March 2019 Introduction: This is another post where I go into some fine details of my beekeeping procedures that probably won’t do much to grab the interest of general readers. I’ll chime in at the end to comment on procedures that I don’t follow anymore, but this is really not the most exciting post I’ve ever posted. How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter is a more up to date version of this post, though even that is subject to change at any time.
It went up to a stifling 11°C yesterday (52°F), so I took the opportunity to insulate my hives for winter and staple on some mouse-proofing mesh. This is as simple as it gets.
The inner covers are in the winter position (with the convex side up, a.k.a. the flat side, which is misleading because both sides are flat, but basically you know it’s the winter position because it gives the bees more head space than when the “flat” side is down; anyway…). A piece of hard insulation is installed flat against the top of the inner cover. It covers the hole in the inner cover and you don’t have to make a tunnel for the bees through the insulation or anything because the bees have no problem getting outside through the upper entrance notch in the inner cover. Some beekeepers put duct tape over the inner cover hole so the bees can’t eat away at the insulation, but I didn’t use duct tape last winter and the bees didn’t get hungry for the insulation once. And that’s all there is to it. I just put the top covers on once the bees get out of the way and I’m done.
The only problem with this method of insulation is that it doesn’t leave much space under the inner cover for feeding the bees sugar or pollen patties in late winter. To make that extra space, I install a two or three inch rim (or an eke) under the inner cover. That’s what I plan to do. There are more than a few ways to insulate the hives for winter (moisture quilts, etc.) — and more importantly, to prevent condensation from building up inside the hives. This is just one of them. Along with wrapping the hives, it worked perfectly for me last winter. There are also plenty ways to feed the bees over winter (candy boards, etc.), but I can only talk from my own experience. Okay, then, let’s take a closer look at what I did yesterday…
This is the kind of thing I saw when I removed the inner covers from the hives.
I suspect the bees are still congregating in the top box because the top box is where their food has been coming from for the past month. That is, until today. I removed the remaining honey jar feeders and frames of honey from on top of the inner covers just before I did all this. I didn’t pull out any frames to see how much honey the bees had because I could see from looking down through the frames that they were full of capped honey and pollen. I don’t know how well you can see it, but here’s a downward shot of a frame full of honey:
I could see with a flash light that all the frames in the top boxes of all the hives were like this. That’s good enough for me. I left the bottom boxes alone. I installed insulated inner covers over the first two hives, and that looks like this (minus the top cover):
The insulated inner covers work exactly like the piece of insulation over the inner cover, except they’re a big pain in the neck to build. I built two of them last year before I realized how much easier it is to put a piece of insulation over the inner cover. I won’t bother building any more of them, but I can still make use of the two that I have.
That’s half-inch wide mouse-proofing mesh stapled across the bottom entrance of a hive. I added some to another hive too. All four of my hives have it installed now. I cut a big enough piece so I could bend the mesh into the entrance, but I couldn’t make it fit easily into the inch-high entrance, so stapling will have to suffice. (I’ve heard from other beekeepers online who say stapling the mesh works fine.) I’m not sure I’d go for the wide open entrance like this if my bees weren’t protected from the wind, but I think they’ll be alright in my backyard.
Ventilation is the name of the game here. All these measures aren’t meant to keep the bees toasty and warm. It’s about keeping them dry, preventing cold water (condensation) from dripping down on the bees and killing them. The insulation over the inner cover keeps the top of the hive warm enough to prevent condensation from building up inside the hive. The top entrance notch, or ventilation hole, in the inner cover allows what condensation there is to escape easily to the outdoors where it can’t hurt the bees. The mesh down below keeps the mice out and provides another exit for the killer condensation. The mesh also makes it easier for the bees to haul out the bodies of their many fallen comrades that die over the winter.
I also prop up the back end of my hives so that even if condensation builds up over the inner covers, most of it will pool downhill and drip down the front inside wall of the hive and not on the bees (if you can visualize that.) It’s a simple precautionary measure that doesn’t do any harm. (The hives are tilted down to the front all year round anyway.) Condensation can still collect on the sides of the hives, but a little winter wrap should solve that problem.
March 2019 Postscript: My first comment is that I’m embarrassed now by how I was trying to pass off so much advice and knowledge when I had little experience to back it up. I will continue to harp on this point as I revisit these old posts because it’s important to me that I don’t do exactly what I did in many of my early posts, and that is to lecture about beekeeping procedures I’ve read about but haven’t learned about through actual practice. Many new beekeepers fall into this trap, especially people like me who have spent too much time for their own good in academic environments where often egos, not the noble betterment of humanity, are the primary motivating forces. It’s an easy trap to fall into, one that some people never pull themselves out from. Not to say that I no longer have an ego, but I do make a conscious effort to check my ego at the door, and whenever it does raise its obnoxious little head, I usually delete what I wrote within hours. I’m very tempted to delete this whole post.
As mentioned in this post, I don’t make or use insulated inner covers anymore. I put a piece of hard insulation over the inner cover in the “summer position” and a rim to make room for sugar underneath. If my bees get damp in a particular location, I’ll use moisture quilts to keep them warm and dry in the winter instead.
I don’t wrap my hives for winter unless they’re out in the open where they’ll get battered by crazy winter winds. I’ve also been experimenting with NOT keeping my bottom entrances wide open all winter (except for the shrew-proofing mesh). Really all I want down there is some ventilation, not a gigantic blast of cold air constantly blowing into a completely open bottom entrance. So this winter (2018-19), I used stir sticks and other bits of things I had laying around to block off most of the bottom entrances like this:
I haven’t noticed any problems with it, though it’s still in the experimental phase.
I don’t use half-inch mouse proofing mesh anymore because it doesn’t keep the shrews out, and shrews are ten times worse than mice in my experience. I use 6mm / quarter-inch mesh instead.