Winterization

Believe it or not, I’ve been diligently writing blog posts, but since you can’t actually see what I’ve been doing, you have no reason to believe me. You’re therefore free to assume I’ve been spending all writing my time on a beach in Puerto Rico. (In fact, I only spent some of my time there, but I am 100% on board with this fantasy life.) Actually, some of my missed writing time has been spent caring for the bees – and planning for this fall and winter. With honey harvest on the horizon and temperatures dropping, I’ve had some new things to learn – and some new equipment to order.

(Spoilers: I collected and extracted fall honey this past weekend, so I am definitely playing catch-up here.)

I’ve continued to feed sugar syrup throughout the summer, and will keep the feeder on until we’re expecting a freeze. Feeding during the summer isn’t something honey bees require, strictly speaking — and most beekeepers I know don’t feed established hives until fall, to help bees get ready for the winter. But I started late this year with package bees who had a lot of work ahead of them, and my mentor recommended I feed all year to give them bees a boost. (This is sort of like feeding college students at the school cafeteria so they don’t have to spend study time cooking for themselves, or deplete their ramen stores on rainy days when they don’t want to leave the dorm. Ramen and honey are probably equally indestructible.)

I’ve been a little concerned this summer that this strategy had worked too well. It looked like the bees might be storing so much honey in the brood chamber that they weren’t leaving room for the queen to lay eggs. In fact, whenever they built new comb in the top brood box, the bees filled it immediately with honey. I mean, so immediately that the comb would be only partially drawn out, but already there was nectar stored inside each tiny, half-built cell. “Surely, this is not okay! What are you doing, bees?!”

I may have actually asked my bees these questions, several times, out loud. Wisely, they ignored me and went about their business.

At this point, I should mention something else that happened: For the most part, my colony checks were diligent throughout the summer. (Initially I scheduled these visits — weather and travel permitting — for about once every ten days. However, this meant that I had to come home every third Wednesday during my lunch break, if I wanted to catch the best sunlight. Eventually, I realized that I might be a little off-putting to my coworkers when I smelled like a forest fire in afternoon meetings, and decided sticking to weekend visits every two weeks was frequent enough.) But once — just once! — I went three weeks without a colony check. The bees were just fine, but my subconscious was not, and gifted me with a series of horrifying nightmares (this is apparently an occupational hazard when you keep bees) about wax moth infestations and sad, lost honey bee swarms without a home. I…. it… what did … was that…?! Bee anxiety. I got bee anxiety. And not for any of the reasons normal people are anxious about bees. So: Every two weeks, at a minimum. Got it.

As a consequence of this little round of nightmares, I decided that it might be prudent to do a complete check through all the hive boxes and make sure everything was going well throughout the entire colony – if only to allow me to sleep again at night! What I found was not at all what I expected… but it did NOT include a monstrous wax moth infestation, so take that, subconscious! Instead, I found that the bottom box was incredibly light! A-ha! This is where all the empty brood cells have been. This is where there’s room for the queen to lay, and where she’s been producing new bees all summer long. But now it’s fall, and the queen is letting the colony size decline in preparation for the winter, so she hasn’t used those cells lately. (Let’s not use grim expressions like “fewer mouths to feed” and “the lean famine times.” Let’s call it… uh… strategic planning.)

Conveniently, all of this happened before our 90-plus-degree-fall plummeted to 40-60 degrees practically overnight, with a few dips into the thirties just for variety. Brrrr! So the other thing I’ve done recently is a little winterization.

My hive base has a screened bottom board, which increases ventilation during the summer, helps keep everything cool, and — according to some beekeepers — helps with pest control. Some say the screening should be fully enclosed in the winter to increase warmth in the hive, and some say leaving the screen open doesn’t appreciably lower the temperature – at least here in southern climates – since heat rises, and should be left open to prevent dangerous moisture buildup.

(It’s entirely possible the screened bottom board was invented to give beekeepers something else to argue about.)

After much hemming and hawing, I’ve elected to close the hive bottom up, partially because I have Italian bees, a stock that is not famous for being cold-hardy. (To be fair, Memphis is not famous for being all that cold, either.) After just a week of this, I noticed some signs of condensation inside the inner cover – so I definitely needed to do something else to keep moisture levels down. I’m trying a method I have seen recommended online: I’ve added an empty box to the top of my hive, above the inner cover, to increase ventilation, with a nylon bag of cedar chips inside it to absorb extra moisture. The screened hole in the inner cover allows some air passage, but separates the space from the rest of the hive, so the bees won’t be tempted to build in that space, even if they stray from the brood cluster on warm winter days. I can change out the cedar chips as necessary.

I also added an entrance reducer to the front of the hive:

Entrance reducer on a bee hive
Please enjoy the only photo in this entire post.

If this highly technical piece of equipment looks like a block of wood with a hole cut in it, there’s a good reason: That’s exactly what it is.

But this block of wood is pretty important. It lets bees in and out on warm days (like this afternoon) but keeps a lot of the draft out when it’s cold. The entrance reducer also helps limit intruders into the hive, whether that is robber bees or wasps keen on stealing honey and brood, or mice looking for a nice cozy place to nest. Strictly speaking, entrance reducers aren’t made to fit with an entrance feeder installed on the hive. But I can wield a hacksaw well enough to solve that problem! (This is about the limit of my tool-wielding abilities.) I’ll substitute a full-length entrance reducer when the feeder comes off, to keep everything nice and cozy.

That’s where things stand right now. As mild as our winters are, this may be all the winterization I need to do. (Further north, or in places with bitter wind, it is much more complicated.) I’ll keep an eye on those cedar chips and the inside of the hive cover for the next little while to make sure moisture levels are staying down. I might even add an electric thermometer to the top box to see where the humidity tops off. If it doesn’t look like this approach is working, there are other options.

Experienced beeks: How do you choose to winterize for your climate?

 

6 thoughts on “Winterization”

  1. How could you tell the fall honey from the sugar syrup in the frames? As for winterization, I use 2 inch foam insulation board above the inner cover. And prop up the back of the hive so it leans way forward so moisture can run out.

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    1. The sugar syrup vs. honey issue is honestly something I’ve wondered about but hadn’t considered in depth – and your question made me poke around and do some more reading, so thank you! My mentor recommended that I feed throughout the summer and fall since I’m working with late-start package bees, but we never really discussed how this would impact the honey (or… not-honey).

      I honestly just extracted everything in the super that was capped. I’m sure there is some sugar syrup in there. I’m not planning on selling any honey from this fall so I’m not too concerned about it this time around, but it’s a really good caution for me to remember to pull my feeder when I super in the spring!

      I do seem to have lucked out (no thanks to me) and gotten at least predominantly honey. At least, I assume so, because what I ended up with has a nice color and flavor, and hasn’t crystallized … yet … I got a sample jar judged in the club’s honey show, so I am hoping for some good constructive feedback from that, but I don’t know if that’s something they do.

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      1. Not that I have been able to tell. I’m very careful to only use one drop. It’s hardly noticable in the syrup mixture. That is, until the bees reduce it down. If only I could insert a picture.

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