Winter Preparations – Part 1: Insulation and Stuff

It went up to a stifling 11°C yesterday (52°F), so I took the opportunity to insulate our hives for winter and staple on some mouse-proofing mesh. This is as simple as it gets.

Hard insulation installed over winter-positioned inner covers (minus the top covers.)

The inner covers are in the winter position (with the convex side up, a.k.a. the flat side, which is misleading because both sides are flat, but basically you know it’s the winter position because it gives the bees more head space than when the “flat” side is down; anyway…). A piece of hard insulation is installed flat against the top of the inner cover. It covers the hole in the inner cover and you don’t have to make a tunnel for the bees through the insulation or anything because the bees have no problem getting outside through the upper entrance notch in the inner cover. Some beekeepers put duct tape over the inner cover hole so the bees can’t eat away at the insulation, but I didn’t use duct tape last winter and the bees didn’t get hungry for the insulation once. And that’s all there is to it. (See Making Insulated Inner Hive Covers for more info.) Just put the top covers on once the bees get out of the way, and you’re done.

The only problem with this method of insulation is that it doesn’t leave much space under the inner cover for feeding the bees candy cakes or pollen patties in late winter. To make that extra space, all you have to do is install a two or three inch rim (or an eke) under the inner cover. That’s what I plan to do. There are more than a few ways to insulate the hives for winter (moisture quilts, etc.) — and more importantly, to prevent condensation from building up inside the hives. This is just one of them. Along with wrapping the hives, it worked perfectly for us last winter. There are also plenty ways to feed the bees over winter (candy boards, etc.), but I can only talk from my own experience. Okay, then, let’s take a closer look at what I did yesterday…

This is the kind of thing I saw when I removed the inner covers from the hives.

I suspect the bees are still congregating in the top box because the top box is where their food has been coming from for the past month. That is, until today. I removed the remaining honey jar feeders and frames of honey from on top of the inner covers just before I did all this. I didn’t pull out any frames to see how much honey the bees had because I could see from looking down through the frames that they were full of capped honey and pollen. I don’t know how well you can see it, but here’s a downward shot of a frame full of honey:

I could see with a flash light that all the frames in the top boxes of all the hives were like this. That’s good enough for me. I left the bottom boxes alone. I installed insulated inner covers over the first two hives, and that looks like this (minus the top cover):

The insulated inner covers work exactly like the piece of insulation over the inner cover, except they’re a big pain in the neck to build. I built two of them last year before I realized how much easier it is to put a piece of insulation over the inner cover. I won’t bother building any more of them, but I can still make use of the two that we have.

That’s half-inch wide mouse-proofing mesh stapled across the bottom entrance of a hive. I added some to another hive too. All four of our hives have it installed now. I cut a big enough piece so I could bend the mesh into the entrance, but I couldn’t make it fit easily into the inch-high entrance, so stapling will have to suffice. (I’ve heard from other beekeepers online who say stapling the mesh works fine.) I’m not sure I’d go for the wide open entrance like this if my bees weren’t protected from the wind, but I think they’ll be alright in our backyard. I’m using the mesh instead of the dead easy mouse-proof entrance reducers because I want to ensure the hives are well ventilated over the winter.

Ventilation is the name of the game here. All these measures aren’t meant to keep the bees toasty and warm. It’s about keeping them dry, preventing cold water (condensation) from dripping down on the bees and killing them. The insulation over the inner cover keeps the top of the hive warm enough to prevent condensation from building up inside the hive. The top entrance notch, or ventilation hole, in the inner cover allows what condensation there is to escape easily to the outdoors where it can’t hurt the bees. The mesh down below keeps the mice out and provides another exit for the killer condensation. The mesh also makes it easier for the bees to haul out the bodies of their many fallen comrades that die over the winter.

We also prop up the back end of our hives so that even if condensation builds up over the inner covers, most of it will pool downhill and drip down the front inside wall of the hive and not on the bees (if you can visualize that.) It’s a simple precautionary measure that doesn’t do any harm. (The hives are tilted down to the front all year round anyway.) Condensation can still collect on the sides of the hives, but a little winter wrap should solve that problem.