By: Brett Kozma
This time of year I think we all look at the trees with a slight yearning for a rewind button, we aren’t ready for summer to leave us and we are dreading the idea of snow and slush freezing temperatures. For you beekeepers out there, don’t let this emotion cloud your realization of the urgency this changing season brings to our hives. Our queens are out there frantically trying to rear winter bees, and you need to make sure she has the space to do so.
I assume you have taken your honey off, left enough for the bees or you are feeding 2:1 sugar to water syrup to get their weight up. Leaving them enough food is essential to their survival, obviously if they starve, no amount of moisture control, insulation or mite treatment can help them. The thing you have to realize at this time of the year is, every cell in the hive full of honey, nectar, pollen, is an equally deadly sentence as there is no room for the queen to rear winter bees. So get out there, bring some empty but drawn frames and checkerboard them into your brood boxes if they seem to honey filled. You can relocate the honey to a higher box, set it aside for supplemental feedings, or extract it, but you HAVE to have empty cells in those boxes in late August or September.
When you are satisfied that you have reached a good ratio of brood space to food stores, start thinking about which (of many) methods you are going to use for overwintering. Basic elements of overwintering plans to consider include (but are not limited to): 1. Insulation 2. Upper Entrance(s) 3. Moisture Control 4. Ventilation Space 5. Wind Barriers. The factors that are being mitigated by the overwintering plans include (but are not limited to): 1. Ambient and Cluster Temperature 2. Entrance Blocking Either By Hive Litter Or Snow 3 & 4. Moisture From Condensation Inside The Hive 5. Cold Winter Winds.
The things that I personally think are a must to consider are not quite as broad as you will find elsewhere; food, moisture control and upper entrances are the only things I INSIST on for my own hives. Some of you will think me a fool for not including mite treatment or insulation but those are conscious decisions, not oversight.
Bees are remarkably able to keep a cluster at their desired temperature. They rotate their positions, vibrate together creating a loud and warm buzz whenever the outside temperature falls below 57 degrees or so. Although individually honeybees are exothermic (cold blooded), the colony as a whole is endothermic because they create their own heat from within. This is one of many interesting ways the bees are both individual organisms and parts of a larger decision making organism, the hive. The cluster expands and contracts to the rhythm of the weather, precisely keeping the temperature stable. The outer bees of the cluster serve as insulation for the cluster while the inner part of the cluster activates their flight muscles, buzzing to create heat. This operation, although it requires ample amounts of sugar (honey), is remarkably effective and can generally be trusted to keep the core of bees alive if they went into the winter with a large enough population and enough easily accessible honey.
As far as mite treatment goes, I will keep my personal emotions at bay and suffice it to say, I cannot endorse introducing chemicals to the bees in order to battle a natural enemy. I try to choose my bees based on hygienic behavior and attempt at keeping them as naturally healthy and vibrant as I can while I have control.
The reasons for the preparations that I think a MUST to include tackle problems that consistently kill otherwise healthy hives. With the cluster of bees maintaining a temperature into the 90s and the outside air temperature below freezing, there is a point of condensation where the moisture in the air turns to water droplets and inevitably falls. If this condensation is left unhindered it will keep the cluster moist and unable to maintain the necessary temperatures, a death sentence. The methods of moisture control vary but some I think notable are, moisture boards, sawdust, sawdust pillow (sawdust in a cloth encasement, replaceable when moist or wet) and ample open air space at the top of the hives mixed with ventilation holes for the moist air to escape through. This winter I am employing a moisture board above their upper entrance, both products are available from Mann Lake Ltd.
Upper entrances are a must and I have two obvious reasons for that. Last year in the spring when I was re-greeting our only survivor, I noticed a pile-up of dead, moldy bees on the bottom board, almost completely sealing the bees in what would have been a coffin. That and their need to take cleansing flights whilst the snow is piled up are great reasons to include upper entrances at least throughout the winter months. The upper entrance, as previously stated, also acts as a warm/moist air exit point, helping with the need of moisture control.
Most beekeepers would agree that moisture control is a must although the methods you will here are probably more numerous than the amount of beekeepers you asked. The general principle is as the warm/moist air rises, your moisture control medium grabs the water and does not let it fall back down. So, the only real prerequisite for deciding on what medium to use is that it is absorbent. There are plans on the internet for quilt boards, where the medium is a piece, or pieces of cloth suspended above a screen, there are plans for sawdust pillows that allow for easy replacement when the pillow becomes wet, and there are plans for suspending sawdust or cedar chips, once again, above a screen in the top of the hive. The method I chose to employ this year is a solid sawdust board, called a moisture board, purchased from Mann Lake Ltd for a small cost of $7/per board. I may end up regretting my decision not to wrap the hives, I hope not, but I will be more aware of the consequences next March or April.
Take these ideas and, more importantly, the concepts behind them and make your decisions. Take the successes and the failures and tweak the plan accordingly. Beekeeping, although technically a science, acts much more like an art, my plan might appear beautiful in my eyes while you see something completely different.
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