may not be hibernating deeply enough underground for example. Although the layer of snow actually insulates the ground to begin with, the soil in many areas is now frozen. At a time when the nation's favourite pollinators are already struggling, they could do without this additional challenge. We sincerely hope that enough bees survive the winter to avoid a pollination crisis in 2010. The colour on our dinner plates and the future of our wild flowers depends on it."

Bumblebee Conservation Trust
To ensure that queen bees emerging in Spring have the best possible chance of starting a new colony, please make sure that your garden if full of their favourite flowers. For more information on how you can help to improve the 'plight of the bumblebee', visit www.bumblebeeconservation.org or phone BBCT on 01786 467818.

Readers might be interested to read a previous BirdGuides article about bumblebees and how we can help to conserve these important insects.

The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (4)

#1
Out of interest, does anyone know if the cold weather is likely to have a beneficial effect on bees, especially honey bees, by reducing Varroa mite numbers?
   Simon Edwards, 11/01/10 17:07Report inappropriate post Report 
#2
It's a fact that our bees have a long evolutionary history which has seen them through several ice-ages and this has been cited as a reason for optimism. However, it seems certain that those ice-ages will have resulted in local extinctions and that the bees we see today are the product of subsequent repopulation from warmer climates. If such local extinctions were repeated this winter, the speed of that repopulation could be critical to avoid the sort of economical impacts described in this...more more
   Tom Nixon, 15/01/10 08:42Report inappropriate post Report 
#3
Honey Bees look after them self; we may direct a colony at certain times of the year, as long it is not against their million year old nature. Waters out of nothing! Not even a magnifying glass, nor the modern Microscope can’t show all the secrets of honey bees. Drinking water below freezing temperature for the bees is one of them. In their natural home (hollow tree) they have no water axes, if they would need some, they may had to get it out of the air, where ells? Honey bees don’t like...more more
   George J Gruen, 18/05/12 18:41Report inappropriate post Report 
#4
If you get cachet in a bee swarm you may never come free. By George J Gruen. By the name bee, I talk only about honeybees! Isn’t it amazing, when you put your ear on a beehive and listen to the sound what comes from the inside? Do they cry or just being happy, who knows, we have to continue listening until we under stain for what their sound tells us. Most pueblos know what a honeybee is and some may like to know more about this insect. In beekeeping books and on PC are lots of practical of...more more
   George J Gruen, 18/05/12 18:51Report inappropriate post Report 

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