The Dempster Hive Pillow

As much as I love moisture quilts (or anything that keeps my bees warm and dry over the winter), sometimes I think, “There’s got to be an easier way.” And when I say sometimes, I mean every single day. Instead of using moisture quilts, I’ve opted to try out these Dempster Hive Pillows. They’re 2 or 3 inch (~7cm) thick burlap pillows filled with wood chips that sit over the inner cover and inside a ventilation rim (or any kind of box with ventilation holes in it) to provide some insulation for the bees but also help absorb and wick away condensation from inside the hive.

Here’s a basic intro to the Dempster Hive Pillow:

It’s another experiment, but I think (I hope) it’ll work. I think it’ll be a lot easier to drop pillows into my hives instead dumping wood chips or some other absorbent material inside the hive. That’s the aforementioned easier way I was talking about. Considering that my bees have gone through the winter so far with zero insulation and zero moisture-absorbing material in place, my feeling is, yeah, what’s the worse thing that could happen?

Here’s the extended version of the above video that goes into a lot more detail about other things related my winter beekeeping:

00:00 — Some kind of animal tracks running through my backyard / beeyard.

00:30 — Say hello to the Dempster Hive Pillow, or the two of them hanging from my hand.

00:45 — Moisture quilts are great, but they’re not always easy to deal with. (Something I don’t mention in the video is that I don’t like how the bees cling to the underside of the moisture quilt once they’ve moved above the top bars. I suppose it’s not worse than when they cling the bottom of an inner cover, but I don’t know, it’s not exactly convenient when it happens.)

01:00 — A look at the first hive I intend to drop a pillow into. It’s basically a Lang hive with a ventilation rim over the inner cover. The pillow sits inside the ventilation rim. That’s it.

01:55 — The inside of the hive with a piece of hard insulation over the inner cover, but with a hole cut through the insulation for extra ventilation (an experiment). If you watch the video, you’ll see that I forgot to put a piece of mesh or screen over the inner cover hole. Subsequently, the bees came up through the hole and… well… that’s not so great.

02:25 — A look at another hive that’s probably a better candidate. You can see that the bees in this hive have also risen above the top bars of the hive. I may need to give them some emergency sugar soon, just to be safe.

03:15 — I try to move some of the freezing cold bees back into the hive through the inner cover hole using a piece of screen. I should have used the small piece of hard insulation instead, but oh well.

03:40 — I place some screen over the inner cover hole and then I drop the pillow in. (UPDATE: What was I thinking — or not thinking? I should have tacked down the screen over the inner cover hole. When I remove the pillow, the screen comes with it along with the bees. D’oh!)

04:00 — An explanation of how the Dempster Pillow works in combination with a ventilation rim and why I hope to use it instead of moisture quilts. It basically works that same way as a moisture quilt except moisture from inside the hive goes through the inner cover hole and the solid base of the inner cover keeps more heat in. My regular moisture quilts have a porous bottom (screen or canvas or whatever) that holds the loose wood chips, but it also replaces the solid wooded inner cover so that much more heat is able to escape through the moisture quilt. I don’t think that’s a major concern in areas that have damp but mild winters. My coastal Newfoundland winter is damp and mild most of the time, so most of the time my moisture quilts are fine, but some days are bone-freezing cold, and on days like that, it seems my bees might be better off with the little extra heat that’s held inside the hive by the inner covers. That’s the main difference.

06:28 — Talking about the need to add a rim (or shim) to this hive so I can toss in some sugar if they’re running low on honey. I need to do that for the first hive shown in this video too. Here’s an example of the same procedure but from April 2020 (skip to the 2:20 mark to cut to the chase):

06:45 — Another summary of the Dempster Hive Pillow. Another reason to go with the pillow is that it’s a lot easier than dumping loose wood chips into a moisture quilt. If I wanted to, I could still use my moisture quilts (and maybe I will if the inner covers hold in too much condensation), but instead of dumping wood chips in, I can just drop the pillow inside the moisture quilt. It’s exactly the same thing except it’s a lot easier to add and remove the wood chips when they’re contained inside a burlap pillow case.

07:24 — A little explanation about why it’s better to dig into the hives earlier in the day as opposed to later in the day. They have a better chance to recover from the commotion when it happens earlier in the day.

07:45 — A little peek into the second hive to get a pillow, even though I don’t think it needs it. I love this colony because the cluster is still way down below their honey.

Low cluster (Jan. 14, 2021.)

