Spring in winter? We have a problem.

Mar 05, 2017Brian Fredericksen

Many people are enjoying the warmest winter in their entire lifetime, but this one has a different feeling to it for some long-time beekeepers and fruit growers across the northern USA. The seasons are changing rapidly—last year featured the longest growing season ever in many areas, and now there's a complete breakdown of winter-like weather in mid season. While it feels comfortable to be outside without a jacket when spring comes almost a month early, this bizarre turn of events is not so awesome for beekeepers and fruit growers.

Even though data shows a trend towards shorter winters and earlier springs, the chance for frost remains unchanged and lingers into early May here in central Minnesota. The average apple bloom date is usually May 12th. If the fragile blossoms open during a frost or freeze, the season's fruit is potentially lost until next year. 

Honeysuckle bushes at our bee farm in Minnesota

How does this early spring affect our work? Besides maintaining a large apiary, we also grow winter hardy apples like Honey Crisp and Haralson here at Ames Farm. Once the blooming progress starts due to a warm spell, there's no way to reverse it. 

And the bees? Well, they have a timetable of their own. Migratory beekeepers (who winter their bees in the south or west coast) are on schedules that require 6-8 weeks of hives growing in population before being split off for sale or used for pollination. These cycles of replenishment for bees and beekeepers is an age-old practice that has gone on for generations and is being affected by less stable seasonal weather patterns.

Even in our little operation, for example, we have 4 frame starter hives or nucs we sell for backyard beekeepers. They are grown in a temporary hive that holds them for 4-5 weeks, and then they are moved into a regular hive. These hives take time to grow and be populated enough to do any meaningful pollination. In a normal year, the weather is too harsh for bees to find food here in the north until late April. They usually return to hobbyists and beekeepers in the north around the same time in April year after year. It's a schedule that the beekeepers and fruit growers have shared for ages. We equalize our entire apiary each spring in a similar manner, with knowledge and history of the number of weeks away from various nectar sources and other important crop pollination.

Apple trees ready for bee pollination

Reports are already drifting in recently of early fruit trees like apricots and peaches in bloom in Missouri and New York three weeks early. Having bees ready or even home in early March is just not in the realm of when most Northern-based beekeepers would have a hive ready for pollination. In our case, we are in Texas and have plans to ship our hives up on two semi truck loads in late April. We can't change the biology of the bees and make them hurry up the process of getting a new hive established, even though spring is here early. 

Sadly, we will most likely see fruit trees bloom all over the northern USA with few or minimal bees ready or in place to pollinate, if unseasonably warm weather continues. Blossoms will most certainly come and go in some places, and the bees won't be there to do their job of moving pollen from one flower to another and forming fruit. Some crops will be lost or diminished. Just like that, the eons-old tradition of honeybees quietly being supplied by beekeepers and nature at the right time across the USA could break down in different locations with little notice or fanfare. 

Our nation is preoccupied with different metrics that seem so important, like the unemployment rate or the cost of gasoline. The slightest change in direction often merits analysis. Meanwhile does anyone think about the various repercussions of having spring during winter?  

More articles