Winterizing Tips for Top Bar Hives

Reader Contribution by Christy Hemenway

Kim!  The top bar world is not so bleak and desolate as all that!!!  Goodness gracious…  you sound so alone!  You may not know it yet (I’ve been waiting to sound off about it until the contract’s in my hand) but there’s another top bar beekeeping book in the works too – by yours truly.  The expected publication date is Fall of 2012.  Watch for it!!!

So about that feeling of being alone… a quick look at this map of Gold Star top bar beekeepers and customers will show you there are a goodly number of top bar hive beekeepers, and the numbers are growing!  And since this map is only Gold Star customers, you know there are a lot more out there – but as you know, corralling beekeepers is a lot like herding cats – it’s very difficult to get a grip on how many there are.  

Let’s move on to this winterizing question.  This is the single most frequently asked “technical” question that we hear about top bar hives.  There’s a perception that it’s harder in a top bar hive than in other kinds of hives.  I don’t know about that – with reports last year of winter losses between 30 and 50%, and with most of those numbers being conventional hives – I have to conclude that winter is just hard.  Of course, I might just have sort of a bleak attitude from living in Maine – whattya think?  We had snow for Halloween here!

We “button up” a Gold Star top bar hive this way.

Tools we gathered included:  
R-13 fiberglass insulation bat, bagged in plastic.  
Tar paper – a 63 inch long piece is sufficient to wrap the body of a Gold Star hive.  

Then we gathered up our supply of corks, our screwdriver, staple gun,, nylon straps, razor knife, and a 3″ x 6″ piece of 1/4 inch mesh.

The Steps we took: 

 — Close up your removable bottom boards

 — Cork two of the three entrance holes 

  — Insulate inside the roof.  We use bagged R-13 fiberglas bats for this, and here’s why… there’s a little bit of space between the gable roof edges and the ends of the top bars.  There has to be, due to the  hive’s design.  So that means there’s air movement above the top bars.  We don’t want that – so we fill that space. That same little bit of space is large enough for mice to get in and nest above the top bars in that lovely, protected “attic” space created by the gable roof.  We don’t want that either.  So we fill the space as much to stop air movement as to keep mice out.  It works well for that.

— Ventilation – since the top bars all touch in a Gold Star hive, much like the roof of a cavity inside a tree or a branch, there’s no air movement upward between the bars.  And we don’t want to create any!  The bees seem well able to move the air around inside the body of the hive similar to how they would inside a tree, and so we don’t add any top ventilation to cause a “chimney effect”.  So – no ventilation upwards, is our rule.

— Moisture – what about moisture in the hive?  Well, bees need moisture.  But you sure don’t want it dripping down on your baby bees!  That’s why no top ventilation.  Dennis Murrell did a great experiment about moisture in a hive over winter – you can read it here:

— Mouse guards.  This year we’re installing 1/4 inch mesh over the one entrance we leave open.  We successfully got through three years with Gold Star hives before we actually got a report of a mouse getting inside one.  I guess we were just lucky all that time – but last year I got four reports of Gold Star hives that were lost to mice.  So  we are recommending the 1/4 inch mesh.

Bees can definitely go in and out through it – no worries there!   In fact – to keep them from coming out after you while you’re making a ruckus with a staple gun, it’s a good idea to put a piece of tape over the entrance – on the outside of the mesh! – to keep them in.  Those late fall stings can be hot!

— Wind.  We think this is pretty important.  If your hive is located in a place where it is well protected from wind, you are ahead of the game.  If not – get creative!  There are lots of ways to provide a wind break.  It can be permanent, like an installed fence, or a planted hedgerow, or it can be temporary – a hay bale fort, or a tarp tie-wrapped to temporary fence posts – it’s up to you.  But this really seems important to us and we’re experimenting with different methods this year.  This hive happens to back up to a very tall hedgerow.

— Wrapping.  This is another thing we’re experimenting with this year.  Regular tarpaper, as commonly used by conventional beekeepers, wrapped round the horizontal “tube” of the hive body.  This is easier if your hive stands on legs, as you might imagine.

You have to cut a place through the wrap for the bees to get in and out of their one available entrance, of course, so be sure to mark where that is so you can find it!  Sticking a stick into the ground beneath it will help you find it after you’ve wrapped.

Be sure to remove the tape when you’re all done!

And then comes the hard part — sitting on your hands and waiting and worrying — and hoping til the spring! 

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368