Winter can be a worrying time for beekeepers. With freezing temperatures and limited food sources for bees, how can beekeepers ensure their colonies can survive the winter?
Bees prepare for the colder months all year round. They hoard honey to eat and use their bodies to generate heat. As beekeepers, we can help keep our hives warm by insulating our hives during the winter.
When the temperature drops to 50°F , this signals to the bees that it is time to form a winter cluster. In order to do this, they gather tightly together, with the queen in the middle. They were so close that the hair on their bodies became tangled. This brings the center of the cluster to a comfortable 92 °F, regardless of the temperature outside the hive.
Of course, the heat will dissipate, and it will be faster for smaller colonies. It is important for bees to maintain the core temperature of the winter colony to survive the winter. One thing beekeepers can help with this is isolating hives during the winter.
What To Do With Beehives In Winter
Beehives require less attention in winter. But there are a few things you must do.
- Monitor the hive entrance. Make sure the hive entrance is not blocked by snow or debris.
- Make sure your bees have enough food. Bees eat about 60 pounds of honey in the winter. When harvesting honey, be sure to leave enough honey for the bees to eat.
- Feed Your Bees While the colony has been stockpiling honey for winter, how do you know if there’s enough honey? You can feed the bees to make sure they have enough food. Syrup, fondant or pollen cakes are often used for this purpose.
- Move the bees to a sunny location. This helps keep the hive warm during the day. Ideally, you want them to be in a less windy area. Trees or fences near hives can help.
- Add reducer at the entrance of the hive. Bees don’t fly in and out of the hive very often in winter. So it’s ok to just give them a small entrance. Adding a reducer helps protect against wind and cold, but also allows bees to leave the hive freely.
- Ventilate the roof of the hive. A bee colony in winter produces a small amount of moisture in the hive. Without airflow, this moisture can turn into condensation, which can be deadly to your colony. To prevent this from happening, tilt the roof of the hive up slightly to allow air to flow in.
- Reduce the number of boxes on your hive. Bee colonies naturally shrink in winter. The extra boxes on the hive are not only unnecessary but harmful to the bees because they cannot heat such a large area.
- Use a beehive cover. If you live in a very cold area, you may want to use a hive cover to keep your hive warm.
If you are a beekeeper reading this blog, you will know very well that cold is not the biggest problem, humidity poses the biggest risk to your hive.
So, In this article I will try to answer many questions about Insulating Beehives For Winter and hopefully provide some hints and tips here for you.
- Winter Hive Configuration
- Should I insulate a beehive?
- How does insulate hives improve bee colony survival?
- Insulate the hive or wrap the hive?
- How about condensation and keeping ventilation?
- What is the best insulating material for beehives?
- How to insulate a beehive?
Winter Hive Configuration – What Needs To Be Done?
Remove unnecessary space. Allowing bees to winter in confined spaces by stripping off empty boxes (will prevent heat from spreading and stop bees from wasting unnecessary energy heating their colonies. It also limits the space available for mice and other critters looking for a warm place to sleep.
Make sure the honey is in the right place. We do not recommend disturbing the arrangement of the hive frequently, as bees usually organize their nests and food storage as needed. That said, sometimes things go sideways and may need to be rearranged. In Langstroth and Warré hives, the honey frame should be on the sides and top of the bee colony. In TBH, honey sticks should be on one side of the bee cluster. The idea is that bee clusters should be able to move together in one direction to chew through the honey . You don’t want half of the bee cluster to move one way and the other way!
Remove your Queen excluders. If Queen excluders remains in the hive, there is a chance the queen bee will be left behind as the while the colony moves in need of food. This will kill your queen (and your colony).
Merge weak bee colonies. If you end up with two colonies that are too small to overwinter, consider combining them. Overwintering one hive is better than losing both! You can also combine weaker colonies with strong colonies, but make sure that colonies are not weakened by mite overload or disease – you will only weaken strong colonies. Also make sure the strong group has enough food supplies – you don’t want to strengthen a weak bee colony at the expense of the strong colony.
Should I Insulate My Hives In Winter? When, How, Why?
There is a lot of information online about isolating hives, but it’s difficult to address them all. That’s why I decided to research many ways and many areas and write this article to have everything in one place about honey bee hive winter insulation.
