Wintering


What's on this page?


Introduction
This is a subject I approach with trepidation.  In America, wintering can be a bit like rolling the dice.  We often have hives die perfectly full of capped honey.  Our migratory beekeeping paradigm homogenizes the population which is unnatural.  More often than not, virtually every malady, every piece of evidence in the post mortem of a dead hive is blamed on varroa.  Not a single mite in the hive?  Probably varroa.  Iíve heard it used.  But this website is about proper understanding and sustainably keeping bees on an personal scale.

Iím not one of those who takes every possible precaution to try and assure that every hive survives the winter.  Bees in trees and holes in the ground donít have that advantage.  And yes, the boxes we keep bees in do pose a distinct disadvantage.  But they can survive it and they do.  Ultimately, Iím breeding a stronger more durable bee. 

You can do everything right.  You can have a hive fully stocked with honey and pollen, insulated, no condensation, no nothing wrong and still bees can die.  So I let the ones that canít make it in harsher conditions go and keep and build out of the good ones.

In the future, I plan to have more pictures up of examples of deadouts so you can see how they look and learn from them.  For now, there is only one because I only had one deadout this winter.  Good for me, less so for you.


Prepare for Winter
Thereís only so much you can do.  Ultimately, for the reality of survival, it is up to the bees.  First, do no harm.  Donít take more honey than the bees can live without through the winter.  If they are starving, feeding may be necessary.  It may be a better decision if a hive has not stored enough on their own to merge them with a better performer.  There is no sense in expending resources to keep a hive alive that wonít do the work necessary to keep themselves alive, much less provide you with a crop.  Again, having more hives makes this decision easier.


Insulation
Insulation is an important topic to consider.  Here in Northwest Arkansas, Iíve kept hives successfully without any insulation and with upper entrances in temperatures as low as -5 degrees Fahrenheit.  Depending on where you live, you may need better insulation.  Explore and see if you can find feral colonies in your area and see under what conditions they are living and surviving.  With that information, make a decision as to what you need to do.

The purpose of insulation is not to keep the hive warm.  Bees do not heat the hive, only the cluster.  The purpose of insulation is to reduce or eliminate condensation.  As the bees consume honey, they release water and carbon dioxide the same way you do in your breath.  This gaseous mix rises off the cluster up through the hive and if the temperatures and humidites are right, the moisture condenses on the top and sides of the hive.  Insulation limits the rate of transfer of heat through the walls of the hive.  If heat cannot transfer at a high enough rate at the given humidity, water will not condense.   Water dripping onto the cluster is one of the quickest ways to kill a colony.  Another factor in the condensation equation is humidity, see Upper Entrances below.  If insulation is necessary anywhere it is at the top.  Condensation at the sides is not as dangerous as at the top.


Upper Entrances
I am a fan of of at least small upper entrances, especially in winter.  They allow a small flow of air through the hive.  If the air is constantly being circulated, or at least generally able to be circulated, the humidity will stay closer to the ambient humidity outside the hive.   For condensation to happen, the humidity has to be above a certain level and the temperature outside has to be below a certain level.  Since wood does not hold much heat, water canít condense if the temperatures and humidities are very similar inside and outside the hive.

Hives with upper entrances are not chimneys.   Iíve heard people propose that a hive with both an upper and a lower entrance acts like a chimney with the air rising past the cluster and chilling it.  Aside from the fact that the bees heat the cluster and not the hive, a hive is not like a chimney because it is filled with comb.  Comb is a very rough surface and presents a lot of friction to the movement of air in the hive.  Itís interesting in northern climates, the water may condense as it leaves the hive leaving icicles.  Better out than in, right?


Entrance Reducers
I do tend to decrease entrance sizes in the case of standard slot type entrances.  However, I always keep an upper entrance if the hive has one and if I need to close one of the two, I close the bottom one.  I find it a better practice to leave the top open to allow exhausting of moist warm air so that the hive doesnít get too wet inside.  It is also common practice for me to close the lower entrances in case of skunks which is not a problem if the apiary is fenced in correctly.  Everyoneís conditions are different.   Many of my hives have 1.5Ē round holes for lower entrances.  I donít close these.  In fact, it is common to be able to look in the hole and see the cluster only a few inches in the hive.  It demonstrates for me how unreliant the bees are on our insulation.


When it Goes Right
When it goes right, remember how it was done, but donít become superstitious about it.  Donít end up with a huge pile of things you think you need to do to have the bees come through the winter okay.  Remember that sometimes they will and sometimes they wonít.  Beekeeping is an art and a science, not a superstition.  Itís also not very helpful to fret over getting it right every time.  Use beekeeping to help you develop other skills in life.  By setting a hive, knowing youíve done everything you need to do and leaving it, you develop patience.  Worrying is not a skill.  It is a vice.  Avoid it.


When it Goes Wrong

It wonít always work.  In fact, if you keep bees treatment-free, it will probably work just a little less than if you treat and thatís because your goal is to keep bees that handle diseases on their own.  To develop that ability, pest pressure must remain on the colony.  Some hives will succumb to the pressure.  It is for these reasons that I recommend keeping at least five hives.  It significantly decreases the chance that you will lose all your hives at once.  One or two are easily replaced with splits in the spring.  By doing so, you are using natural selection to your advantage.

When it does go wrong and hives die, it gives you opportunities to do some maintenance and learn from nature.  The first thing you do is a Post-Mortem which will be discussed in the next section.  After that, you can clean up the hive and prepare it for future occupation.  After youíve determined through the post-mortem that the hive did not die of something related to American Foul Brood, you can remove old or poorly drawn comb.  If youíre using small cell or foundationless, youíre likely to get excessive amounts of drone comb on a frame here or there.  Drone comb is useful in good hives to provide drones for mating queens.  It was Dee Lusbyís plan to remove any frame with more than 10% drone comb.  Iím not so concerned with exactly that, but I do tend to move frames with large amounts of drone comb up in the hive to be used for honey storage. 


The Post-Mortem
I have created a Post-Mortem Examination page for this very important topic.


Conclusions
You can do everything right and they can die, or you can do everything wrong and they can survive.  Itís not totally up to you.  But you can do your part and you can learn from the situation whether the situation was caused by your mismanagement or not.  As time goes on, your goal is to rapidly decrease problems caused by your mismanagement and get to the heart of whatís really going on with the bees.  Itís part of the fun of beekeeping to learn when a new situation presents itself.  Fortunately for you, winter presents itself once a year so youíll have plenty of chances.