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.
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.