The modern beehives used by beekeepers today are often not as insulated as tree cavities, and the hives are often placed where beekeepers want them, not where the bees themselves would choose to place them.
This means that bee colony survival is difficult to maintain during the cooler months of the year. Insulating or wrapping beehives becomes more common in the fall and winter.
Double-walled beehives tend to stand better in cold weather simply because they have an extra layer of insulation (air space between the inside and the outside), but even they struggle in very cold weather.
Can Insulate A Beehive Increase Bee Colony Survival?
Therefore, insulating the hive is usually a good idea. With an extra layer of insulation around the hive, bee colony doesn’t have to work as hard to stay warm. When they don’t have to work as hard, they don’t expend as much energy. It’s less likely that they will run out of food supplies.
Under the right conditions, bees can generate enough heat in the hive to keep warm even in the coldest months. However, wind chill (cold air moving around the hive) constantly draws heat from the hive. Wind chill increases the rate at which the hive loses heat, which prompts the hive to remain more active during the colder months.
Every beekeeper knows that a sudden drop in temperature or prolonged cold weather can harm bee colonies. Some beekeepers I know lost about 50% of their colonies during the prolonged cold of recent winters.
But did you know that bees work hard to ensure a bee colony accumulates and evaporates more energy in the spring and summer than it does in the winter? In hot weather, colonies often overheat, so isolating hives in summer may be just as important as in winter.
Which Is Better, Insulate A Beehive Or Wrap A Beehive?
First, let me clarify a closed wrap a beehive an insulated hive. A wrapped beehive is surrounded by a layer of black roof felt to take advantage of the sun’s rays on sunny days. It doesn’t prevent heat loss like insulation does. On sunny days, however, it can raise the temperature inside the hive by a few degrees. This may make enough difference to bring the bee cluster closer to the honey. I’ve seen many dead small clusters apparently starving in honey hives, but out of reach.
Wrapping also helps seal out strong winds. Although the bees seal up the joints between boxes with propolis, beekeepers usually mess up their nice mortar job when we inspect.
Insulation, measured by the R-value, works by slowing down heat transfer. In this case, the beekeeper will add some material around the hive, usually foam board now, to make it easier to keep the heat generated by the bee colony inside the hive. To be clear, the bees in the colony are not trying to heat the entire hive, but the cluster itself.
When there are no broods in the cluster, they will keep the center at around 70 degrees. When the cluster have brood, the temperature is kept around 90-95 degrees. The outer edge of the cluster remains at about 41 degrees. Below this, the bees freeze and cannot move. Even if the bee doesn’t try to heat the entire hive, the lower the ambient temperature, the more heat it radiates from the colony. Insulation will help slow this down.
There are many different ideas online about the methods and materials used to isolate beehives. There are many thermally ways to insulate a beehives, but they can also cause moisture problems. Some solutions use rigid foams that contain toxic propellants and exhaust gases. It’s not really what you want near your colony.
For this reason, many people wrap their hives (usually with a breathing membrane) instead of insulating them. This reduces wind chill and airflow through the hive. The black material also increases the chance of heating the hive from solar radiation, but this does not insulate the hive.
The answer, I think, is actually to insulate the hive and wrap it up while maintaining breathability.
What About Ventilation And Condensation?
As I’m sure you know maintaining ventilation around a hive is extremely important. Dampness in a hive usually comes from the evaporated water create when the bees convert nectar into honey.
But the healthier and more active a colony, the more heat they produce. And because warm air carries more moisture than cold, the more heat produced, the more moisture is produced. This is obviously a bigger problem in colder winter months. Just think about a condensation forming on a window. It happens in winterer but rarely in summer months.
If moisture cannot escape the hive then there is a serious risk that the moisture will condensate within the hive. If that happens, then it is more than likely the moisture will condensate and freeze. That’s when colonies get wiped out.
So, there is no question that it is of the upmost importance to maintain ventilation around the hive and to make that any moisture produced by the colony can escape.
Too much moisture in a wintering hive is certainly a danger. Be sure to include an upper entrance for your bees to help ventilate some of the moisture out of the hive and to use for cleansing flights when the lower entrance becomes blocked with snow and ice. I also am a strong believer in insulating the very top of the hive. Think of a glass of ice water on a summer day. The very cold water inside the glass causes the moisture in the surrounding air to condense on it.
