Sign in to comment!

Fox News Weather Center

Caretakers Help Animals, Insects Adapt to Winter's Worst

Whether it's through hibernation, clustering or moving indoors, animals and insects adapt to winter's colder conditions.

The winter of 2013-14 has been colder than normal in many parts of the Midwest and Northeast, which makes the caring of animals and insects a bit more difficult, experts said.

Dealing with lower temperatures will continue through at least March, according to AccuWeather.com long-range forecasters.

The weather pattern causing the persistent cold won't suddenly go away and stay away in coming weeks, Senior Meteorologist Paul Pastelok, the leader of AccuWeather.com's Long-Range Forecasting Team, said.

Honey bees start clustering above the bee brood when the temperatures reach about 59 F, Dewey M. Caron, an entomology professor and extension entomologist at the University of Delaware, said.

"As bees on the outside [of the cluster] get cold, they work their way inside so a different bee becomes an outside bee," Caron said.

The entire hive or nest is not heated, just the space they occupy, Caron said.

Honey is the fuel to heat the body; bees basically run their wing muscles without flying.

Beekeepers make sure they provide enough honey and ventilation to help honey bees successfully overwinter. (Photo courtesy of Dewey Caron/University of Delaware)

For those honey bees living in hives, beekeepers manage them in the four seasons.

"Bees do not need humans for survival but we do enhance our colony survival by insuring they have enough honey for their fuel and by providing them a suitable domicile (a beekeeper's hive)," Caron said.

Up to 90 pounds of honey, depending on the area of the country, are given to the bees for overwintering.

"They have organized their nest so they are lower central in the hive, so they can work upwards during the winter consuming the honey immediately above and to the sides of their clustering position," Caron said.

Cold usually is not the problem for overwintering honey bees.

We generally say it is the moisture not the cold that kills colonies -- except too small a bee cluster is not efficient on the coldest snaps and colonies may die because they are too underpopulated," he said.

Bees are pretty inactive November and December. They become active in January as they seek to jumpstart their population by raising brood (especially if colony has a young queen from the season before) and this brood needs to stay near 95 F or it will not develop or develop more slowly

"Slow false springs (heat wave in March, cold wet days in April into May) is toughest on bees -- not winter temperatures per se," Caron said.

Losses this year could be higher because of the weather in combination with various bee diseases, Caron said.

More than 30 percent of honey bee colonies have been lost on average from October to April for the last seven years, according to bee surveys. An acceptable loss is half that number, according to Dewey Caron of the University of Delaware. (Table from "Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping" by Dewey Caron)

In past winters, most animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium have been able to spend more time outdoors, but not this year, Mammals Lead Keeper Kathy Suthard said.

"Our peafowl flock have had to be brought into a protected, windproof area," Suthard said. "They have usually spent the winter roaming the grounds and sleeping on top of the PPG Aquarium. Some of the animals that have usually gotten to go out when the temperatures are around 40 F (rhinos, giraffes) can't because of the ice buildup on their ponds."

Non-native species such as any of the African animals, flamingos, primates and elephants are more susceptible to the cold.

"We care for the animals pretty much the same in the winter as in the summer. It is just more difficult for us," Suthard said. "We shift the animals around within their barns or buildings to clean. In the summer you can just put them outside, which is much easier.

"We give lots of the animals extra bedding and may pile hay bales against exterior doors to further insulate. Susan, the black bear, has a huge straw nest on exhibit that she huddles down into. She comes out only to get something to eat. Straw-resting places are added to cheetah and tiger exhibits to give the cats an insulated spot off of the ground. Straw is used indoors also for beds."

Polar bears, tigers, snow leopard, and amur leopards are from a very cold climate and this weather suits them just fine, Suthard said.

African lions have a heated rock outside that they can lie on while on exhibit. The rock's temperature has been holding at about 65 F even on the coldest days. Their time outside is limited to prevent frostbite.

"There was only one day this winter that we did not give them any time outside. On the coldest days, their time out was probably less than 30 minutes. They really enjoy playing in the snow," she said.

An issue for zoo animals is helping them deal with boredom because there are fewer visitors during the winter.

"We try and do extra enrichment, training and interacting with the animals to keep them occupied. We might bring in several wheelbarrows of snow and dump it in the rhinos' stall. They love playing in that," Suthard said. "We can even bring snow in for the flamingos to play with. Giving balls and other toys occupies the cheetahs. A flake of straw scented with perfume, spices or other scents is great fun for the cats while they are indoors."