By: Kim Flottum
No matter what action you consider relative to honey bee management, you are always safe if your first move is – Well, it depends. This is certainly true when preparing your hives for Winter.
Honey bees are tropical insects, or at least that’s where they developed. Their ancestors were more acquainted with rainy seasons and dry seasons than temperate and cold seasons. We’ve moved them around so much, and have carefully selected for tolerance to cold that some races have become quite adept at handling long, cold, dark, frozen Winter seasons.
Even so, they still have to deal with Winter, whatever Winter is where they are. So, if you and your bees can see the gulf coast from your beeyard your Winter will be far different than if, like my bees, you can see the shores of the great lakes from the beeyard.
And, if your bees can see the gulf, the Winters they will have to endure will be far less stressful than mine, they will most likely have brood and be able to forage for 12 months of the year. Managing bees in the far south is way different than the north in what the bees will need, and when they will need it. Northern bees are already being stretched for food, protection and health issues in October, while these issues don’t usually surface until after Christmas in the mid-south and perhaps not at all way far south. So, since northern bees will need the most, now, let’s look at what northern bees will need for the next three months, so we can get them ready for the worst, and not have to hope for the best.
Let’s start with how much food will they consume between now and the first nectar flows next Spring. Figure late March/early April (and sometimes even later) before nectar and pollen in any abundance is available. That’s six-plus month’s worth of food. An Italian colony with a population of about 25,000 now will slowly decline in both adults and brood until about January 1, and will consume about 40 pounds of honey. After that brood rearing begins in earnest and between January 1 and April 1, they’ll use up 50, maybe as much as 60 pounds of honey. It all depends on the weather, health and the queen’s ability to produce a normal number of eggs a day. On average, a good guess as to how much food you’ll need for that colony is 90 – 100 pounds right now. If your beeyard is further south, say halfway between the great lakes and the gulf, figure on 40 – 60 pounds, right now. And if gulf breezes are common, maybe none at all, or at most a few frames for those few cool nights you’ll have. Otherwise, they’ll be able to forage and make what they need as they need it. Mostly, usually. Maybe. If the weather is average, no hurricanes, fires or droughts. Any bets?
If you have darker northern European bees, like Carniolans or Caucasians, or northern adapted bees like the Russians, or even some that have become adapted to where you live now, you won’t have that many to start with, say 15,000 or so now, and they will decline to fewer than 10,000 or maybe even fewer, by January 1. Figure maybe 30 pounds of honey for the adults, with probably very little brood to feed. Then, depending on what you have, they’ll either gear up and start raising brood to be ready for the honey flow in your area, or, more likely, to be ready for the honey flow where they used to live (Carniolans take off fast, Caucasians and Russians wait until there’s lots of food available). Either way, it will most likely be slower than the Italians, so figure maybe 30 – 50 pounds far north, less a bit south. That’s 50 – 70 pounds total. A deep has more than that if it’s full. A medium with a couple of frames in the brood nest is what it’ll take. Most years.
So. As much as 100+ pounds from now to Spring, or as little as 40 pounds. You still have to have it now. You can’t hope you can do an emergency feeding in December. Or January. Now is the time to make sure you have that much food available so there is NO stress on the colony, no holding back on brood rearing, no starvation of any kind at all, all Winter long.
If you have to feed carbs there are a number of techniques to get carbohydrates into the colony. Sugar syrup now while it’s still warm enough. Jars and pail work on top inside and you can replace them with little disturbance. Don’t ever use an entrance feeder this time of year to avoid robbing. You can use an in-hive frame feeder, but you have to open the colony to refill them. Fondant, available from bakeries works too. The good thing about fondant is that you know exactly how much sugar is getting fed. Slice a 50 pound cube into five slices and each colony gets 10 pounds. Lay it right on the top bars, use a shim to make room and put the inner cover over that. If you need more than 10 pounds, add another slice when the first one is almost gone.
Of course honey is always best, and had you saved some in the freezer you’d be set. Or, do you have extra from stronger colonies to share with those on the dole? Either way, honey is best.
OK, that’s carbs. What about protein for feeding the young that will be coming along soon? Figure a deep frame with most cells filled with pollen will have 7000 or so cells of pollen. It takes a cell of honey, a cell of water and a cell of pollen to raise a bee, so one frame will raise 7000 or so bees. There’s 3000 bees in a pound and 7000 bees will cover three frames or so, and your colony, when the first honey flow hits, will need AT LEAST six frames of bees and brood, and 10 would be a lot better. You should have, minimum, the equivalent of two, and better four frames mostly filled with pollen. That’s about six pounds of fresh pollen, right now. Don’t have that much? Start feeding pollen supplement patties. Today. But watch for small hive beetles. They like these patties even more than the bees do. If you are feeding these, feed half a patty at a time, throw out any that get beetle larvae in them or dry out, use traps galore to get rid of the adults and keep your eyes open.
But what about protection? How much do your bees need? Northern bees are used to the cold, right? Russians are tough and don’t need much. Locally adapted are used to the winters you have where you are, so they should be OK. Well, maybe. Think about this a moment.
