I’m not sure if it has something to do with today’s date (the winter solstice), a recent snowfall or just business as usual, but a pile of dead bees suddenly appeared at the bottom entrance of our foundationless hive today. I wouldn’t have noticed them if we were using a solid mouse-proof entrance reducer instead of the open mouse-proofing mesh. The dead bees would have stayed piled up inside the hive all winter.
I could still see the cluster poking up through the middle of the top bars in the upper brood chamber. All three of the conventional hives look the same as they did last week, clustering high in the top brood chamber and hardly any dead bees on the bottom board.
I wonder what it all means. Probably nothing.
UPDATE (Dec. 23/11): I just took a closer look at the dead bees. About 90% of them are drones. The foundationless hive always had a large number of drones and not all of them were booted outside in the fall. This must be the last of them.
November 2018 Introduction: This is how I used to wrap my hives. Today when I wrap them, it’s pretty much the same deal except I use 6mm (quarter-inch) mesh on the bottom entrances to keep shrews out, and I don’t fold any the of wrap inside the hive because I noticed it holds moisture inside the hive.
Here’s the low down on exactly how I wrapped and prepared each of our four-month-old double-deep Langstroth hives for winter:
1) Built and installed mouse-proof entrance reducers and made sure to check the hive for mice beforehand.
2) Flipped the inner cover to the winter position (with the flat side facing up) and placed a piece of hard insulation over it. The insulation has a R-7.5 rating, whatever that is. Apparently, R-5 or above will keep the condensation from forming in the hive. It looks like this before the top cover is added:
Drone bees are kicked out of the hive before winter because they’re not essential to the winter survival of the colony. I was told not to be alarmed to find piles of dead drones outside the hive any time during the fall season. Plenty of drone pupae were discarded from the hive in September, but no large numbers of dead drones until today.
Kicked out drones. (Nov. 18, 2010.)
I take this to mean the bees are getting serious about winter now — and I better hurry up and wrap the hives before winter sets in. We have nothing but rain, wind and snow in the forecast for the next few days. But I’ll get the wraps on as soon as we get a break in the weather. (Yeah, I know, it’s not the most earth shaking news, but how exciting can beekeeping get this time of year?)
I ordered some beekeeping books based on recommendations from various beekeeping forums — and I’m looking for other recommendations if anyone has any. Here’s a photo of the first batch of books that just arrived:
My first batch of beekeeping books. (Nov. 17, 2010.)
I’ll do a separate write-up for each of these books after I’ve read them. From left to right, the books are:
The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, by A.I. Root and E.R. Root — Originally published in 1877, followed by several revised editions, this is basically a 700-page beekeeping encyclopaedia. I have the 1947 edition. Other books with exactly the same title made shopping for it a bit frustrating. I chose this edition because it was the most affordable ($35 Canadian). I guess it’s good to have around.
The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden (Revised and Updated), by Kim Flottum — Detailed instructive photographs make all the difference when it comes to beekeeping guide books (and websites), and this book is packed with them. I’ve only skimmed and read bits and pieces of it, but it seems to cover all the bases. I can tell already it’s a good buy. I plan to read it before any of the others. ($20 Canadian.)
Fifty Years Among the Bees, by C. C. Miller — Originally published in 1915, everyone says I should read it because it’s still informative (most beekeeping knowledge doesn’t get old) and it just a good read. ($15 Canadian.)
First Lessons in Beekeeping, by C. P. Dadant — Originally published in 1934, it’s another classic everyone says I have to read, so I’m going to read it sometime over this winter with the rest of these books. ($10 Canadian.)
November 2018 Postscript: The Kim Flottum book is good for the photographs so new beekeepers can identify what they’re looking at inside the hive, but I wouldn’t call it essential. I’d probably pick The Beekeeper’s Handbook, by Sammataro and Avitabile, as the most informative single-volume beekeeping guide and reference book that’s not ridiculously expensive. My 1947 edition of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture may be old but the information is solid. I often refer to it when I’m curious about a specific topic, and I end up reading it for hours. Much of the knowledge that pop ups up in online forums and current beekeeping books can be found in this old book, knowledge that has been around for a long time. Older editions are in the public domain and can be found online free of charge or in cheap but good enough reprints. The newer editions sell for more than $200. I won’t be picking that up any time soon.
A random entry from ABC and XYZ. Stuff that’s good to know.
