March 2, 2024

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Bee hives cause unnecessary suffering during winter: “Inadequate design causes honey bee deaths” |  Science and the planet

Bee hives cause unnecessary suffering during winter: “Inadequate design causes honey bee deaths” | Science and the planet

New search It shows that honey bees have unnecessary difficulties surviving the winter in their hives. It is possible that misinterpretation of their behavior led to incorrect design of the beehives. As a result, insects have had to face suffering and death in winter for more than a century.

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) do not hibernate but remain active and warm by feeding on their honey supply. In the wild, the animals hibernate in tree cavities, which, thanks to their thick walls, provide enough shelter to keep the colony partially or completely at temperatures above 18°C. Even at temperatures well below freezing, insects stay warm this way. However, most knowledge about honeybee behavior in winter is based not on observations from the wild, but from beehives.

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Honeybees (Apis mellifera) do not hibernate but stay active and warm by feeding on their honey supply. © Getty Images

In these hives, bees congregate close together in combs or groups between honeycombs during the winter. The center of these groups is called the nucleus. There the bees disperse, eat honey and produce heat. This allows the cluster nuclei to reach around 18°C. As you move away from the center, the combs become more compact and the temperature drops because the bees cannot generate enough heat. Therefore the outer layers of the cluster, also called the mantle, can cool significantly, causing the honeybees to die.

Since the beginning of the last century, this behavior has been considered normal and necessary, both by beekeepers and academics. It was assumed that the mantle sits around the core like an insulating blanket and thus protects the colony from the cold. Since clusters formed in beehives even when the temperature reached -30 °C outside, it was assumed that this form of housing was sufficient for the insects.

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The insulation of the beehive is poor, which means that the heat dissipates much faster, causing stress and sometimes high mortality.
The insulation of the beehive is poor, which means that the heat dissipates much faster, causing stress and sometimes high mortality. © Getty Images/Westend61

However, a recent study offers new insight. After all, the jacket will not only serve as insulation, but will ensure the cooling of the block. When the temperature in the environment drops, the bees in the outer layers become too cold and stop producing heat. In order not to die, they must maintain their body temperature above 10 degrees Celsius, which they can only do by absorbing heat from other bees. Therefore, the animals in the mantle crawl toward the core, toward their honey-eating colony mates.

This causes the outer layers of the block to become increasingly compressed, which has serious consequences. The closer the bees are to each other, the greater the thermal conductivity. On the one hand, this ensures that heat from the core reaches the mantle more easily, but on the other hand, it is also released more quickly to the air outside the mass. Cold days therefore create a more compact mass that loses heat faster.

The use of thin-walled beehives is no longer responsible

In the wild, this mechanism usually does not cause major problems. The walls of cavities in large trees can be tens of centimeters thick and form an extensive barrier to outside air. Heat from the colony is therefore difficult to escape and aggregation is usually not necessary. But the walls of wooden beehives are much thinner, often about two centimeters. Consequently, insulation is poor and heat dissipates much faster, causing stress and sometimes high mortality.

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The research concludes that it is no longer responsible to use thin-walled wooden beehives. They cause clusters, leading to unnecessary suffering. So it would be better to replace them with more insulated frame cabinets. One possibility is to use a few centimeters of polystyrene instead of wood.

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