They say if you ask 10 beekeepers a question, you’ll get 11 different answers. This is not only because beekeepers are contrary by nature; it’s because despite thousands of years of “domestication,” bees can be quite stubborn about doing things their own way, a way that is often in direct opposition to humans’ conventional wisdom. A good beekeeper takes the bees’ instincts into account and adjusts her methods accordingly.Few things generate more disagreement than the best strategy for getting bee colonies through the winter unscathed. Everybody who has done it successfully is sure their method is the reason for their success. And every beekeeper who opens up a dead hive in the spring goes back to square one and questions everything about their winterizing method. In an average winter, an average beekeeper can easily lose 30 percent of his hives. Last winter, with its unrelenting cold, saw even higher losses for many.
Wintering bees on Long Island is unusually challenging because our weather is so changeable. Last week, with temperatures near 60, my bees were out and about like it was the middle of spring. They even found something blooming and were swaggering home with their pollen pockets bursting. A sudden cold snap could take them by surprise and prevent them from getting in a protective cluster fast enough to maintain the necessary warmth.
This year, we’ve put off winterizing, in part because the weather has allowed it. But the biggest reason for our dawdling is that we’re still not completely sold on any single method.
In our second season as beekeepers, Patrick spent some time researching how best to get our girls through the winter. Since he is a carpenter, his idea was to insulate the hive structure itself, rather than winterizing from the outside. His research turned up the original drawings from L.L. Langstroth’s patent application—jackpot!
Langstroth is called the father of American beekeeping, and the Langstroth hive is the standard for beekeeping in the modern world. It is the design used by most backyard beekeepers, as well as by commercial beekeepers who truck hives by the hundreds from one farm to another so the girls can pollinate the crops. But the Langstroth design in use today isn’t the original design. The patent drawings depict a double-walled hive, insulated between the walls with raw wool. Langstroth hives sold commercially today are single-walled, providing virtually no protection from the cold.
With a dearth of available sheep, Patrick opted for foam panels to insulate the hives. He crafted two beautiful hives, and our thinking was that these would serve as year-round homes for the girls. After all, you don’t remove the insulation from your home in the summer, right? Insulation works to maintain interior temperature, warming in the winter and cooling in the summer.
We moved the girls into their new homes late last fall, and both made it successfully through the winter, at least until I panicked when it was still freezing in March and checked to make sure they had enough food. My good intentions resulted in chilling one hive to death. But the good news was that despite the insanely long winter, the bees had plenty of food left and came through in good strong numbers.
As planned, we left the surviving hive in the insulated box, and moved a captured swarm into the other insulated box last summer. The bees seemed happy enough, but they weren’t producing very much honey. A change seemed in order. So we left the new colony in the insulated box and moved the original colony back into a standard non-insulated hive, where they began churning out honey like it was an Olympic competition. The insulated box colony sputtered along all season, struggling with mites, small hive beetles, pretty much everything but locusts and zombies. They produced minimal amounts of honey, and after the hive beetles destroyed most of that, they’re going into winter very weak. I’ve been feeding them sugar water so they can stock up, but I’d be surprised to find them alive in the spring.
The other hive is so strong that we’ve really struggled with how to winterize them without messing up their natural system. The original plan was to move them back into the insulated hive for the winter, but their construction crews have been hard at work, sealing up cracks and crevices with propolis, a substance they make from sap, which is like honeybee super-glue. They’ve even closed up part of the front door with wax to keep out drafts. We decided that moving them would be foolish when they’re so well-prepared on their own, so we’ll wrap the hive in black tar paper instead. Besides keeping the hive walls dry, the tar paper will help warm the interior on sunny days, giving the girls a chance to break cluster and move to new food stores.
Three factors come into play in preparing a hive for winter: food, temperature and moisture. You want to leave the bees with enough food to make it through to spring, but not with so much empty space that they can’t keep the hive warm. Our big hive is going into winter with two deep boxes and one medium. Each deep box is a solid 60 to 70 pounds, loaded up with honey and pollen. We opted to winter our weaker hive over in just one deep box so they’ll have less real estate to heat. The risk is that they might not be able to store enough food in one box, but that hive has fewer bees, so we’re hoping it will all balance out.
Temperature is the next big challenge. Bees spend the winter in a cluster. They vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat, keeping the queen in the center at all times. The temperature in the cluster hovers around 93 degrees Fahrenheit. The bees on the outside of the cluster continually rotate inward, so nobody is on the chilly outside for too long, and the cluster moves in unison to stay near a food source.
The tighter the hive is sealed, the warmer it stays. But the downside of sealing a hive up tight against winter cold is the risk of moisture buildup from bee respiration. If that moisture is allowed to build up and condense on the top of the hive, it can quickly become a fatal cold shower. Most often, it’s not cold that kills hives, but cold water. Providing a vent at the top of the hive allows moisture to find its way out and should solve the problem.
Unless any one of a million things goes wrong. I guess we’ll see when spring comes.