Reevaluating Beekeeping Practices: A Critical Examination of Honeybee Thermal Regulation

by Hiroshi Tanaka
1 comment
Thermal Regulation in Beekeeping

A recent study conducted at the University of Leeds has cast doubt on conventional beekeeping techniques, suggesting that they may be contributing to thermal stress among honeybees by exacerbating heat loss. This groundbreaking research challenges the established belief that honeybee clusters serve as effective insulation, prompting a reconsideration of beekeeping practices to enhance the well-being of these vital pollinators.

Contrary to Previous Notions

New research led by Derek Mitchell, a dedicated PhD student at the University of Leeds’ School of Mechanical Engineering, has unveiled a startling revelation: honeybees do not possess a natural inclination to insulate their colonies against cold temperatures. Instead, Mitchell’s findings raise concerns about the potential thermal stress endured by bees under current beekeeping practices.

Rethinking Traditional Beekeeping Theories

Mitchell’s research challenges the prevailing paradigm in beekeeping, which has long held that honeybees combat cold by forming insulating layers. This notion has led to the construction of beehives that, according to Mitchell’s study, inadequately replicate the bees’ natural habitat in terms of insulation.

Published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the study investigates the phenomenon of honeybee “clusters” where bees gather closely to maintain a temperature of over 18°C when the external environment becomes frigid. For decades, it was believed that the outer layer of honeybees in these clusters, known as the mantle, functioned as insulation for the core bees at the center.

However, Mitchell’s analysis, utilizing techniques akin to measuring heat loss from buildings, challenges this idea. His research indicates that, far from acting as insulation, the mantle functions as a heat sink, dispersing heat away from the core. The paper notes, “The cluster mantle does not meet any of the four insulation criteria identified and meets all three heat sink criteria.”

The Consequences of Misconceptions

The study reveals that as external temperatures drop, the energy required to maintain a temperature above 18°C within the hive increases. If the bees cannot generate sufficient heat, the temperature near the hive’s walls decreases, leading to chilling of the nearby honeybees. To counter this, bees move closer to those capable of producing heat efficiently, resulting in increased thermal conductivity and further heat loss.

Mitchell states, “My findings are controversial because it has become a tenet of beekeeping — that the mantle insulates the honeybees.” This research suggests that clustering is not akin to wrapping bees in a warm blanket but rather a desperate attempt to huddle closer to a “fire” of warmth, akin to a survival strategy.

Advocating for Bee Welfare

Mitchell’s research aims to raise awareness of the ethical concerns surrounding beekeeping and educate beekeepers about the intricate interplay of colony enclosure and thermofluids (heat, radiation, water vapor, air) with honeybee behavior and physiology. Harvey M. Thompson, Professor of Computational Fluid Dynamics at the University of Leeds, applauds the application of mechanical engineering principles to such diverse fields and envisions the findings as a potential asset to beekeepers.

This research project was inspired by Mitchell’s wife’s foray into beekeeping and his observation of the continued use of beehive designs dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. His background in mechanical engineering prompted him to explore the requirements of honeybees from an engineering perspective, leading to his discovery that most manufactured hives experience seven times more heat loss compared to natural nests.

Mitchell emphasizes that long-standing misconceptions have driven beekeepers to use inadequately insulated hives, which have only amplified heat loss. He calls for urgent reconsideration, research, and promotion of alternative beekeeping practices and encourages a broader dialogue on the ethical treatment of honeybees and insects.

Reference: “Honeybee cluster—not insulation but stressful heat sink” by Derek Mitchell, 21 November 2023, Journal of the Royal Society Interface. DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2023.0488

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Thermal Regulation in Beekeeping

Q: What does the research at the University of Leeds suggest about traditional beekeeping hives?

A: The research indicates that traditional beekeeping hives may be causing thermal stress to bees by increasing heat loss, challenging the belief that they provide effective insulation.

Q: What is the accepted theory of bee clustering for insulation?

A: The accepted theory suggests that honeybees cluster together to form layers of insulation to combat cold temperatures, a concept that has guided beekeeping practices for many years.

Q: What is the primary finding of Derek Mitchell’s research?

A: Derek Mitchell’s research suggests that the mantle, the outer layer of honeybees in winter clusters, does not act as insulation but instead functions as a heat sink, dissipating heat away from the core bees.

Q: How do honeybees react to cold temperatures according to the study?

A: When external temperatures drop, honeybees huddle closer together to share warmth, a behavior that increases their thermal conductivity and, paradoxically, leads to greater heat loss.

Q: What is the significance of this research for beekeepers?

A: This research calls for a reevaluation of beekeeping practices to better align with honeybee behavior and physiology. It advocates for improved hive designs and emphasizes the need to consider bee welfare more carefully.

Q: Why did Derek Mitchell embark on this research project?

A: Mitchell’s research was inspired by his wife’s interest in beekeeping and his background in mechanical engineering. He sought to apply engineering principles to understand honeybee requirements and discovered the discrepancies in hive designs.

Q: What ethical concerns are raised by this research?

A: The research highlights ethical concerns related to honeybee welfare and the need for more humane beekeeping practices. It prompts a broader conversation about the treatment of honeybees and other insects in beekeeping.

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1 comment

BeekeeperExpert November 23, 2023 - 11:55 pm

Derek’s reseach’s shakin’ up beekeepin’, hives need an overhaul ASAP!


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