09:00 — Installing the pillow. The set up in this hive is slightly different. The bees are low in the hive and I don’t need to worry about feeding them any time soon. And instead of a ventilation rim over the inner cover, I’ve got a super with some ventilation holes drilled in it. No mesh over the holes to keep critters out. I’m not sure that really matters, anyway. I’ve been lazy with my beekeeping this winter, slow to do everything (I still haven’t mixed up any sugar bricks). I haven’t even installed 6mm / quarter-inch mesh over the top entrances.

09:40 — Describing the bees clustered way down below — and with a bottom hive entrance that’s wide open, which you’d think would drive the bees away from the cold air on the bottom of the hive, but it hasn’t. I’ve done this for years and it makes me wonder what the big benefit is to reducing the bottom winter entrance. You think the bees would want you to close the door on the way out, but they often do fine with a wide open bottom entrance in the winter. Go figure.

Lots of other chit chat about the D.E. Hive and other winter hive configurations.

11:05 — Listening to the bees buzzing inside the hive. Vibrations can really disturb the bees in the winter.

11:55 — A little peek at some bees clustering near the top of their hive. Some discussion about feeding the bees just because they’re at the top of the hive. I often give the bees sugar in this situation and then find the bees didn’t touch it. They just drop it to the bottom of the hive where I have to clean it all away in the spring.

12:50 — Explaining how moisture from the outside environment can get into the hives and cause just as much trouble for the bees as the condensation from the bees’ breath. I’m sure this is the kind of statement that some lifelong commercial beekeeper will say is bunk. I’m also pretty sure they don’t keep bees right next to the North Atlantic Ocean’s Labrador Current. If they did, they’d know that I’m not making this stuff up.

Rain, drizzle and fog (commonly known in Newfoundland as RDF) is probably the single most common weather condition we have on the east coast of the island where I keep my bees. When you add SNOW to that mix, melting, slushy, dirty, cold damp snow that produces its own special kind of fog in the middle of the woods, and then toss heavy winds on top all of that — oh yeah, some of that water can easily get blown through every hole, crack and crevice of a beehive, and it doesn’t take long for the inside of a beehive to feel as wet and damp as it is outside.

The wood chips might even absorb some of the moisture from outside, but the heat from the bees grabs that moisture and pushes it out into the wood chips where it eventually dries up and goes away.

Postscript: I’m aware of commercial beekeeping products sold as Winter Pillows that cost anywhere from $6 to $40 each. Some of them are simply pieces of pink insulation inside a plastic bag. Those go for $6 or so. Some pillows provide just insulation but have no wicking properties. Others are basically pieces silver bubble wrap sold for $12 each. I can get a giant roll of that stuff at my local hardware store for about a tenth of the cost. Regular pillow cases (old ones that you don’t use anymore, I assume) are also used in exactly the same manner as I’ve shown in this video. I use burlap because I think it might be more porous and less likely to get mouldy than a regular human-type pillowcase. Burlap is pretty cheap too. It’s easy to sew with a handheld sewing machine. And if it all falls to pieces in the end, I can tear it up and use every bit of it as smoker fuel. I’m not saying it’s the best invention in the world, but it’s pretty cheap to make and to use and (hopefully) it works.

A $20 handheld sewing machine used to make burlap pillows.

3 thoughts on “The Dempster Hive Pillow

  1. Great video Phillip.
    Just wondering how do you plan to dry the pillow later this year? can the pillow be emptied?

  2. Good question, John. This is all new to me, so I don’t know. But I was planning to just hang them up in my shed in a well ventilated area. Maybe hang them on a clothesline. They can’t be emptied but in the past when I’ve had damp wood chips from moisture quilts, they weren’t soaking wet or anything. They didn’t take long to dry.

  3. So , on two hives, I have been using “ quilts “ with wire mesh as the bottom , lined with well washed ,yet ,tea stained cotton napkins with 2 inches thick of dry wood chips spread covering the napkin. Ventilation holes on the sides as well. I used the cotton because the wood chips, as you have mentioned, fall through the wire mesh.
    Last year , as I had lifted the quilt to slide in a sugar cake onto the top bars, the bees were totally covering the underside of the quilt , nearly chewed holes into the cotton through the wire mesh.
    My thought was , perhaps the cotton was holding moisture that the bees needed and they were accessing it some how ? So, you have a great idea utilizing the burlap, though not as fancy as the napkins, perhaps they won’t chew that as easily .

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