Hives in the Snow

It’s December 2018 as I rewrite this post from April 2011. I decided to keep a record of how much snow my hives had to contend with during my first winter of beekeeping. Whenever they got nailed with heavy snow or rain or freezing rain and drizzle and fog and wind, anything that was drastically different from the day before, I took a picture of it and observed how the bees reacted to the changing winter weather conditions. More details on all that can be gleaned from the original comments for this post that are still intact. I’ve deleted most of the photos (well over 20 by the time it was done). Missing are the final photos showing how the hives were covered in ice from storms of freezing rain in April. The final record really drove home the reality that just about every place on planet Earth has an earlier and warmer spring than beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland. Yeah. So here are just a few of the photos I kept.

Hive #1 in the snow. (Nov. 30, 2010.)

Hive #1 in Snow (Jan. 13, 2011).

Hives #1 and 2 (Feb. 1, 2011.)

Hive #1 (Feb. 1, 2011).

I have to say, these are pretty tame photographs. Nothing too drastic about any of this. In later years my hives got buried deep in snow way more than this.

There wasn’t anything unusual about my first winter of beekeeping. We had lots of snow and dampness in the air and it was all lousy weather right into the end of April. So what did I learn from my first winter of beekeeping?

Ventilation is everything, or just about everything. The bottom entrances can get clogged with snow and ice and dead bees, but it’s more important to keep that top entrance free flowing, either by using ventilation rims and ventilation boxes or moisture quilts. If the insides of the hives seem wet during quick inspections, they’re probably not getting enough ventilation. The fanciest hive wraps in the world can’t save bees that are living inside a wet, damp hive.

Rims on the hives in the winter make it much easier to add emergency feed, whether sugar cakes, candy, pollen patties, whatever.

Snow is the best insulation and windbreak. I’ve had hives completely buried in snow with just the top entrance visible and the bees loved it. Snow (before it turns to ice) makes hive wraps completely unnecessary.

It’s easier to inspect a hive in the winter on a slightly cold day, not a warm day when the bees are more active. More active bees in the winter can be more defensive. Cold air rarely chills the brood (what little there is in the winter). Nor does it kill many bees in the short time the hive is open. The bees fall into a state of torpor, which looks like death, but the bees come back to life once the heat builds up inside the hive again.

Always have a plan (and then a Plan B and C) before lifting the top off a hive in the winter. A 30-second hit of cold air isn’t fatal, but anything more than a minute or two is rolling the dice. So whenever I open a hive in the winter, I move calmly but swiftly. If for some reason everything goes south, I close up the hive and walk away and save it for another day.

It’s usually a good idea to have some kind of emergency feed on stand by, because when the bees run out of honey and starve to death, it can happen fast. I’ve known many new beekeepers who lost their bees to starvation during their first winter because they took a trip for two or three weeks and when they came back all the bees were dead. Pro tip: Top off the hives with some kind of feed before going on any trip.

When in doubt (which was 95% of the time for my first two or three years of beekeeping), dump as much sugar in the hives as they’ll take. It can always been reused in the spring time for sugar syrup if the bees don’t touch it.

25 thoughts on “Hives in the Snow

  1. Just make sure you get newfoundland bees to keep newfounland mite free….

    But please jump into beekeeping. It is a blast.

  2. To be clear, it’s illegal to import honeybees onto the island of Newfoundland. Queen bees can be imported from places that are certified as mite-free, like Australia and one or two other places.

    We’re very fortunate not to have any mites on the island yet.

  3. The more people that read these comments and discover that we are blessed in Newfounland for having honey bees that are mite-free will be more inclined to keep the province mite free.

    Which benefits everyone.

  4. I’ve been working out on the road for the past while. I checked out the hives for the first time in a while today. I saw a fair number of dead bees outside the hive and crowded around the entrance reducer. I’m not worried though. Bees die off in the winter. Some bees even do what some call a suicide flight when there are too many bees in the wintering hive. They fly out and die in the cold so the rest of the hive will have more to eat. Weird, but I just read about it on a forum today. (If you can think of it, my bet is the bees probably do it.)

    I looked into the top entrance of Hive #2 and accidentally breathed a bit inside and some guard bees came to the entrance immediately. I could see several of them crowded around the entrance, though they didn’t fly out. So they’re still in there buzzing away. Gotta say, I’m impressed with these bees.

  5. Mine are bunkered down. I look in through the top netrance reducer you can see several bees there but there is not a lot of activity. If you hit the side you can hear them buzz but not much out of them overall. Lets hope they make it through the winter.

  6. What concerns me the most is the fluctuating temperatures we’ve been having. I’d rather have it consistently cold. It takes honey consumption to heat the hive, but I think they use up even more energy when it’s warm enough to fly. So they’ll go through the honey faster and sometimes starve before spring. Apparently they do better when it’s cold most of the time. It’s been more like early fall around here lately.

    But who knows. The first year of beekeeping is live and learn.

