These days I use sugar bricks to feed my bees in the winter and here’s a quick 2-minute video that demonstates how I do it.
I usually add just-in-case sugar above the top bars in my hives around early November. By that time — in my local climate — it’s usually so cold that the bees move to the bottom of the hive beneath their honey stores (and then gradually eat their way towards the top of the hive throughout the winter), which makes it easy for me to put the sugar in without bothering them. But that didn’t happen so much this year because November has been unusually warm. Only in the past few days have I noticed the bees, at least in some of the hives, clustering below the top bars. So I decided to add some sugar bricks today…
It was 18°C / 64°F today and the bees in all of my hives — even with shrew-proofing 6mm / quarter-inch mesh covering all the entrances — were out in full force.
I’ve heard arguments that the bees can’t get through quarter-inch mesh. But that’s not true. If it was, my bees would have been locked inside their hives behind the mesh all last winter. The bees in the above photograph wouldn’t be flying around today.
The following was last updated on Dec. 01, 2016.
I made this quick video as a response to several emails I got from new beekeepers asking me if there were more affordable ways to wrap their hives for winter other than to plonk down $20 to $60 per hive for commercially available hive wraps. There are always cheaper alternatives. A roll of roofing felt is one of them.
I’m not saying roofing felt is better (though I have heard some convincing arguments), but it’s cheap and it’s worked well for me for the past six winters. Keep in mind that the bees don’t need to be warm and toasty during the winter. They just need to be warm enough to break cluster once in a while so they can migrate across the honey frames and not starve to death. (I might expand on this in the comments.)
Slight correction: In the video I mention #15 roofing felt. It’s actually referred to as a “type 15 asphalt felt.”
This post was updated on November 13th, 2016.
Despite following the Mountain Camp method of dry sugar feeding in the winter more or less since I started beekeeping, I don’t do it anymore. I’ve switched to easy-to-make and easy-to-add sugar cakes.
I don’t use dry sugar anymore because the bees tend to remove it from the hive if they’re not hungry enough to eat it. Spraying the sugar down with water so it hardens helps to prevent this, but if the weather is still warm enough so that the bees are flying around, they’ll do what active bees like to do: clean house. Whatever grains of sugar are not hardened together will often get tossed out of the hive. I used to add dry sugar sometime in November after the temperatures took a serious dip — when the bees were clustered below the top bars, not actively flying around in house-cleaning mode. Overall, the discarded sugar wasn’t a huge problem. If the bees were hungry, they ate the sugar regardless of the weather. But still, sometimes it seemed like a waste of sugar.
I may not wrap all of my hives this year, but I’ve decided to wrap at least the ones that don’t get much sunshine.The black wrap will perhaps warm them up a degree or two on really cold (but sunny) days so they can move more easily onto honey frames. My feelings about wrapping my hives continues to evolve. I began in 2010 by wrapping my hives in roofing felt just like this, except now I use thumb tacks instead of staples because they’re easy to push into the hive and don’t disturb the bees like the bang of a staple gun. (Both this and using push pins to attach shrew-proofing mesh was recommended to me by one of the 6 regular readers of Mud Songs. You know who you are. Thanks.) Over the years, though, mostly due to laziness and the fact that my beehives were an inconvenient distance from where I lived, I got out of the habit of wrapping them and it didn’t seem to make any difference to my over-winter survival rates. Generally, colonies that went into winter in good shape, came out in good shape whether they were wrapped or not.
But last winter, not having wrapped any of my hives, I wasn’t too impressed with how they came out of the winter. None of them died, but neither where they strong. Having hives mostly full of old and stressed queens may explain some of it, but I also noticed in hindsight most of my hives get very little direct sunlight in the winter, much less sunlight than any of my hives in the past. So just to be safe, I’m wrapping the hives that get the least of amount of sunlight. We’ll see what happens.
The following was originally posted on December 7th, 2015, but was edited and updated on October 27th, 2016, to reflect my current practices, such as they are.
Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter.
I’m no expert, but here’s what I do, and what I do could change entirely by this time next week.
