This week as part of our entamology class studies, we had a demonstration of how to prepare bee hives for winter. Winterizing of bee hives should take place sometime in October, depending on the temperatures and coinciding with frost. Hives can survive without this extra pampering, but their chances are greater with a little help.
There are basically two camps of philosophy for how to carry hives through the winter: cold and warm. The “cold camp” believes you should keep the hives shaded through the winter, surrounding them with hay bales or other such material so that the sun doesn’t warm the hives up too much during the day and fool the bees into going out of the hive when its still bitterly cold. If they do leave the hive, they can usually survive because the hay bales are providing a windbreaker and give them a place for the bees to land quickly to do their business before scurrying back to the warmth of the hive. The pros to this system are the bees have a greater chance of surviving the outside elements either by not being fooled into going out by the heat of the sun or by having some shelter if they do. The cons of this system are that the bees tend to stay very compact within the hive’s center, not wanting to leave the warmth of their communal ball of bodily warmth. As such, they tend not to move around to feed since they risk dying of cold if they go too far away from their brethern. Hives can essentially starve themselves even if they have enough honey in the outer combs.
The “warm camp” believes you should take advantage of the sun’s rays to keep the hive as warm as possible through the winter, wrapping the hives in black paper to both absorb more solar heat and to serve as some protection against the wind. This system’s pros are that bees tend to move around much more inside the hive since its internal temperature is much higher than that of a “cold camp” hive and so they don’t die off as much within the hive due to poor feeding or moving away from their centeral heat. However, the cons of this system are that bees can be easily fooled into going outside, thinking it’s as toasty out there as it is in their hive. Once outside, with no hay bales to break the bitter winter winds, bees often fall to the ground and die.
Buck White came to demonstrate these two systems to our class and to talk more about bee behaviour in winter. He recommends putting either bee “fondant” or manufactured pollen cakes in the hive at the time you winterize them. These cakes of essentially pure sugar will serve as another food source in the event the bees use up their honey stores. If using pollen cakes, Buck says to be sure to get the ones with some natural pollen in them as it helps the bees take to the cakes faster.
Another “tip” Buck offered was the concept of drilling a “communication hole” through the center of all the combs. With a little hole in the center of each comb, bees are able to crawl from one side of a comb to the other and on to another and another without leaving that central ball of communal body heat that’s so vital to their survival. Without this centralized communication hole, bees would have to crawl to the outer edges of the hive to go around the ends of a comb to get to the honey on the other side of a comb. This journey to the outer edges, while seemingly short, can be deadly on very cold days. The drilling of the centralized communication holes can be relatively easy with the use of a long drill bit that can be started on the outside of the hive box and drilled straight through to the other side. The outside hole should be plugged up with wax or caulking to keep the wind from getting into the hive.
While I found all the information for wintering bees over to be very interesting, I was most fascinated with the way the bees interacted with our class during all of this activity around their hives. We did not smoke the bees at all and no one, not even Buck, got stung once! The bees did enjoy landing on us though, a harmless act as long as we stayed calm and didn’t try to swat them.