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Beekeepers attribute winter losses to whims of weather, not disease

Pennsylvania, USA

Unusual weather, more than the still-mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder, appears to be the main culprit behind honeybee deaths this winter, according to several apiarists in Western Pennsylvania. A warm January tricked many queens into laying larger numbers of eggs. When February arrived, bringing with it weeks of below-freezing temperatures, the adult bees faced the challenge of keeping a bigger-than-normal "brood nest" at a toasty 95 degrees. The bees do that by flexing their wing muscles to generate body heat that keeps the center of the hive warm. One bee-keeper took apart one of his dead colonies, taking out the wooden frames on which the bees build their honeycombs. Once the adult bees had eaten the honey from the combs nearest the "brood nest," they couldn't move to the next frame because they would have left the eggs, larva and pupa exposed to the cold. "They starved to death even though there was more food just an inch away." The presence of so many dead bees in his hives was one pretty definitive sign that he was not seeing colony collapse, he said. "These are nothing like the conditions migratory beekeepers are facing." Migratory beekeepers are those who transport their hives from location to location so their bees can pollinate farm crops and orchards. It is those traveling colonies that appear to have been most heavily affected by colony collapse. In late February, however, some nonmigratory beekeepers in the Mid-Atlantic states and in the Pacific Northeast began reporting colony losses. "The bees seemed to be under a lot of stress last fall. That made them nasty. When you took the top off a colony, they would go for you."

Related Video: American Bee Death Mystery

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