Bees Bothered by Unsettled Seasons

By Lauren Wilson 

Honey bees rely on specific weather cues to know when to come out of their winter slumber. With rising temperatures and shorter winters, the time bees become active has fallen somewhat out of sync with when flowers and crops begin to bloom. This mix-up in phenology can cause problems for both the bees and for those who rely on the insects for pollination.  

 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts that in the coming years Mississippi will experience 30 to 60 days with temperatures above 95 degrees compared to today with only about 15 days a year on average.  Not only do these increased temperatures affect plants and bees, but increased rainfall does as well.  The year 2011 saw record flooding along the Mississippi River itself, and the flooding resulted in an estimated $800 million in agricultural losses. When fields are flooded, farmers are unable to plant crops during ideal growing times.  Since then, the state has experienced above-average rainfall for several years as well as vast flooding of backwater flooding of cropland in 2019 that left hundreds of thousands of acres idle during the whole growing season.   

The role of bees as pollinators is well known, but Mississippi also ranks 28th in honey production among the states. and there are 12 full-time commercial beekeepers who collectively produce 2.25 million pounds of honey for sale each year.  The Mississippi Beekeeper’s Association is one of the oldest agricultural organizations in the state and has more than 500 members. For some, beekeeping is a livelihood; for others it is a treasured hobby.  

Mardis Honey Farm, located in Taylor, and sells the honey it harvests to distributors across Mississippi. The farm’s owner, Andrew Lafferty, has experienced increased complications for his bees due to a combination of climate factors. 

“I partner with farmers,” Lafferty explained about how his bees are distributed.  “I have 20-30 hives that I have placed in cotton fields around Lafayette County.  The farmers’ crops provide food for my bees and my bees pollinate their crops. 

“The bees become active when temperatures are around 50-60 degrees,” Lafferty said.  “Normally we expect this to begin happening around March.” But warming started early in 2020. On Feb, 2 the high was 70 degrees in the Oxford area, so naturally the bees were ready to get busy. But plants had not emerged, and cold temps returned before a consistent warming took place. “On (unexpectedly warm) days like that, we have bees flying around burning lots of their own energy but not having any outside food sources, Laffery said. 

The bees don’t starve, not immediately. “The bees hoard honey from last season and use that to live off of during the winter,Laffery said, “but it is only enough to get them to the first days of spring. When they come out of hibernation and the crops haven’t bloomed yet I have to go out into the fields and hand-feed the bees a mixture of sugar and water in order to keep them alive.” 

This mix-up not only causes issues for the keepers’ hives but also for wild colonies as well, and is one reason that wild honey bee populations have been in decline across the state. Increased rainfall and flooding has also proved to be detrimental to beekeeping. “Last year I had to trudge through a flooded field in order to save some of my own hives,” Laffery said, adding, “there was actually a beekeeper I know who worked in Sardis that actually had to close his business because his hives were flooded out.” 

Lafferty said he has begun the process of relocating his hives in order to save his business from suffering the same fate.  When asked if he thought climate change was a cause for the issues his business is experiencing he said, “I’ll put it like this.  If five people are walking down a train track and four out of five of them say that a train is coming, it’s probably wise for you to take action and get off the track, especially if those four people are experts on trains.”