The season of never‑ending darkness is upon us and to celebrate (cope with?) the change in weather, Lauchie and I have been busy getting our bees ready for the long, cold Canadian winter.
We are often asked what happens to bees in the winter. This is a good question. Ottawa gets pretty cold—like ‑40 C with the wind chill cold—and we get LOTs of snow. Deep snow. Icy snow. Never‑ending amounts of snow. And let’s face it, none of that is great for honey bees. Yet somehow they manage. And so, our job as beekeepers is to give our bees the tools they need to do their winter bee thang.
I thought I’d start this post by describing how honey bees winter in hives, but then I found an article published by Bee Culture on Winter Management (Bee culture, October 2016, web), so I figure, why re-invent the wheel? It’s a comprehensive read. Their article describes how honey bees thermoregulate the hive as well as the ins and outs of insulation, ventilation, convective flow and condensation. You know—all the good stuff. Read the article. We’ll wait.
Now that you have read the Bee Culture article, let’s consider some of the challenges honey bees face during the long, cold Canadian winter.
- Disease and pests.
- Wet hive.
Any one of these challenges can lead to a “dead out”—a hive of dead bees—come spring. While these are not the only challenges hives face, they are significant. Let’s examine each one more closely.
In an earlier post about Robber bees, we talked about the dangers of insufficient food stores over winter. For obvious reasons, bees cannot gather food during the Canadian winter. They also won’t take syrup once the temperature drops into the single digits.
To prevent starvation over the winter, honey bees must have enough capped honey in their brood box by late fall to feed their entire population for 4-5 months. Think about that for a second. Imagine going to Loblaws and buying a 4-5 months of food for your family of, like 20,000 people…(!!!) See how that gets real complicated, real quick?
And even if your bees worked their little buzzy bums off during the summer, there is still a chance they won’t have enough for the winter. The more bees in the hive, the more food they require. Typically a hive’s population will decrease before winter. But, if the population doesn’t decrease enough, your bees will consume their honey too quickly. Next, factor in the possibility of robbing bees and you can see how different circumstances can deplete a hive’s food stores prematurely.
To make sure your hives have enough to eat during the winter, you can feed your bees a 2:1 syrup in the fall. You can also check on your bees in early spring once the extreme cold has passed and, if needed, feed them pollen patties or fondant until the weather improves. This is how we’ve prepared for winter this year. We’ll find out in the spring if we did this right.
2. Disease and pests
This is a topic we haven’t written about on our blog yet, but it is a significant concern and one we have been monitoring throughout our first beekeeping season. In short, Varroa Destructor mites are little dicks and they can suck the life out of your beautiful honey bees if you don’t do something about them.
Going into fall, beekeepers must test and treat for varroa so that colonies aren’t infested with these mites as they over-winter in the hive. If you fail to address this problem, your bees may die off or be pretty sick come spring. (We will post an article about testing for and treating varroa mites in a few weeks once we’ve finished up our last oxalic acid drip.)
In addition to Varroa Destructor, other diseases and pests to worry about include Trachael mites, American foulbrood and chalkbrood. Basically, anything that can kill your bees in the hive is a problem. The population needs to remain a certain size to thermoregulate the hive properly. If the population falls below that threshold, you have big problems.
3. Wet hive
They say, “cold does not kill bees, wetness does.” A cluster of bees produces a lot of heat and that heat produces moisture and condensation. Without proper hive ventilation, significant amounts of moisture can build up inside the hive. Condensation that forms on the roof can drip onto your bees below. This is always bad. Very bad. Wet bees are dead bees.
Even with proper ventilation, some moisture will develop and you need to find ways to manage it. If your hive is set-up properly, that excess moisture will harmlessly drain down the sides of the hives—away from your cluster—and out the bottom entrance. Alternatively, absorbent insulation at the top of the hive will wick up the excess moisture and draw it away from your bees. The point is, if you set-up your hive properly going into winter, you can prevent problems before they begin.
Configuring a hive for winter in Ottawa
And on that note, let’s talk about winterizing hives.
If you’ve been reading up until now, you know that problems with ventilation and condensation can cause significant challenges in a hive over winter. We also know that these challenges can be mitigated by winterizing hives properly for your particular climate. This is great advice in theory, but hard to do in practice.
A quick search of the web will attest to the fact that there are MANY different ways to winterize your hives. But which method to choose? The trick is to find a method that works best for your climate/micro-climate. This is when you need to talk with experienced beekeepers in your area.
