Staying Warm as a Bee: Keeping calm over the winter

Remember that the reason bees make honey is becuase of the winter. I however find this the most stressfull time of year. Currently we have been going through a cold spell where the average daytime temperature is hovering around the -20’s celcius (-4 F), and nights in the -30’s. (-20s F). Bees keep warm by clustering together and essentially shivering and consuming honey to keep themselves warm. Wintering bees just takes advantage of the bees natural habits. Some major issues arrise when using unnatural hives such as the Langstroth or other man made hives. First the insulation value of a tree above and below the hive is far superior to the 1/2″ boards normally used to construct a hive. That being said it is not unherd of for Canadian beekeepers to leave their screen board hive open during the winters.

Oh man I feel like I am writing this to calm my own nerves. All I want to do is to open the hives and have a peak in to see if they are okay. Being this cold for this long is hard to sit around and wait for it to end. Sadly I am aware that that would mean almost certain death for the dear bees, SO DON’T OPEN THE HIVES. Logically what would having a look even accomplish? If they are already dead than the help ship has sailed, and if they are struggling the extra cold would likely finish them off because not only would I have broken the propolis seal on the hive but I would be substantially cooling down the hive that they have worked hard to keep at a livable temperature.

Fall Preparation

  1. Supplement feeding
  2. Treat for mites and disease
  3. Insulate the hives

What I have done in the fall beginning right after my last honey pull is I popped on a hive top feeder with 2:1 sugar syrup and a capful of Pro Health to hopefully combat nosema now that we can no longer get Fumagilin B. This year the bees took two pails each when they normally only need one, so when Pro Health claims to be a feeding stimulant they weren’t lying. I find this the most efficient way to feed because of how easy it is to move and it holds 13L of syrup, so if you are mixing 2:1 you can fit an entire big bag of sugar in there. Also I am able to fill the pails at home and put them in the back of my truck ready to go on the hive. Alternatively you could also try looking at a frame feeder or a hive top feeder. The frame feeders mean that you have to open the hives every time you want to fill and they don’t hold that much. The hive top feeder must be built well and have good joinery so that it doesn’t leak.

In October we then treat for mites with an Oxalic Acid drizzle. There are many videos on youtube showing this method as well as the Oxalic Acid vapourizer method which looks much more bad ass. I should note that we will be switching up some of our mite treatments next year with the hopes of not building up tollerance in one type of treatments. Specifically all hives that require it (check out alcohol wash) will be getting Apivar strips in the spring.

I am going to be looking closer at how the different climactic zones cover their hives in the future, but for now I am going to focus on Zone 3 where we have average low temperatures in the -30s to 40 C.

Here in Saskatchewan you either winter your hives indoors in a climate controlled environment or you wrap them with insulated tarps, solid foam insulation or anything else that will help the bees regulate the temperature of their hive such as straw bails. Some people argue that insulating a hive does not take advantage of the heat during the day and can cause increased moisture in the hives but I would argue that when it is cold enough to freeze penguins the bees need all the help they can get. This is why we supply the bees with a small top entrance to act as a vent for the water vapor created from reaping the summer honey rewards. This year I built an insulated hive lid with a top entrance. A hole in the insulated tarp is cut and we screw a board on the front to keep both holes lined up as well as give the bees a target for the odd day it gets warm out enough to go for a poop.

Anyways, this is really all we can do and as soon as the cold comes we can fix broken equipment or build new stuff. I do go and check to make sure the hive isn’t covered in snow or the top entrance plugged. I also like to have a listen to hear the faint buzzing of warm, well fed bees.