The same can happen on the underside of your inner cover. The relatively warmer moist air inside the hive can collect on the underside of your telescoping cover because of the very cold temperature outside. It could conceivably collect, freeze in layers over their heads, then rain down on them when a sunny day warms the lid.
Now, think of an insulated mug. Same cold water inside, same warm moist air outside, but no condensation on the mug. I highly recommend putting some type of insulation between your outer cover and your bees. A simple 1/2″ – 3/4″ piece of Styrofoam on the underside of your telescoping cover should suffice.
I would use the stuff with a plastic coating to discourage the bees from tearing off little pieces and dragging them out when the weather warms a little in the spring. I would also take it out for the summer because ants like to tunnel into and make their home in it.
What Is The Best Type Of Insulation For Insulating Beehives?
The best insulation for a hive is a non-toxic and/or eco-friendly material that insulates the hive, wraps the hive to reduce wind chill, but most importantly maintains breathability and ensures that no moisture is trapped inside the hive.
And Finally…How To Wrap A Bee Hive?
Every fall, you need to make sure your hives are healthy and strong enough to survive the winter. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions. You may have lost a queen (yes, it’s too late for another) or your hive is weak. In these cases, you will need to merge bee colonies for successful overwintering. It’s a tough decision, but it’s better to have a thriving hive than no bees in spring!
You can wrap the beehives with tar paper. It’s the method we recommend because it works, but there are some people that swear by insulating their hives with foam insulation. Each method works a little differently.
Why tar paper? First, it’s easy to find and works well. Tar paper uses the sun to absorb heat and transfers it to the hive, raising the temperature inside the hive by a few degrees. This allows enough warmth inside the colony to move around and reach the stock of honey
It’s easy to wrap in tar paper. You simply wrap the hive in a piece of tar paper about 7 feet long and attach it to the hive with a staple gun. The tar paper needs to be cut around the vent. The biggest threat to a hive in winter is not so much the cold as the humidity inside the hive, so ventilation is key!
STYROFOAM WINTER HIVE WRAPS works differently than tar paper because it keeps the hive warm based on the styrofoam’s R-value. Styrofoam insulation keeps heat in the hive that bees create as they keep the colony warm.
BEE COZY provides waterproof, breathable insulation around in the beehive. It allows your bees to keep the hive warm with less energy. Thanks to the breathable material, the bee warmer helps maintain a stable temperature and relative humidity.
Depending on your area’s climate, it may be useful to isolate your hives during the winter. When the weather gets very cold and daytime temperatures drop below freezing, you can wrap your hives to help the bees through the winter.
Protection covers for beehives, effectively improving the winter survival rate of the hive. They are easy to place on your hive and help protect it from strong winds, rain and snow. Be sure to cut some ventilation holes in the protective cover to prevent condensation from building up inside the hive.
You can also insulate the top of the hive if you don’t want to pack the entire hive or your area isn’t too cold. A simple piece of Styrofoam will suffice. Place styrofoam under the retractable cover to keep the hive in heat.
Wrapping or isolating your hive is only necessary if you live in a cooler climate. Even so, some beekeepers prefer to leave their beehives without insulation. They worry that wrapping or isolating the hive in the winter will make it too hot, which will make the bees more active and thus consume their stored honey more quickly.
So it’s up to you whether or not you insulate your hives in the winter. You’ll need to consider the climate of your area and the strength of your colony to decide what’s best for you.
How do you protect your bee colony from cold wind, snow and rain? Every beekeeper has his own method of overwintering his hive. If you ask, you’ll have a different opinion of which way is best each time. The truth is, most methods will work, but you have to find what works best for you.
No matter which type of insulation material you choose, the most important thing is to have a healthy hive and provide enough ventilation to keep the inside of the hive dry. Bees can keep colonies warm, but they can’t survive wet hive conditions.
In winter, bees flock to keep warm. In cooler climates, bees may need some help keeping the heat in. You can do this by isolating the hives during the winter. Make sure your hive is well ventilated, as excess humidity and condensation can be dangerous to the colony.