Yes, bees from regions with real winter will have better adaptability than the tropical Italians, or those with some of the Africanized blood in them, that’s for sure. But even the toughest bees will do better if they have protection from wind, from dripping water from condensation, from pests and predators, from anything that causes stress. They may do OK in a box in the backyard, but they will do better in a protected box in the backyard.
So. Think three things. Wind breaks, ventilation and wrapping. Provide the best of those worlds and you will have nearly stress free bees all Winter. And stress free, well fed bees hit the road running come Spring. No hunger issues, lots and lots of adults and brood coming along, enough room for a good queen to be laying in for even more bees – reduce stress and make their lives better.
So. Protection. Start with wind breaks. Evergreen trees, of course are great, but if you don’t have them you can get other items. Think used pallets, a section of fence, better three sections of fence so that the only open side is the leeward side, away from the direction of the prevailing wind. In this best of all worlds, the windbreak will be at least, at least two feet taller than your hive. Three is better. If using pallets, think two layers, with something to fill in the cracks on the outside layer. After Christmas used evergreen trees are free for the picking so get some of those, too. If using fence sections that are essentially solid, make the two sides not quite parallel. Wing them out a little, say a couple of feet so the opening is wider than the back to deflect the wind even more. If you have the means, put a partial roof over this enclosure for even more protection. This isn’t reasonable if you have several colonies, but don’t skimp on the back barrier one bit. Sides are a luxury, but your bees will appreciate it.
Ventilation. Even if you are not going to wrap your colonies, think about ventilation. With newish equipment there aren’t many, or any chinks or cracks and the bees will have sealed all box junctions with propolis, so there is no way for warm air, laden with moisture, to escape. As the bees warm the cluster, warm air rises, drawing in cooler air from the front door opening below. The warm air leaving the cluster rises, rubbing off the cold sides and eventually hitting the bottom side of the inner cover. If it doesn’t have anywhere to go it will sit there and slowly condense, like your breath on a window on a cold morning. The condensation will collect, gather together and finally form drops which will fall to the top bars below, run down the sides of the boxes and some will fall onto the bees below. What you’ll see when you open the colony below the inner cover is frost on the top bars, some of the comb on those top frames, and some perhaps on the bottom board. The water that falls on the cluster below drips on the bees on the outside top of the cluster and gets them wet, on the cold side of the cluster, and makes it a lot harder to keep warm. Imagine being outside when it’s 30° and somebody dumps a pail of 33° water on you. Brrrrrrrrr.
To avoid this, the warm air needs an unobstructed path to the outside, where it will there condense and crystalize and fall to the ground, and not on the bees. You can do this several ways. The diagram shows one of the best ways I know. It has two adaptations to look at that can both be provided in other ways if you use your imagination. First, it is made of thick Styrofoam insulation cut to fit inside the rim on the top of the inner cover. This keeps the inner cover warm, so warm air rising and hitting the bottom of the inner cover doesn’t condense, but rather keeps rising or escaping with all its water still as vapor. It also provides an escape route for that air. There’s a channel that lets the air rise, escape through the hole in the inner cover and keep right on going to the outside. Because the channel has insulation above it the escaping air remains warm and doesn’t condense until it’s outside. Another plus for this technique is that it provides an excellent upper entrance for the bees if accumulated snow has blocked the entrance at ground level.
Using these ideas, you can imagine a number of ways to insulate the inner cover and provide an escape. You can make these easily enough and they will save your bees an immense amount of discomfort, grief and even death. Cold, wet dead bees are a mess to clean up in the spring. Provide good ventilation.
Finally, let’s look at wrapping. I learned to keep bees in central Wisconsin, where Winters are a serious matter. And even though Winters in northeast Ohio aren’t quite as wicked as Wisconsin, I still wrap my bees every Winter.
Wrapping does several things that are positive for the bees. First, a good wrap is a perfect windbreak – every crack is covered (but don’t neglect a windbreak if possible). Second, a dark material – roofing paper, plastic sheeting or the like – will warm the inside of a hive far more than a white box on a sunny Winter day, no matter how cold the air temperature is. It won’t get cozy inside, but it will help warm the air surrounding the cluster and allow the cluster to more-easily move a bit to where there is more food. And, because it keeps the air inside warmer than a not-wrapped hive, when the sun goes down in the evening the wrap slows the cooling rate of the air inside and allows the cluster to reform in the right place.
Of course a wrap will also reduce ventilation if not applied correctly, and you’ll still end up with cold, wet, dead bees.
What to use? Well, there are several materials available from bee supply companies that work well. But simple roofing paper works also. It’s weather proof, can be applied with a staple gun and is reusable. It’s also probably the least expensive material you can find. I use the thin plastic sheeting with a thin layer of fiber insulation on one side. It too can be applied with a staple gun, and comes in rolls, or sheets to fit a single colony.
There are corrugated, weather- proofed boxes that you can slip over a colony. Each end folds to close the box. To use, remove the cover and slip over the hive and fold the flaps down that overlap. The folded flaps allow more than adequate ventilation, but not an upper entrance. They too last a long time.
So. Windbreaks. Ventilation and wrapping. Three things you can do right now to protect your bees from the worst of Winter.