So the big question is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
I usually pour dry sugar over newspaper into my Langstroth honey bee hives so the bees have something to eat just in case they run out of honey during the winter. Some people refer to it as the Mountain Camp Method, but I’m pretty sure beekeepers have been pouring dry sugar into their hives long before Mr Camp came along and popularized it. I’ll call it Dry Sugar Feeding for now on. In any case, it may not be the best method for feeding bees over the winter, but it works well for me and that’s what matters most. I like it because it’s the easiest method I’ve ever tried and it may be better for the bees than hard candy or candy boards. Do a little research on Hydroxymethylfurfural and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
When I first fed my bees dry sugar, I waited until January or February when the bees, if they were low on honey, would cover most of the top bars in the hive. But waiting that long is a pain in the butt for all kinds of reasons, so now I put the sugar in long before the bees really need it — just like I did today. Here’s an 11-minute video recorded a few hours ago that demonstrates the dry sugar method in all its glory. I also explain near the end how moisture quilts work.
P.S.: I’m not a big fan of feeding the bees pollen patties early in the winter because most of the time they don’t need it and it’s not always good to give the bees solids when they can’t get outside for cleansing flights. I try to reserve pollen patties for small colonies that could use a little boost in brood production. The colony in the video that I refer to as being about the size of a human head will get a pollen patty in a week or two. A small cluster like that, which is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger, won’t be able to stay warm much longer. The colony could be in trouble if I can’t get the queen laying soon.
Another postscript (written in part as a response to the first comment): If I had to do this again, I would place something round in the middle of the newspaper, a small bowl or a jar perhaps. Then after I poured the sugar on, I’d remove the bowl or jar so that a round sugar-free area of newspaper was left behind. Then I’d cut a hole in the exposed newspaper so that when the cluster came up, the bees would go through the hole without having to chew through the newspaper to get at the sugar. The hole would also allow moisture from the cluster to rise directly up to the moisture quilt. (If I have a chance, I’ll record a follow-up video.)
This is the time of year when I say to my bees, “I know things are looking grim, but just hang in there for another two months and you’ll be alright.”
The number of dead bees that fall to the bottom of a hive in the winter can be alarming. The bottom entrance of most of my hives look like this near the end of November:
But that’s just he beginning. Most of the bees alive inside the hive today — let’s say about 15,000 bees — will be dead before the weather warms up again in the spring. That pile of dead bees is gonna get big. Check out this bottom board from one of my hives last year:
The bottom entrance to that hive was clogged with dead bees by January and I wasn’t able to clear it out, so the photo might be a fair example of how many bees can safely die over the winter, at least in a large colony. That particular 3-deep colony was full of bees (living bees) by the end of June and gave me my first honey harvest before the end July.
So it’s not all doom and gloom.
The other good news is the Winter Solstice (usually December 21st or 22nd), the shortest, darkest day of the year. In theory, the queen begins to lay again, or increase her laying rate, once the days get longer. She won’t go wild with laying eggs right after the Solstice, but with longer stretches of daylight, at least new bees will begin to emerge to replace the winter die-offs.
That’s why I usually feel pretty good if my bees are alive and well by the end of January. They’ve gotten over the hump of Winter Solstice and baby bees are just beginning to emerge so the population is more or less stable. As long as they don’t starve to death or get eaten alive by shrews, I’m good. New bees should outnumber the dying bees sometime in April or May so that the population begins to go up and up until it peaks around June and stays there with about 50,000 bees until the end of July. Nice.
The next two months, though — that’s when I worry the most.
I often use a cheap stethoscope to monitor my honey bees in the winter when they’re still clustering below the top bars and out of sight. It’s the least disruptive method I have for checking on the bees.
It took some practice, but I can tell how deep and how large the cluster is by listening through the hive with the stethoscope. Most of the time, though, I’m just checking that the bees are still alive. That’s usually good enough for me.
Sticking my ear against the hive works too, but it’s not as dignified as walking around with a stethoscope.
FEBRUARY 20, 2016: I have to say I continue to be impressed with the $7 stethoscope I bought on Amazon. I listened again to my bees today and could hear a lively buzz of bees in every hive. It takes a bit of imagination to interpret how the bees are doing from the often distant-sounding hum heard through the stethoscope, but at least I can tell they’re still hanging in there.