A sustainable family farm in Freedom, Ohio

Winterizing the Bees

IMG_0642I’m often asked what bees do in the winter–short answer is, they hunker down in the hive and eat the reserves of honey and keep the queen warm.  Bees have an amazing ability to vibrate their bodies to produce heat, and can keep the queen at a cozy 80 degrees in the center of the cluster.

Not all colonies make it through the winter though, and lots of factors effect this.  Sometimes they run out of honey stores and starve; sometimes it’s just so cold, they freeze; sometimes they’ve got food reserves, but it’s too cold to loosen up the cluster enough to move to the where the food is, and they starve; sometimes there’s not a break in the weather when they can take take a quick flyaround to go potty and they die of dysentery; and then there’s the dreaded “collapse,” where the bees, probably because of a combination of stressors including, but not limited to pesticides, pollutants, viruses, and parasites, just fly out into the wherever and die.

I’ve lost hives to all of those reasons over the last 14 years I’ve been keeping bees–in fact, I just discovered I lost a colony to collapse a couple weeks ago.  There are quite a few opinions on how–and whether–to help bees overwinter.  I’ve tried a few things, including constructing extra windbreaks and using insulated covers, and of course supplemental feeding, but I haven’t really gone out of my way to do too much.  My average losses are about average–in the tough winter last year, I had 3 out of 8 hives survive.

But when I heard that some respected beekeepers around here were making plans to really help out their bees this year, I decided I’d better take the hint.  So fortunately, I was able to take my last full day of vacation from the day job today (thanks boss and coworkers!) and I did my winterizing.  I did NOT expect that I’d wake up to 6″ of snow, but I had a good plan and finished everything at about 4 pm, well in time for the forecasted low of 10 degrees tonight.

IMG_0636So here’s what I did.  I use screened bottom boards, seen to the right here.  In the summer, these have the advantage of keeping the hive cooler, plus the almost inevitable mites that infiltrate the hive lose a bit of traction, because those that fall off the bees go through the screen and onto the ground and can’t attach onto another bee.

Unfortunately, when winter comes on, I can only imagine that having a screened bottom board feels like going out in a polar vortex in a knee-high skirt with no tights or underpants.  Good lord!!!

IMG_0637So I made these awesome boards to slip right into the slot on the screened bottom board to seal things up.  I was lucky to have bunch of leftover construction materials, so I didn’t have to go to the store or spend anything!  And I actually used a circular saw and a power drill without bloodying myself!  I have to brag on myself a little, because any kind of carpentry has never been my thing.  It’s amazing what we can figure out how to do when we have to.  🙂

I also decided that I wanted to wrap the hives with some kind of insulation.  I found some more leftover construction stuff in the basement–a few sections of what looked like quilted aluminum foil.  I think it’s for wrapping ducts.  I cut it to size and used bungee cords to snug it up to the hives.  Here’s what it ended up looking like:

IMG_0641 IMG_0640 Mmmm, cozy!  Let’s hope this helps the hives get through the winter.  I fed them some fondant this fall and will try to get some more in there the next time the temperature makes it safe to open the top of the hives–pretty much a day when it’s above 50 degrees.

I’ll have honey at Haymaker Farmers Market for a couple more months.  It’s my Autumn Harvest, and as always, is raw and unfiltered.

Stay toasty, y’all!

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