Winterizing your bees the natural way.

Reader Contribution by Staff

It’s that time of year to think about putting our summertime pleasures to bed.  At our house, we just finished carpeting our entire front lawn with a deep mulch of spoiled hay.  This is the first step to converting our lawn to food production.

What do we need to do for the bees? 

Many of you already know, bees do not hibernate or sleep in the winter. They form a cluster and generate heat. They maintain 96 degrees in the middle of the cluster all winter long. The process of warm air emanating from the cluster making contact with the cold flat surface above the cluster results in moisture build up or condensation, much like the water that forms on a cold glass and runs down to make a ring on your mother-in-law’s antique end table.  Standing water is never a good scenario, whether it is in a beehive or an antique end table.

At our local bee clubs, we are usually taught to give the bees ventilation on the top of the hive as well as the bottom entrance. This is to prevent humidity from building up on the ceiling of the hive only to drip into the cluster to freeze them.  However, this extra ventilation is problematic because the air draft requires more energy from the clustered bees to maintain the 96 degrees and 50% humidity.  Simply put, they have to eat more of their food storage than necessary.

 In the wild, bees prefer to maintain a single entrance at the bottom of the hive. A single entrance allows them to fan fresh air or ventilate the hive as needed.  Fanning also directs excess moisture to be absorbed into the wood to be made available for when it is drier or when in serious excess they can direct it out of the entrance.

So realizing that the droplets of moisture building up on the flat cold ceiling of the hive, is a man made problem, we avoid the situation by mimicking nature. We use thicker wood to emulate a hollow log and we let the bees seal up all the cracks as they like to do anyway.  We try not to open the hives in the cool of fall.  If we must, we press the hives parts back together to allow the propolis to reseal the hive.

In commercial bee breeding, they have done their level best to eliminate the pesky propolis through selective breeding.  Propolis is a resin that the bees harvest from trees and plants in order to seal the cracks in the hive.  It is nature’s version of weather-stripping.  It can be annoying.  It is sticky and messy, requiring hives to be pried apart.    In nature you will find that the propolis is extremely important to the wellbeing of the bees.  It has medicinal value to the bees as an antibacterial.   So if we look to nature as a guide, we should be breeding bees that still have the inclination to make copious amounts of sticky, messy propolis.  We need to let our bees breed with the local survivor genetics so that if they want to make messy propolis, they can.  We just let them do it because we love them.  Joel Salatin says we need to let pigs be pigs.  Pigs need to wallow in the mud.  We need to let bees be bees and let them make sticky messy propolis.

For winter feeding of the bees, we are taught by commercial beekeepers, to feed our bee’s high fructose corn syrup or sugar. The economics are simple.  It is cheaper to feed the bee’s subsidized substitutes.  I explain the problems with feeding subsidized substitutes in another blog post. Winterizing the natural way includes making sure they have enough honey to last the winter. If you are not sure how much to leave, then wait until spring to harvest.  It is painful to wait, I know.  The benefit is healthier bees.

In nature the bees are usually up in a tree where mice and other varmints can’t reach, so to compensate we need to reduce the entrances of the hive to prevent mice from spending the winter in the hive with the bees.

I know you’re going to watch them from the window of your warm house all winter and wonder how they are doing.  “Should I warm up the hive for them?”  “Maybe I should wrap them in a blanket?”   It’s ok to watch, but after they have been sealed into a woody cavity, we need to let them experience the winter as they have done for 10 million years. When we warm a hive it makes the bees think spring is here and they will begin the brood production.  This will result in your bees eating through the winter stores much faster.  This often leads to starvation.

I know you’re going to wonder if you should clear the snow off the hive.  Snow is actually a good insulator, so leave it be.  If you get edgy and need something to do, I advocate taking some great winter pictures of the pristine snow on and around your hive. 

Here at BeeLanding I am in the continual pursuit of designing a beehive that is more in tune with how the bees live in the wild.  The closer I get to a hollow log, the happier the bees and I are.  My hive customers have been very pleased with my incarnations.  The only problem is because my design has thicker wood the freight is quite high.  For this reason and because we have also had so many requests for our Homestead Hive plans, we have decided to make the plans and instructions available on our website.  You can find the link to order them on the bottom of this page.

Photo by James Zitting.

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