Winter can be a worrying time for beekeepers. Between the freezing temperatures and a limited food source for bees, how can beekeepers ensure that their colonies will survive winter?
Bees spend the whole year preparing for the cold months. They stockpile honey to eat and generate heat with their bodies. As beekeepers, we can help them stay warm by insulating beehives for winter.
When the temperature drops to the 50’s it signals to the bees that it’s time to form a winter cluster. To do this, they gather closely together, with the queen in the center. They are so close to one another that the hairs on their bodies interlace. Then, they use their indirect flight muscles to shiver. Doing so gets the center of the cluster to a toasty 92 degrees, regardless of the temperature outside of the hive.
Of course, the heat does dissipate, and faster so for a smaller colony. It is essential for bees to maintain the core temperature of the winter cluster in order to survive the winter months. Something beekeepers can do to help with this is insulating beehives for winter.
What To Do With Beehives in Winter
Beehives require much less attention during the winter. But there are a few things you need to do.
- Monitor the hive entrance. Make sure that the hive entrance is not blocked by snow or debris.
- Make sure your bees have enough food. Bees eat about 60 pounds of honey during the winter. When harvesting honey be sure to leave enough for your bees to eat.
- Feed your bees. While the bee colony has stored honey to eat during the winter, how do you know if it is enough? You can feed your bees to ensure that they have enough food. Sugar syrup, fondant or pollen patties are often used for this purpose.
- Move your bees to an area with more sunlight. This will help to keep the hive warm during the day. Ideally, you want them in an area that doesn’t get hit by a lot of wind. Trees or a fence near your beehives can help with this.
- Add a reducer to the hive entrance. Bees don’t fly in and out of the hive much during the winter. So it is okay to have just a small entrance for them. Adding a reducer helps with wind and cold, but also gives the bees freedom to leave the hive.
- Vent the roof of the hive. The bees winter cluster produces a small amount of moisture in the hive. With no air flow, that moisture can turn into condensation, which can be deadly for your colony. To prevent this, tip the roof of the hive up a tiny bit to allow air flow in.
- Reduce the number of boxes on your hive. The bee colony naturally gets smaller over winter. Having extra boxes on the hive is not only unnecessary, but it is also detrimental to the bees, as they will not be able to heat such a large area.
- Use a hive cover. If you live in an area that is very cold, you may want to use a hive cover to help your hives stay warm.
Insulating Beehives For Winter
Depending on the climate in your area, you may find it useful to insulate your beehives for winter. If it gets very cold, where temperatures dip below freezing in the daytime, you can wrap your beehives to help your bees survive winter.
Overwintering beehive protective covers are sold that have been effective at increasing the winter survival rates of colonies. They are easily placed over your hive and helps to shield the hive from strong wind, rain, and snow. Be sure to cut some ventilation holes in your protective cover so condensation does not build up inside the hive.
If you don’t want to wrap your entire hive, or if it isn’t too cold in your area you can also insulate the top of the hive. A simple piece of styrofoam is sufficient for this. Place the styrofoam under the telescoping cover to help the hive retain heat.
Wrapping or insulating your hive is only necessary if you live in a colder climate. Even then, some beekeepers prefer to leave their hives unwrapped. They worry that wrapping or insulating beehives in winter would make the hive too warm, which would make the bees more active, and therefore go through their honey stores faster.
So, whether you choose to insulate your beehives for winter is up to you. You must take into account your area’s climate and strength of your colony to decide what is best for you.
Too much humidity in a hive can be deadly, so it is important to continuously monitor the temperature and humidity levels of the hive over winter. A really cool tool in monitoring the humidity in a hive is the BroodMinder Internal Hive Monitor. It is a small, thin device that is placed on top of either the brood or super frames.
The monitor then records heat and humidity as it rises to the top of the hive. The best thing about the Hive Monitor is that it sends the information straight to your smart phone. That information is also sent anonymously to a world wide data base to help researchers learn more about helping bees.
In the winter, bees create a cluster for warmth. In colder climates the bees may need some help retaining heat. You can do this by insulating beehives for winter. Be sure that your hive is properly ventilated, as too much humidity and condensation is dangerous to a colony.