November 2018 Postscript: I had planned to delete this post and any other posts that don’t provide any useful information, but the some of the comments in these old posts are worth keeping around. So that’s why I haven’t deleted this post.
This 2-minute video pretty much covers everything that I write about in this post.
(I just noticed a typo in the video. Damn. “27°C” should be 27°F.)
It’s November 2018 and I’m rewriting this post from 2010 to keep things up to date. The topic here isn’t how to make insulated inner hive covers. The topic is winter beekeeping and keeping bees alive over the winter, which includes insulating the hives in some manner. Let’s get right down to it:
Step 1: Make sure the bees have enough honey or sugar syrup to get through the winter. I do this by leaving the bees as much honey as I can and then feeding them thick syrup in the fall until they won’t take it anymore. (I often skip Step 1 when I know a hive is loaded down with honey. 10 to 12 deep frames of honey are enough to keep most honey bee colonies alive all winter, or so they say.)
Step 2: Put 6mm (quarter-inch) mesh over the bottom entrances once it becomes too cold for the clustering bees to defend the entrance, usually sometime in October. The mesh keeps mice and shrews out of the hive. The mesh can go on the top entrances too. Half-inch mesh is fine for keeping mice out, but it doesn’t work for shrews. (One statement in the above video is wrong. Drones can squeeze through the 6mm mesh. They don’t like it, but they do it.)
Step 3: Insulate and ventilate the top of the hives. Insulation on top (e.g., a piece of hard insulation) and an upper entrance or ventilation hole reduces the likelihood of condensation building up and dripping down on the bees and killing them. The goal isn’t to keep the bees warm. It’s to keep them dry. Even in the cold of winter, dry bees can usually keep themselves warm by shivering. Wet bees are dead bees because they can’t shake off the damp no matter how hard they try. Cutting out a piece of hard insulation and placing it over the inner cover (and under the top cover) will work fine under most conditions.
The photo doesn’t show the mesh over the bottom entrance, but close enough. The size of the bottom entrance can be reduced with a block of wood or whatever to cut down on cold wind blowing over the bees — but some kind opening on the bottom helps with air circulation which keeps the bees dry.
Step 4: Wrap the hives. People wrap their hives to create a windbreak and to keep the bees warm. I’ve always used #15 roofing felt because it’s cheap and it works. Here’s a quick video on that:
I haven’t used what some call a “bee cozy” or any other kind of blanket or insulation to wrap my hives. I’d consider it if my hives were in the path of extremely cold and consistent winter winds, but it’s an extra expensive (and hassle) that I’m not sure would benefit my bees. Most of my hives are in a well sheltered area surrounded by spruce trees. They don’t need the windbreak. Most of my hives are painted dark green, so whenever the sun shines on them, they warm up. I use tight roofing felt to increase the radiant heat on any hives that don’t get much direct sunshine in the winter. Most of my hives only have a piece of hard insulation on top and mesh on the bottom and that’s it. They do fine if they get buried in snow. Snow is an excellent insulator and windbreak. Heavy snow doesn’t usually matter much as long as the hives have ventilation on top.
Cheap, homemade moisture quilts can provide ventilation and insulation up top too. Here’s a quick video demonstration of a moisture quilt:
Moisture quilts saved my bees after I moved them to an area that was swamped in fog for most of the winter. The frames, the bees, everything inside my hives was wet. I quickly converted all my ventilation rims to moisture quilts and within days, all my winter hives were bone dry. It was amazing. So for that reason, I highly recommend moisture quilts. For many people, hard insulation over the inner cover is fine. But come January, if I find any moisture inside my hives, I immediately switch over to moisture quilts. They’re easy to make and cost me maybe $15 each. It’s worth it.
A hive design that incorporates a ventilation box, based on what’s called the D.E. Hive, is sold by Gerard Smith in Placentia. It looks like this:
Single-deep hive with ventilation box on top, sold by Gerard Smith in Placentia, Newfoundland.
The ventilation box is more or less one of my patented and trademarked ventilation rims with a larger box full of holes placed on top. Apparently it works well for insulation and ventilation all year round. Which is pretty convenient. I haven’t used one yet because I put way too much time into the design of my ventilation rims and moisture quilts to just throw them to the wind. Ventilation boxes would also add at least another $60 to the total cost of each of my hives. Installing a deep with ventilation holes on top might produce a similar ventilating effect more affordably. I’m not sure. (I like Gerard, but I will always plug the cheaper alternative for beekeepers on a budget.) Either way, ventilation boxes work in Newfoundland.
