Buttoning up the beehive for winter

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Last winter was cold and this winter is supposed to be similar. I’ve lost beehives in the last few winters – once because they starved to death and the other time because they froze to death. There aren’t many things as sobering as cleaning out a hive full of dead bees in the spring. It is downright depressing, and replacing the bees takes money and effort. A year ago at this time I had only one hive, and by the time spring arrived, I was left with none. As my hive sat empty after the mass die off, and before my order of a new package of bees arrived from Georgia, our apple trees bloomed. The blossoms were plentiful and fragrant, and I was reminded of the days in the previous year when the honeybees covered the apple trees, collecting nectar and pollen, fertilizing the blossoms. We had so many apples in our harvest that year – so many that I could barely keep up with the applesauce production. We felt blessed.

This year there were no bees to cover the apple trees. No bees to collect nectar and pollen, or to fertilize the blossoms. By the time summer arrived I could see that there were no apples on the trees, and we had no apple harvest this year. When I realized how important my bees were for the apple harvest, I quickly saw that a die-off in winter was more than an inconvenience – it was a serious problem. This winter I am determined to keep the bees alive, and I’m starting by addressing the two issues that plagued my hives in the past: food and warmth.

Cold Weather Food

After I harvested honey earlier in the fall I started feeding the bees a sugar syrup to help them increase their honey stores for the winter. As the weather cooled I stopped the feedings because liquid sugar is of little use to bees when it gets cold. In order to convert the syrup into honey, they need to fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. When it’s cold, the bees cluster and conserve their energy, so fanning syrup isn’t an activity they undertake. When it gets cold outside and the inside of the hive stays warm near the cluster, the water left in the syrup turns into condensation and clings to the top of the hive. When the water droplets get heavy enough, they fall down onto the bees, and the cold drops kill the bees below. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Cold weather feeding means providing low-moisture sugar stores. More on this in a moment.

Keeping the Hive Warm

The hive is kept warm in a few different ways. The first rule is to provide a wind break so that the cold winter wind doesn’t whip straight into the hive. If you don’t have a natural wind break such as shrubs or trees in front of the hive, you can erect a wall of hay bales a few feet from the hive, making sure you place them in the direction of the wind. Here at the Village Homestead there is a good wind break provided by trees and shrubs.

The second way to keep a hive warm is to keep the profile low. Hot air rises, so the closer the cluster of bees is to both the top and bottom of the hive, the better. You know how cathedral ceilings in a home look nice, but they aren’t great for keeping the room warm in the winter because the hot air rises to the ceiling? The same principle is in effect in the hive. If too many boxes are on the hive going into winter, the warm air will rise, leaving the cluster of bees below exposed to the cold.

I am convinced that one of my hives died from cold exposure because I put a box of honey frames on the hive at the end of the winter, and the warm air rose to the top. The bees had food stores, thanks to those honey frames I had stored in my freezer all winter, but they didn’t live because they couldn’t stay warm in their cluster. This year I want to minimize the cathedral ceiling phenomenon in the hive.

A third way to keep the hive warm is to keep out excess moisture. I said earlier that moisture in the hive will collect on the top of the hive and rain down as cold water droplets that kill the bees. Moisture is always in the hive because the bees are living organisms and in the course of breathing, eating and moving around, they create condensation. It is important to have a way to remove the water that collects.

Candy Boards

This year my solution to both of these issues – feeding the bees and keeping them warm – is to create a candy board for the hive. It’s a very squat box that goes on top of the brood chambers (and directly under the inner cover). The box is lined with hardware cloth and newsprint, and filled with a sugar-water mixture that is mostly sugar. This set-up directly addresses all of my issues: the bees have food to last them through the winter; there isn’t a lot of extra space at the top of the hive for warm air to collect; and condensation is absorbed by both the newsprint and the sugar mixture. Extra condensation escapes through a hole drilled into the side of the box. I think it’s a brilliant idea. No, I didn’t make it up myself – a lot of other beekeepers are making candy boards for their hives. I took my recipe from the blog Tilly’s Nest – her instructions are pretty good, and if you would like to make one too, head over to her site and follow what she did. 

A few notes on making the candy board: the sugar solution will be very dry while you are mixing it, like damp beach sand – not wet enough to build a sand castle, but not dry enough to flow through your fingers. Mix it with your hands. When you are ready to put it in the candy board frame, pat it in really well. Push down on the sugar mixture and pat, pat, pat until it is a solid mass. Let it sit overnight to harden. Before placing it on the hive, cut away any extra newsprint. If newsprint peeks out from the hive, it will wick moisture into the hive – exactly the opposite of what you want!

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Entrance Reducer and Mouse Guards

Two more things to think about when closing up the hive for the winter: entrance reducers and mouse guards. An entrance reducer simply reduces the size of the entryway at the base of the hive. It keeps the cold air out and allows the guard bees to catch a break instead of expending all their energy on guarding a big entrance during the winter. I actually leave my entrance reducer on year-round for young hives.

Mouse guards are a must if you live in a cold area. Mice seek out warm, protected spaces and can crawl through small holes. A beehive is an ideal winter home for mice. It’s warm and protected, and usually close to a field. Once inside a hive, mice can eat the honey and soil the brood chamber with their droppings. Here in upstate New York we worry about exposure to hantavirus as well. My mouse guards were fashioned by Jeff and I love how easy they are to use. He made a five-sided cube of hardware cloth, the width of the hive entrance, and attached two pieces of wood inside the cube. The pieces of wood are no taller than the entrance so that they can slip in easily. When it’s time to add the mouse guard, I simply slip the wood pieces into the hive entrance until the open side of the cube meets up with the hive body. You can see it in action here:

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Checklist for Buttoning Up the Hive

  • Reduce the number of boxes to the lowest number the bees need for the winter. I use the 10-frame size, and leave two brood chambers for the winter cluster
  • Add an entrance reducer and a mouse guard to the entrance
  • Create a wind break using hay bales if you don’t have one already
  • Put a candy board on top of the brood chambers, and put the inner cover and outer covers on top of the candy board
  • Place bricks or a heavy stone on top of the outer cover to keep the cover on tight; or use bungee cords to secure the cover to the hive

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2 Responses to Buttoning up the beehive for winter

  1. Dick November 11, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

    Jillian: Beautifully written, with empathy for the bees and scientific basis for what you are doing. The bees must appreciate you!

  2. Mama Jillian November 11, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    Thanks! I like to think they appreciate me… they’re so hard to read :) I do my best!

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