Baby It’s Cold Outside!

After an exceptionally warm and dry fall, the meteorological winter finally arrived at the start of December to bring in some colder (and wetter) weather.  Last night, the temperature hit -8.5 °F (-22.5 °C) – the coldest weather in 2 years.  We’ve also gotten some snow with the cold, so it looks like it will be a white Christmas this year.

Beeyard at -5 F

People often ask me whether my bees hibernate in the winter (short answer – they don’t).  As fall approaches, a few things happen in the hive.  First, all the males (drones) get kicked out of the hive since they are mostly just a drain on the hive – eating and lying around, not helping to raise new bees or gathering stores for winter.  So, out they go.  The number of bees in the hive starts to reduce as the queen’s egg laying slows down and the summer bees are replaced by fatter winter bees who can survive through the cold weather.  Normally, worker bees (the females) live 4-6 weeks which wouldn’t get them through the cold of winter, but the winter bees can live 2-3 months.  The winter bees cluster together in a ball, eating honey for energy and beating their wings to keep warm.  The queen is in the middle of the cluster and the other bees keep her and any brood warm with the heat they generate.

If there are not enough bees and honey to keep the hive warm enough, the colony will die.  This happened to BnB3 which was decimated by mites and was queenless going into the winter.  You can see in the picture below the dead bees all clustered together.  There is honey at the top left, but they bees won’t break the warmth of the cluster to go get it.

Dead cluster from BnB3 with supercedure cell

Going into winter, I had 3 of 7 hives remaining – BnB1, BnB2 and Laura’s hive.  Duncan’s hive (Hello Kitty) had very few bees and I gave up trying to save that.  The 3 remaining hives all had good honey stores and of the 3, Laura’s hive had the most bees.  Interestingly, these three hives all use the same design – the Marty Hardison top bar.

For best results, a colony will store a band of honey above the brood comb so they can eat that without venturing away from keeping the eggs and larvae warm.  Here’s an example from  an old picture with honey at the top and capped brood below.

Comb with capped honey above the capped brood.

BnB1 and BnB2 have always organized their honey and brood like this.  At the last inspection, Laura’s hive had lots of bees and brood, but on the brood combs, while there was very little to no honey at the top of the comb, there was plenty of pollen and honey on the combs on either side of the brood.  We’ll see how that works out for them. 

In past years, I’ve always placed a layer of bubble wrap like insulation across the top bars under the hive cover and also some between the window and window cover for added warmth.  This year, since my colonies are pretty small, I decided to add some more insulation to the sides of the hives (and bottom on BnB1 & 2 since they have screened bottom boards).

I went out an bought a sheet of 2″ foam board and use my circular saw to cut it all.  This worked out nicely to cover all 3 hives (mostly).  For the flat sides and ends, the foam fits snugly.  For the sides with the windows, I had a dilemma.  The foam was not easy to carve out by hand and I didn’t want to use a router given the amount of nasty dust that it would produce.  In the end, I carved out as best I could a hole for the window cover handle and pressed the foam as tightly as I could to the side.  I used 3″ screws to tie it all together.

Insulation around BnB2 – gap on window side at left

BnB1 all insulated – insulation bulging on right side over the window

One problem with insulating a hive is that it can retain moisture that is normally vented through the natural gaps in the hive construction.  Each of these hives has a vent hole at the back which is covered by this new layer of insulation.  (BnB2 had the hole propilized closed anyway).  Since our winters are generally very dry and since at the last inspection, the combs were dry and brittle and since the colonies are small, I’m hoping this won’t be a problem.

So, another beekeeping winter is at hand, and another experiment under way.  After the first cold snap a week or so ago, I found dead bees in front of the hive and in the snow on the ground in my backyard.  To me, that means someone is still alive to drag out the dead bodies (undertaker bees).  

BnB2 insulated. Dead bees on the doorstep

But that cold snap only got down to the teens.  This is a colder, longer snap. Maybe if it warms up to the upper 40’s this week, the undertaker bees (if there are any) will show me their work.

Next week is the winter solstice which typically signals the start of the new beekeeping year.  As the days get longer, the queens start laying eggs, gearing up for the spring to come.  With any luck, the insulation will give my bees a bit more of a chance against the cold to survive into the new year.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Pancha Ganapati, and a Blessed New Year!

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6 Responses to Baby It’s Cold Outside!

  1. Julie says:

    -8.5! Yikes! I hope your bees are staying warm! All that insulation does look toasty, though, and dead bees on the doorstep are a good sign.

    That’s so curious that all of the surviving hives use the Hardison design. Interesting. Was there anything different about those hives this year — other than the dimensions?

    For me, packing the back of the hives with straw has been an extremely effective way to provide insulation and absorb condensation at the same time. Also, I’ve found that dry sugar is another great way to absorb excess moisture. As a bonus, when the sugar gets moist (and if it’s warm enough), the bees can eat it.

    Fingers crossed that your cold snap is neither too cold nor too long.

    Merry Christmas to you and all the family!

    • HB says:

      Julie, where do you put dry sugar in a Top Bar Hive? Pack it into empty combs?

    • Don says:

      It’s in the upper 40’s today, so I’m hoping to see some more dead bees on the front porch today, maybe even some live bees on their poop flights.

      Not sure if there is any significance to the Hardison design – 1 was a split (w/ original queen), one the other half of the split and the 3rd was a swarm. 2 have screened bottoms and one not.

      Good point about the sugar. Since they have lots of honey, I don’t put it in there since if they can’t get to the honey, they won’t get to the sugar, but it would be a good moisture absorber.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours!

      • HB says:

        Thanks for the link, Don. I’m wondering if the timing if the split was of more significance than hive design. I’ve read that timing the brood break can be very helpful with varroa management because we can set up our colonies for winter with low mite loads. When did you do the split?

        • Don says:

          I don’t think hive design has anything to do with it either, but it’s just a curious observation. I split in April (and the other hive was from a swarm in May), so probably not so much a factor with the brood break since they were back to full brood rearing by early June. The queenless portion of the split also threw a swarm that I put into a non-Hardison hive in May, but that died from mites. And, both of the surviving (as of yesterday) hives from this split had high mite counts going into winter. I like the genetics of the original queen and if they come through winter, I might try my hand at queen rearing, using offspring from this bunch. I think I still have the original queen and this will be her 4th season. I don’t mark my queens so it’s hard to know for sure.

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