So there are more than a few ways to insulate and ventilate a hive for the winter. I usually go with the easiest and cheapest method. But it doesn’t really matter as long as the bees are dry.
Step 5: Right, these steps for keeping bees alive over the winter. Next step: Winter feeding. Sometimes the bees run out of honey, usually because silly humans took too much honey from them in the summer. That’s when having a rim, like the one in the video below, comes in handy. Here’s a hive with a yellow rim on top (and all kinds of junk in the background):
The rim goes underneath the inner cover or the moisture quilt to provide room for some kind of sugar feed. The sugar feed can be hard candy or fondant or dry sugar poured over newspaper. They all have their pros and cons. These days I go with sugar bricks because they’re cheap and easy to make and easy to slide inside my hives. Here’s a quick video that shows how I do it:
I don’t bother with scoring the sugar to make smaller bricks. It’s easier to just put in one big brick. I sometimes mix honey in with the sugar (because I hear that honey bees really like honey), or a bit of lemon grass oil or anise extract, to encourage the bees to at least take a sniff of the sugar bricks. If the bees are below the top bars, sometimes they won’t even come up to taste the sugar (and they starve instead) because the plan ole sugar doesn’t smell like food to them. But most of the time it works.
Winter feeding can also include adding pollen supplement to the sugar or just giving the bees pollen patties later in the winter. But that’s more of a cheat to get the queen laying earlier than she naturally would so a colony can build up more rapidly in the spring. It can also trigger swarming as early as May (which I know well). It can also lead to a late-winter or early spring starvation — all the bees die. Here’s the math for that one: Winter pollen = queen laying early = more mouths to feed = no nectar coming in until May = no honey = no food = starved out colony. When I feed pollen, I have to be ready to feed sugar or sugar syrup (and lots of it) just to keep the bees alive, and I have to be ready to deal with swarms. I’m usually not in the mood for that kind of drama, so I don’t provide pollen unless the colony seems weak and needs a boost.
THE END… unless you want to read the original post from 2010 with all the updates I added to it over the years, then okay, fine, here it is…
The two insulated inner covers with venilation holes / top entrances cut in front. (Oct. 15, 2010.)
2015 Introduction: I made these insulated inner covers once and didn’t make them again because a piece of insulation over the inner cover in the winter position works just as well and requires no work other than cutting the insulation. I also use moisture quilts instead of hard insulation. See the updates at the bottom of this post for all the details.
Winters in St. John’s, Newfoundland, provide a messy mixture of rain, snow and high winds with irregular periods of freezing and thawing. Wrapping Langstroth honey bee hives with a Type 15 asphalt felt isn’t a bad idea. Preventing condensation, though, is the top priority. A 1-inch thick piece of R5-rated hard insulation over the inner cover in the winter position apparently will prevent condensation from building up inside the hive during the winter. I used a 1.5-inch thick piece of insulation during my first winter (because I couldn’t find anything else) up until the end of January. Then I had to switch to insulated inner hive covers because the regular inner covers don’t provide enough room for candy cakes and pollen patties. A shim (or rim) lifting a regular inner cover up an inch or two would provide enough space. However, an all-in-one insulated inner hive cover might be more convenient. It requires moderate carpentry skills (which means I’ll probably go with the shims instead), and it’ll cost a little more, but here’s how I made them if anyone is interested. I’ve tested them, and they work.*
You will need a piece of lumber close to an inch thick and 2.5 to 3 inches inches high (to be cut into 20 and 15 inch long pieces). You will need some 1-inch thick R5-rated hard insulation (cut to fit inside the cover’s outer frame). You will need a thin sheet of wood or high-density fiberboard (also cut to fit inside the frame). You will need some short thin nails. You also will need some screws and maybe some carpenter’s glue.
Frame for 1 of 2 insulated inner covers. It’s essentially a standard rim, a spacer, an eke. (Oct. 15, 2010.)
The following instructions aren’t precise, but they don’t need to be. What you’re aiming for is a frame the same width and length as a regular super that will hold a piece of hard insulation about two inches above the top bars in the top brood box. The insulation prevents condensation build-up. The space beneath the insulation provides room for candy cakes, pollen patties — and the bees. My bees clustered heavily at the top of the hives during the first winter, probably from running low on honey. At least 2 inches, maybe even 3 inches, of space would reduce the likelihood of the bees getting squished after the pollen patties and candy cakes are added. Without the extra space, the bees cling to the inner cover and get squished by the pollen and candy cakes when the cover is put back in place. That’s why the height of the frame can be anywhere from 2.5 to 3 inches. It depends on how much room you want to give the bees.
