Each year, I choose a warm October day to make the final inspection of the beehive. The Golden Rods and Michaelmas Daisies are still in full flower. They are full of noisy activity, fooling me that the warm days will last. It’s tempting to remove the full honey frames, believing that there are still enough weeks for the bees to replenish its winter stock. But leave the honey, I must!
Old Man Winter doesn’t wait for an invitation and may arrive at any moment, possibly hanging around until April. It might be six months before bees can forage again, so I leave each beehive with 80 - 90 lbs of honey. With a good supply of honey, a strong and healthy beehive, with plenty of adult bees and brood, should make it through the winter. That being said, I always like to take a few extra precautions against the extreme conditions that can sometimes be thrown at them.
Keeping bees alive during a Canadian winter.
After the last inspection, I leave each beehive with an Entrance Reducer. The plate fits over the entrance, with holes notched to allow the bees full access, while preventing mice from entering. A hive is a warm inviting place during cold weather when the bees are too sluggish to fend off rodents, who destructively chew combs and build nests.
The average winter temperatures here are routinely -10C, but most years, at some point, the thermometer needle will point to -20C for a week or two, so I like to insulate the hive.
Once I feel that the sun is no longer adding any warmth, I’ll wrap the hive with a simple layer of bubble wrap packaging or waterproof tar paper, stapling it or strapping it into place.
But adding a waterproof layer of insulation and reducing the entrance to the beehive is not without it’s problems. While bees can handle the damp of a warm summer shower or the cold of a winter day, a combination of cold and wet will surely kill them. Respiring honey bees can create a surprising amount of moisture during cold weather, so while keeping out the cold and the rodents, I also need to allow for the reduced ventilation.
A small hole drilled in the side of the top super will create a chimney effect, with air flowing in the bottom entrance, up through the body of the beehive and venting the moisture out of the top. Should the bottom entrance become clogged with snow, ice, or dead bees, an upper entrance becomes especially important.
I insert a one-inch styrofoam sheet between the inner and outer cover of the beehive. This acts much like a hat, keeping the rising warmth in. More importantly, it prevents the warm, moist air from condensing on the underside of the cover. In turn, this would freeze during a cold snap, later thawing, and dripping back down on the bees. I then put a weight on the top cover against strong winds or to ward off marauding bears
Finally, as an extra measure, I place a thin baton under the rear edge of the bottom board to tilt the beehive forward slightly. This will allow any moisture from melting ice or blowing snow to run out of the hive.
So having taken preventative measures, all I can do is hope for the best. In January, when I'm sitting by a warm fire, looking out at the Canadian winter, with its short, sunless days, I’ll be thinking of my bees. When the north wind blows, I’ll be hoping that they're as snug as I am. At most other times of the year, if a beekeeper has any concerns, they can simply flip the lid open and take a look. Not so during winter. All I can do is hope that my pre-winter preparations will see my bees through to the warmer days of spring.
Waiting for spring
After snowstorms, I clear the snow drifts from the beehive entrance and I tap on the side to listen for anyone home. Bees give a warning buzz to any intruders and my knocking receives a loud warning, that I can hear through the sides of the beehive.
Textbooks say that bees don’t fly unless it is 10C or above, but that’s not true. On sunny days, even when the temperature is close to freezing, bees take ‘cleansing flights’. Clean creatures, bees will not defecate inside the hive, so I look for the tell-tale signs of yellow spattered snow in front of the hive. To keep the beehive neat and tidy, worker bees will carry out their dead sisters and drop the bodies some distance from the hive.
Bizarre as it may sound, dead bees in the snow is a sure sign of live bees. So I take heart when I see my driveway littered with dead bees and I return to my fireside, knowing that all is well within the hive.
I adapted this post from an article that I wrote for the Natural Bee Husbandry magazine.
A great book for the winter months is A Book of Bees by Sue Hubell
Weaving a vivid portrait of her own life and her bees’ lives, author Sue Hubbell lovingly describes the ins and outs of beekeeping on her small Missouri farm, where the end of one honey season is the start of the next. With three hundred hives, Hubbell stays busy year-round tending to the bees and harvesting their honey, a process that is as personally demanding as it is rewarding.
Exploring the progression of both the author and the hive through the seasons. This is “a book about bees for sure, but it is also about other things: the important difference between loneliness and solitude; the seasonal rhythms inherent in rural living; the achievement of independence; the accommodating of oneself to nature” (The Philadelphia Inquirer). Beautifully written and full of exquisitely rendered details. A tribute to Hubbell’s wild hilltop in the Ozarks and of the joys of living a complex life in a simple place.