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, and could be updated without noticed at any time in the future.
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?”
The answer probably shows up somewhere in my How-To Guide and in multiple places all over this blog. But I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that Part One of my answer is: I pay attention to my bees. That might not seem like much of an answer, but most people lose their bees within a year or two of starting, usually to starvation during the first winter and swarming during the first summer, because they didn’t pay close attention to their bees.
For Part Two, I’ll assume a few things, because otherwise this will take forever.
— I’m talking about a standard Langstroth or a similarly constructed hive.
— I’m done pulling out and rearranging frames for the year; the top deep is full of honey and honey frames are above and on the sides of the cluster (once the cluster moves down below); colonies have been combined if necessary; queens are in good shape; empty supers are removed; small colonies are housed in small hives, big colonies in big hives; in other words, the way the hives are now is the way they’ll be until next spring.
— I’m no longer feeding the bees any syrup (if I was feeding them to begin with).
— Whatever honey or syrup the bees have now is what they’ve got for the year (hopefully enough to get them through the winter).
— I’m talking about honey bees in my local climate which happens to be about 2 km from the cold, wet and windy North Atlantic Ocean (i.e., one third of the forage area for my bees consists of salt water). Anyone from California hoping to glean some insights from of my experiences, forget it. California might as well be another planet compared to Newfoundland. So…
STEP 1: I put mouse guards or shrew guards over the entrances around the time the bees stop bringing in pollen. Below 10°C / 50°F for more than a week is enough to attract mice to the warmth of the hive, so if I’m smart, I’ll get it done before that. I’ve chosen the first week of October as my deadline for now on, regardless of the weather, because I’ve seen bees bring in pollen on warm days in late November — and I’m not waiting that long.
I used wooden entrance reducers during my first year, but have used mesh stapled over the entrances ever since. I began with half-inch / 12mm mesh to keep mice out, but I now use quarter-inch / 6mm mesh because shrews can squeeze through the larger mesh. Other than the mesh, I leave the bottom entrances wide open all winter long for ventilation.
Update: I now use pushpins to attach the mesh because a staple gun riles up the bees too much and the tacks make it much easier to remove and reattach the mesh if I need to clean out dead bees. I tack the mesh over the bottom entrance during the first week of October but keep the top entrance open for a few weeks longer while the bees continue to bring in some pollen and are still clustered near the top bars where they can easily shoo away any shrew that might try to get inside.
STEP 2: I put a spacer or a shim or an eke or a rim over the top brood box to make room for emergency sugar feeding.
If I treated my bees well, they’d have enough honey of their own to make it through the winter. But I usually put some kind of sugar in just to be safe. Sugar feeding can be in the form of dry sugar poured over newspaper. It can be hard candy cakes or fondant too. The rim needs to be high enough to make room for whatever kind of sugar is slipped under the cover. I used dry sugar poured over newspaper for a few years because it meant I didn’t have to cook up syrup like I would with hard candy (I hate mixing any kind of syrup), but I’ve since switched to no-cook sugar cakes because they’re so much easier to slip into the hives. The convenience is worth the extra work upfront. I usually add the sugar in November or as soon as the cold compels the bees to move beneath the top bars and underneath their honey stores.
The rim will also provide room for slipping in pollen patties (food for the production of baby bees), though I’m not a big believer in giving the bees extra pollen, especially early in the winter when it’s often so cold that the bees can’t get out for cleansing flights. That’s like giving a room full of kids all the pizza they can eat but not allowing them to go to the bathroom for a week. If I give my bees pollen patties, the earliest I do it is sometime in February when we usually get a few warm days here and there to allow for cleansing flights.
I’m also not a big fan of artificially boosting the population of the colonies, which is what often happens when the queen is given a steady source of pollen (or pollen substitute in the form of pollen patties). As a hobbyist beekeeper, I’d rather have more naturally sized colonies instead of hives exploding with bees and ready to swarm by the first week of May. If I have some weak colonies and I know I’ll need extra bees and brood, then I’ll do it. But I’m not otherwise convinced it’s necessary to maintain a healthy colony. That’s my personal preference. Many beekeepers who focus on honey production do the opposite.
STEP 3: I used to add insulation to the top of the hive in the form of hard insulation over the inner cover.