1) Cut the lumber into 15 and 20 inch pieces and screw them together to make a frame that will fit over your top brood box (see the above photo). The side pieces are 20 inches long. The end pieces are 15 inches long. The exact dimensions may vary depending on what kind of supers you have. I somehow managed to screw them together at more or less right angles so the frame fit right in line with the top of a super. But it was pretty rough. A T-square comes in handy.
2) Cut a piece of hard insulation so it fits snugly inside the frame.
Cutting the insulation for the inner covers. (Oct. 15, 2010.)
The dimensions will vary. Mine turned out to be 38cm x 47cm, whatever that is in inches.
The top of the cover. The insulation is level with the wood frame. (Oct. 15, 2010.)
If the lumber is 3 inches high and the insulation is an inch thick, that should leave about 2 inches of space beneath the insulation (or in this photo, above the insulation). My lumber was 2.5 inches high and the insulation was 1.5 inches thick. It left me with only an inch of space, which I discovered was barely enough room for candy cakes and high clustering bees.
3) Cut your thin sheet or wood or high-density fiberboard to fit inside the frame, and place it right on top of the insulation. Brace the board in place with thin nails like this:
Then held the thin wood in place with nails. (Oct. 15, 2010.)
I drove the nails in at an angle, and then banged them down flat to hold the board in place. The board should fit a little loosely into the frame so you can see bits of the insulation through the cracks on the outer edges.
4) Cut a normal sized ventilation hole / top entrance at the front of each inner cover. Once the bees have been fed for the winter, the insulated inner cover is placed over the brood chamber to replace the regular inner cover. The top cover is placed as usual on top of the insulated inner cover. And that’s it. The top entrance may not be sheltered by the outer cover, but our bees didn’t seem to mind.
For the less carpentry-inclined beekeepers, a simple piece of insulation over a regular inner cover like this will also work (show here without the top cover on):
Hive with 1.5 inch R-7.5 insulation over inner cover. No outer cover. (Nov. 2, 2010.)
But when it comes time to add any pollen patties or sugar cakes, you’ll need to use a shim (or rim) to provide an extra inch or two of space.
* I tested the insulated inner covers and the simple piece of insulation over regular inner covers, and they both did a great job at preventing condensation over the winter. But note that I used 1.5-inch thick R-7.5 insulation, not 1-inch thick R5-rated insulation. I was told by a local beekeeper with over 20 years of experience that R5-rated insulation works just as well. I’m taking his word for it. But if you want to play it extra safe, use the higher rated insulation instead. I will update this post if we discover any problems with these designs.
August 9th, 2011: These ventilator rims might work just as well as the insulated hive covers. I haven’t tested them in the winter yet, and I’m not sure if I’m willing to chance it. But if they did work just as well in the winter, I’d just keep them on all year and never bother with the insulated inner covers. I’ll get back to you.
August 11th, 2011: The simple piece of insulation over the inner cover works well. The only issue with that method and the insulated hive covers is that there’s not enough space for candy cakes or pollen patties that are added around late January or February. Therefore, I would use a two-inch rim (or eke) for the simple piece of insulation set up, which would also work for the insulated inner cover set up. But if I make any more of the insulated inner hive covers, I’ll simply use a taller piece lumber, one that’s at least 4 inches high. I’ll probably just use a 2-inch high rim, though, because it seems like the simplest solution. Then don’t forget to wrap your hives.
October 18th, 2011: Some beekeepers place the piece of insulation under the inner cover, not over the inner cover like I demonstrated here. If you go that way, just make sure you still have an upper entrance for ventilation. Ventilation is key.
February 2nd, 2014:Moisture quilts can be made with a saw, a drill, a few other do-dads and minimal carpentry skills — and, for me, they’ve proven to be worth the effort (and they’re not too costly). I more or less made the moisture quilts by stapling window screen to the bottom my ventilator rims.
I made the switch from simple hard insulation over the inner cover to moisture quilts about a month ago because I noticed the insides of my hives were soaked (possibly because they were moved to an exceptionally foggy location this past year). A month later my hives are dry inside, dryer than I’ve ever seen them.
