A Beautifully Over-Wintered Colony

I’ve probably never been more pleased with an over-wintered colony than I am with the one in this video. I’m not entirely sure what I did, but these bees have been clustering way down in the bottom of their hive under an insulating and tasty block of honey all winter long and are only now beginning to show up above the top bars. And they’re not even close to starving. I love it. I’ll drop my theory on how that happened after the video.

I didn’t do anything that will revolutionise beekeeping, but it’s definitely beginning to look like something that I’ll do for now on. Essentially all I did was block off the top entrance to the hive sometime in August, or around the time the bees began to shift their honey storage into winter storage, if you know what that is. The hive — a standard Langstroth with the approximate size of two deeps — still had plenty of ventilation up top through a ventilation rim, so they could continue to cure nectar into honey, but they had to come and go only through the bottom of the hive.

I can’t say exactly what this does, but it’s my feeling that given only a bottom entrance, the bees won’t mill about or cluster around the top bars like they often do when they’re coming and going through a top entrance. Bees with a top entrance normally won’t move down to the bottom of the hive until the weather gets really cold (some of them do, but not all of them), and sometimes they barely move down at all.

But now, long before winter sets in, I’ve got them clustering in the bottom of the hive under a block of honey that acts as insulation all winter long as well as a food source. The bees gradually work their way up through the honey as they consume it over the winter. When they finally break over the top bars (also known as the top of the hive), that’s when I can easily gauge how much honey they’ve eaten through. They don’t come up until they’ve eaten through the honey in the bottom.

Whereas before, they would sometimes consume some of the honey up top and then go down below and eventually come back up or whatever (they weren’t always consistent), and it was sometimes hard to tell how much honey they’d eaten through. (Lifting hives to estimate the weight of honey stores is standard practice for many beekeepers, and they’re probably wondering what’s the big deal here. But I practice a non-lifting version of beekeeping because I don’t want pull my back out. And not all backyard beekeepers have the body strength or gear to weigh hives.)

Given only a bottom entrance, the bees store honey around the cluster differently than they would if they had both a top and bottom entrance. They build a more solid block of honey closer to the cluster starting from the bottom up, and then they fill the super right to the top. Maybe? I don’t know, but it kind of looks that way to me right now. Once I know the bees are clustered down low for the winter and the year’s foraging is over and done with, then I give them an upper entrance so when they consume their honey later in the winter — or beautifully not until April 5th — they have an easy exit for cleansing flights. I also know that once I see them milling about the top entrance, they’ve probably eaten through most of their honey down below and they’re beginning to move up. It makes it so much easier to read the bees. Feeding the bees emergency sugar isn’t as much a concern to me now either.

Again, this is all just hypothetical talk and I’m sure I’m only stating the obvious to more experienced beekeepers or to people who have easy access to more experienced beekeepers, but I appreciate learning this kind of thing through trial and error and my own personal observations. I’ve seen enough people mislead by authoritative beekeepers over the years, myself included, that I find it better to listen to other beekeepers without instantly copying what they do. Not that I dismiss common sense, but my bees seem to do better (and some times worse for a little bit) when I find out for myself — through my own experience — what really works.

And I think this blocking the top entrance dealio might be the way to go for now on.

Postscript — An Origin Story: I sort of stumbled into this after some of my bees filled their honey supers with pollen a few years back and it was driving me crazy. A commercial beekeeper suggested I block the top entrances to fix this problem. So I did and it worked. But I also noticed a greater tendency for the bees to swarm in the summer time when they didn’t have a top entrance. It took more farting around with the bees to prevent them from swarming when I blocked the top entrance all summer long, and I don’t have time for farting around. So gave that up with my established colonies until after the swarming season was over (whenever I felt confident the swarm risk was low). And now I pretty much do that all the time with all my hives. I block the top entrance, while stilling providing ventilation above the inner cover, either after the swarm risk has passed or I’ve harvested their honey for the year. So far the results are excellent (see the above video). Now the final proof in the pudding will be to see if these over-wintered colonies jump to life in the spring and transform themselves into healthy robust colonies that make a tonne of honey for me. I certainly like what I see so far, though.