But these days I prefer a moisture quilt (a variation of Warré’s quilt box).
What’s essential with both is that they provide some form of ventilation to allow condensation to escape.
Since 2010 when I started beekeeping, I’ve never had any established colonies die because they were too cold. That includes hives with screened bottom boards that were open and exposed to the elements all winter. But I came close to losing all of my bees one winter from excessive moisture building up in the hive. I saved them by installing moisture quilts.
But in dryer climates, hard insulation was fine. I’m more inclined to use moisture quilts on my 3-deep hives because with more bees they will naturally produce more condensation from the bees’ respiration. Where I keep my bees now, in Flatrock, it isn’t nearly as humid as my previous location in Logy Bay, so I’m confident I can use a mixture of moisture quilts and hard insulation. (We’ll see.)
Another option is to place a ventilation rim (or an empty moisture quilt) over an inner cover. I’ve never done it, but apparently it provides excellent ventilation similar to a certain over-priced “mod-kit” that shall remain nameless. Speaking of over-priced mod-kits, the great thing about a moisture quilt is it’s cheap, it probably works as good if not better than most commercially available ventilation aids, and even someone like me with minimal carpentry skills can make it. It’s easily the most useful non-standard year-round hive component I use in my beekeeping.
STEP 4: I wrapped my hives in black roofing felt for several years. The wrap acts as a windbreak and produces some ambient heat for the bees whenever the sun comes out.
My hives are well sheltered, so they don’t need any kind of windbreak. My hives are also painted dark green, so when the sun hits them, they warm up just fine. Under these conditions, if my hives were in sunlight for most of the day throughout the winter, I wouldn’t bother wrapping them. But that’s not the case. In the winter with the sun low on the horizon most of the time, the spruce trees around my beeyard cast shadows over everything. My hives are in the shade most of the day throughout the winter. So I’ve decided, despite the hassle of it, I will wrap my hives. I’d like to try black plastic pallet wrap, but I can’t get my hands on any, so I’ll probably stick with my roofing felt. I know of a commercial product called a “Bee Cozy” that is apparently a wonderful thing, but it seems like overkill to me, and it’s too expensive. I don’t want my bees so warm that they eat through all the honey before springtime. Black roofing felt or even black plastic pallet wrap (if I can find any) seems like a reasonable middle ground. Hives that I know contain small colonies that can’t produce as much heat on their own will get the wrap.
STEP 5: I can’t think of anything else. I put on the mesh to keep shrews and mice out. I probably wouldn’t wrap my hives if they were painted a dark colour, were sheltered and got plenty of sunlight. I’ve got the first two but not the last one. With the lack of winter sunlight in my particular location, I think I’m safer off wrapping my hives. I use moisture quilts for insulation and ventilation, though I may use hard insulation over the inner cover on some hives unless I see condensation building up inside. I slip in no-cook sugar cakes over the top bars long before the bees need it, just to be safe. I feed pollen patties to weaker colonies, though probably not until the new year. Once the bees start eating sugar, I check on them at least once a week to make sure they don’t eat through all their sugar and starve. I use a stethoscope in the winter to listen to the cluster. I’m testing out an infrared camera to monitor my bees throughout the winter starting in 2016-17 (the jury is out on that one). I clear the snow away from the bottom entrance, but I generally don’t worry too much about it being clogged with snow from time to time.
In the spring when the weather warms up and no flowers are yet in bloom (which sometimes doesn’t happen until June in Newfoundland), if the bees are starving, I’ll feed them sugar syrup. If they’ll be dead within days (no honey at all), I’ll use hive top feeders or frame feeders that allow them to suck down massive amounts of syrup in a hurry. If they have some honey frames left, though, I’ll give them sugar syrup through a jar feeder so they can get a steady flow of syrup without overdosing and going wild on it. I’ve overfed my bees and created swarms and gigantic colonies too many times. I get enough honey from moderately sized colonies that are a lot less work. And that’s the way I like it.
I think that covers it.
This is the longest, ramblingest post I’ve ever written. It could have been a single paragraph, but being sick in bed and fueled by Nyquil tends to bring out the rambler in me. Please don’t take anything I say seriously. There’s a good chance I’ll delete this in the hard light day tomorrow. Sláinte!