In a previous blog (see Early Autumn in the Beeyard – Preparing for Winter!), I talked about the early steps we take to ensure we have strong hives that will be ready for winter. This includes such things as making sure the bees have enough honey stores, having strong queens and a strong population of bees, and monitoring mite levels through the spring, summer, and fall, in order to treat when necessary. In this article I will be sharing the final steps we take to make sure our hives are ready for winter.
Over the years we have tried a few different methods of preparing the hives for winter. This past winter we only lost 1 out of our 12 hives. The remaining 11 hives were so strong coming out of winter that we were able to create an additional 2 full hives, and 5 nucleus colonies. Here is how we go about winterizing our beehives.
First, we check the entrances. Mice would like nothing better than to move into a beehive for the winter – nice and warm, and plenty of free food. In the process, they can do a lot of damage to the hive – destroying comb, eating honey stores, and contaminating the hives with waste. We close up the entrances with metal entrance reducers – they leave enough room for the bees to come and go, but the openings are small enough that mice can’t get in. And, being made of metal, mice cannot chew their way through them. These can be purchased through any beekeeping supply company.
It is also important to have plenty of ventilation. Bees are very good at controlling the temperature within the hive. However, if moisture builds up on the bottom of the inner cover and drips down onto the winter cluster of bees, the bees can quickly become chilled, and the entire colony may succumb to the cold. We place the inner cover with the notch side down to allow moisture to escape. This also gives the bees an upper entrance in case a deep snowfall covers the bottom entrance. We then put a Popsicle stick under the back of the inner cover, to allow for cross ventilation and dry any moisture under the cover.
To provide additional moisture control and insulation we take an empty super and staple screen across the bottom. We then place the screened super on top of the inner cover and fill it loosely with straw. The straw absorbs excess moisture while also providing an extra layer of insulation. We then place the outer cover on top of the straw-filled super with another Popsicle stick between the top of the super and the outer cover to allow moisture to escape.
There are many different opinions on whether to wrap hives or not, and there are many different ways to wrap hives. Here is what works for us! Some of our hives are painted polystyrene hives. We do not wrap these hives, as the polystyrene provides plenty of insulation and we used a dark color paint to absorb heat from the sun. The majority of our hives are wooden. We wrap these hives to help keep in some of the heat generated by the bees. The eastern and southern sides of the hives are wrapped in tar paper only, not insulation. The black tar paper alone allows for maximum solar gain by the hive – if the sunniest side of the hive is insulated, it will be difficult for the heat to work its way in. We place Styrofoam insulation on the northern and western sides of the hive. This holds heat in and prevents heat loss on the less sunny sides of the hive. We hold the insulation and tarpaper on the hive with two ratchet straps on each hive. It is important to not cover the upper or lower entrances while wrapping the hive. Shown here is a wooden hive and a polystyrene hive all closed up for winter.
Another consideration is providing emergency feed. In warmer climates it may be possible to use a hive top feeder to feed sugar syrup throughout the winter. But here in the northeast, bees will not be able to get up into the feeder due to the extreme cold. We also do not like to feed sugar syrup in the winter as it introduces more moisture into the hive. There are a few other options, however. One is to make a “candy board”. This is a sugar fondant that can be place on top of the frames to provide emergency feed if the bees run out of stored honey. Another option is known as the “mountain camp” method. Place a thin layer of newspaper over the top of the frames in the upper super (leave an opening in the middle to allow for some ventilation), then pour granulated sugar on top of the newspaper. As moisture rises from the hive, the newspaper and sugar become damp. The bees can then eat the sugar as emergency feed. We prefer to make sure that the bees have plenty of honey going into winter, as that is the most natural food for them. However, these are both good options if you are concerned that a hive might be light on stored food. We also usually check our hives during a warm day in January or February. If they seem light on stores we may add these supplemental food sources. We have also seen that Dadant is now selling winter patties. We have not tried these yet, but if anyone has, we would be interested in hearing what you think of them.
At this point, we consider our hives to be “shut down” for winter. We will still check on them during the occasional warm days, but hopefully we have given them everything they need to successfully make it through the winter.
Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith. You can visit them at www.beesofthewoods.com.