  7. Someone on Facebook asked me how the bees manage not to freeze to death over the winter. My answer:

    They cluster together in a big ball kind of like Antarctic penguins, taking turns moving from the colder outside of the ball (9°C) to the warmer inside (27°C). The queen is always on the inside. They shiver to create heat and slowly eat away at honey stores (about 50kg) until the spring. On warmer days (above 10°C) they may fly outside the hive to use the facilities because they don’t like to poop where they live. And that’s how they live in Newfoundland for nearly half the year. It’s nuts.

  8. minimum honey consumption is at 42°F. If ti either warmer or cooler they comsume more juice. So the temps lately aren’t to bad.

  9. I have no idea what 42°F is. Fahrenheit has never made any sense to me. Let me look it up…

    7°C. Huh. It has to get colder later in the winter, but the past month hasn’t been too cold. Hovering around 5°C is about right. Excellent.

    I might know these little facts if I read more beekeeping books. But I haven’t dug into any of my books yet. I probably won’t have a chance to read anything until after the new year. Between work and general Xmas mayhem, I barely have time to breathe.

    I wonder where the bees are clustering in the hive. I haven’t pulled out the entrance reducers since I wrapped the hives. Before that, I could see in both hives the cluster was in the bottom left.

  10. It’s 5°C today. Man, it’s been warm and wet for a while now. I wonder if any of that moisture is collecting inside the hives. I’ll be happy to have one hive survive the winter. I’ll be overjoyed if both survive.

  11. I checked mine. I have the hard foam , that is not perfectly sealed and fiber glass batting on top. The bottom side of the outside cover is damp and you could feel see a couple of drops of water on the fiberglass batting.

    • The bottom side of the outside cover is damp and you could feel [and] see a couple of drops of water on the fibreglass batting.

      Is that good? (I’m not sure if I’m visualizing it correctly.)

      My bottom boards look soaking wet in the damp weather we’ve been having. I see plenty of dead bees piling up around the bottom reduced entrance.

      However, I can still see guard bees at the top entrances of both hives, so I guess they’re going at it.

      We also haven’t had much sunlight, and neither of my hives get as much direct sunlight at this time of year. So whatever heat benefit there is from having black paper wrapped around them is minimal.

      I’ll be so impressed if they survive this weird winter we’re having. I’d rather see the hives buried — and insulated — in snow than this cool damp weather we’ve been having.

  12. We had snow in late November that looked like this:

    It’s been wet and rainy ever since, though the last time I checked my bees were still alive. Temperatures have averaged between -5° and 5°C.

    Today is the first day I’ve seen snow on the ground since November. It looks about the same as it did last time. I’ll post a photo if I have a chance.

    Except for constant damp in the air for the past month and a half, the cool but relatively mild temperatures have probably been okay for the bees. My guess is they’re clustering but not eating up too much honey stores.

    At least I hope that’s the case.

  13. The wind chill factor tonight is supposed to be -22°C. I’m tempted to place a board over the upper entrances of my hives to block the wind. The top entrances on my hives aren’t sheltered at all. Hmm… (I’m thinking.) Then we’re getting hit with a massive storm that’s blowing across most of North America, though most of the storms are usually a wet, windy mess by the time they make it to Newfoundland.

  14. This is as bad as it’s been this year:

    That -10°C is a -25°C wind chill (that’s -13°F). I should have sheltered the hives last night. The wind was wicked. I’ll check the hives later this morning and add a new photo to this post. They’re buried in a bit of snow, and apparently we’re getting hit big time in a day or two.

  15. The big storm dumped a nice pile of snow on us. The city is shut down. The hives are half buried. I’ll post photos later.

    I wonder if melting snow creates an ice sheet inside the bottom of the hive. The outside portions of the bottom boards have been ice for a while, enough to block the bottom entrances.

    I’m impressed how well the bees live under these conditions.

  16. Well Phil, the bees were out flying around the hive today. It was 0.5°C, the sun a blazing and no wind but they were out stretching their wings. But by the looks of the ground a bunch didn’t make it back. Good to see the activity though.

  17. I’m so pleased for you that the bees made it through the winter. What stars they are.

    The advice the local beekeepers give here in London is to clear the snow away from the hive entrances…they say the bees are attracted to the sun bouncing off the snow and come out to have a look. Then their three simple ocelli eyes on the top of their heads get confused – because light is usually coming from above so that they fly upwards towards the sun, but in the case of snow their ocelli eyes guide them to fly into the snow’s light and freeze.

    In your case I don’t see how you could possibly hide the snow from the bees! They seem to have coped brilliantly with it anyway.

  18. Really interesting website. And I love that you have one of those crows atop the hive. I’ve been looking at them in the window of that shop on Water Street for ages, but I never quite knew where I might put them. I guess they don’t rust or corrode, though I was wondering if they would.

    I’m going to have to think about this a lot more before I would do anything rash like decide I want my own bees, though…

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