It’s still too early to make the call, but so far I’m very impressed, almost astonished at how well these things wick away all the moisture from inside the hives. Even after a month of rain, high winds and crazy temperature fluctuations, my hives are dry as a bone.
I held out on the moisture quilts until now because I was tired of always having to build something new for my hives (beekeeping isn’t the most affordable hobby for working class folk), but the moisture quilts, probably more than anything else I’ve built, seem to be worth the extra effort.
November 2018 Postscript: I hope I never say things like, “Then you should do this and that,” etc. again. This post was originally written when I was bit too taken with my vast knowledge of beekeeping, as is often the folly of novice beekeepers with an academic past.
I’m posting this short video for my own records so I have something to compare next year’s new hives to. I started two hives from 3-frame nuc boxes (4 frames actually, but one frame was empty) on July 18th, which was 89 days ago. It’s now mid-October and the bees are still active — when the sun is shining on the hives. The sun is shining on them as I write this. The temperature is 12°C, each hive has a hive top feeder installed over the inner cover, and the bees are flying around the entrances of both hives. Looking good. Here’s what they looked like a few days ago on October 12th:
November 2018 Postscript: I would delete this post except that the video might give new beekeepers and idea of what to expect from their bees at this time of the year. I deleted a previous post that went on about hive top feeders. Here’s a photo from that post:
Filling up one side of a top hive feeder on Hive #2. (Oct. 14, 2010.)
The advantage of a hive top feeder — a sort of set-it-and-forget-it feeder — is that it can hold a large amount of syrup and the bees can take the syrup down in large quantities quickly (when the syrup is warm enough for them). So a hive top feeder is useful for topping up the hives with thick syrup before winter sets in. The bees will need time to cure the syrup before it gets too cold, but generally in Newfoundland it seems to be a safe practice give them syrup in the fall until they stop taking it. Hive top feeders are good for feeding bees in the spring to get them started, but smaller feeders that fit over the inner cover hole can work just as well for people who have easy access to their bees. This post, A Screened Hive Top Feeder, demonstrates what I think is the best way to use a hive top feeder.
It’s November 2018 and I’ve deleted this post from 2010. I was freaked out because I looked inside one of my hives and didn’t see any brood and thought the queen was dead. But I would have calmed myself down if I had happened to read this entry from the 1947 edition of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture:
Stuff that’s good to know.
No brood in the hive by October in Newfoundland is not uncommon. Some queens lay well into the fall (probably Italian queens) and some stop as soon as it gets cold (probably Russian queens). No big deal.
Again, it’s probably normal behaviour for honey bees, but I haven’t seen it before so, as usual, I’m concerned. I checked out the hives first thing this morning and noticed an abundance of wasps flying around. It was also after the first frost of the season. I mention these facts just in case they’re significant. Other than the wasps, there was little activity. I checked the hives again around 11 o’clock when both would be in full sunlight (they only get a couple hours of direct sunlight at this time of year) and there were bees everywhere. Hive #2 looked great. Orientating flights, foragers coming and going. No complaints. But the bees in Hive #1, which haven’t been too active in the past week, were pouring out of the hive. Not flying around much, just walking out of the hive and hanging outside on the entrance board in a thick carpet of bees.
Bees clumping on board board. (Sept. 27, 2010.)
This photo shows them clumped together on one side of the entrance, though the entire entrance board was covered with bees. It’s now about an hour later and they appear to be coming and going as normal, though they still seem to be favouring one side of the entrance.
Does anyone know what would cause the bees to gather in large numbers around the entrance like that? I heard the buzzing of some angry-sounding drones. Maybe they’re all getting the final boot today. I know sometimes bees will hang outside the hive on hot days, but it’s only about 12 degrees out there. It’s not that hot. Anyway, I’m just curious (I’m not alarmed). Here’s the video: Continue reading →
I saw the first frost of the season on the ground this morning. I also saw the bees stretching their wings outside the hives, but when I went out and checked, what I thought were bees were actually wasps — at least ten of them swooping around the entrances of both hives. I lifted off one outer cover, too, and noticed the inside of it was full of condensation.
I couldn’t do much about the wasps, but I put a screen in place of the outer cover for twenty minutes while the cover dried in the sun. I’ve seen the condensation build up over the past week. I take it as a sign that I need to prepare the hives for winter soon.
September is an eventful month for beekeeping in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Let me list the reasons why: Continue reading →