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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!