Going into fall, we knew that we were going to winter our bees in double deeps not singles (2 brood boxes instead of 1) and we knew we were going to use a bee cozy, but that was about as much as we had decided. After much research and head‑scratching, Lauchie and I headed down to Lacelle’s Apiary in Carleton Place for some advice. Paul Lacelle is a wealth of knowledge. He gave us a few suggestions to try and off we went.
Note: I’ve mentioned this before on Serendipi-bee, but it bears repeating: Get to know local beekeepers and, if you can, find yourself a damn good mentor. You will learn so much from them.
How to set up your hive
So, without further ado, here is how we configured our hive for our first winter with bees in Ottawa.
Step 1 (optional) – Remove the screen bottom board and replace it with a solid bottom board.
This step may not be necessary. Some beekeepers successfully over-winter their bees with screened bottom boards. Others swear their honey bees winter better with a solid bottom boards. If you throw this question at a group of veteran beekeepers, you will get many different opinions. Because we are curious people, we decided to do a test. We will over-winter one hive with a screened bottom board and one with a solid bottom board.
Step 2 – Add a 2” rim spacer.
The 2” rim spacer is placed on top of the brood box(es). A rim spacer creates a larger space between the top of the brood frames and the bottom of the inner cover. This gap will help in the spring or fall if you need to feed your bees syrup or pollen patties.
Step 3 – Put an inner cover on top of the spacer.
Point the inner cover entrance toward the front of the hive, notch down. The bees will use the top entrance frequently in the winter to enter/exit the hive or to ventilate the space. A top entrance is especially important during winter because the bottom entrance can get clogged with dead bees and snow. In spite of the cold, bees need access to fresh air throughout the winter and that top entrance ensures that fresh air continues to enter the hive.
Step 4 – Put a medium super on top of the inner cover.
The medium super will act as a cavity that you will fill with different types of insulation.
Step 5 – Put a piece of Styrofoam with a heat reflective surface into the medium super.
Place the Styrofoam into the super with the heat reflective surface facing down towards the inner cover. This piece of Styrofoam will insulate the hive and reflect heat back into the brood box.
Step 6 – Make a moisture quilt and place it in the medium super on top of the Styrofoam.
Fill a burlap sack with some type of moisture wicking insulation like wood shavings or a piece of Roxul insulation. Close the sack and place it on top of the Styrofoam. This will add extra warmth to the cover. We used pine wood shavings this year.
Step 7 – If you have not done so already, put an entrance reducer in the bottom entrance with the smallest notch open.
Even if snow covers the bottom entrance during the doldrums of winter, it is important that bees have a second entrance available. Although bees will use the top entrance more frequently, they will continue to use the bottom entrance to dispose of dead bees. As moisture builds up in the hive over the winter, this bottom entrance will allow moisture to flow out the hive.
Step 8 – Wrap a bee cozy around the outside of the hive.
Bee cozy’s can be purchased at any beekeeping supply store. Basically, it is just a giant insulated sleeve that hugs the outside of the hive. As you slide the cozy over the hive, make sure the seam is in the front of the hive so there is a “channel” for the bees to travel up and down in the winter. Also, make sure the cozy doesn’t cover the bottom entrance. If it does, hammer a nail into the front of the hive just above the bottom entrance and tuck the bottom of the cozy on the nail. The nail will stop the cozy from sliding down too far.
Note: Because we have mouse guards on the bottom entrance, it is unlikely the cozy will slide down and block the entrance. However, as a precaution, we added the nail. This will prevent the cozy from blocking the entrance if the mouse guard is accidentally knocked off during the winter.
Step 9 – Seal the top of the hive with the telescoping outer cover.
Once everything is in place in the medium super, put the telescoping outer cover back on the hive. Put something heavy on top to keep the cover in place. We used bricks.
Step 10 – Leave your bees alone until spring.
And that’s it. Typically once your hives are wintered there isn’t much to do. You’ll probably visit your hive every now and then to clear the snow away from the entrance, but even that isn’t necessary. Once the temperature drops, the hive needs to remain shut. No peeking until spring!
Coming soon to Serendipi-bee
Although we just wintered our hives, we still have more to share. In the coming weeks, learn about Varroa Destructor mites and how to treat your colonies for them. We will also teach you how to render fresh beeswax. Stay tuned!
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