Bee hive winter preparation – northern climes

What you need to do for your bee hive winter preparation, depends on where you live. I live in upstate NY and we have some cold winters with a fair amount of snow and wind. This is what I did with my beehives this winter, and listed are some other options you have.

Langstroth bee hive winter preparation:

The biggest challenge with beekeeping in the winter is dealing with the moisture that builds up in the hive. Many beekeepers say, “It’s not the cold that kills bees. Wet, cold bees die.” I have heard about several methods for winterizing bees because it’s a big topic of discussion locally. It’s talked about at meetings and there are a few different winterizing classes offered nearby. The biggest concern is dealing with the moisture that the bees generate inside the hive. If the moisture rises and condenses on the “ceiling” above the bees, it will drip back down on them and they’ll freeze. If you keep the sides cooler than the roof, then the water may condense on the walls and run down the inside of the hive walls, leaving the bees dry. So winterizing hives often focuses on absorbing moisture and keeping the roof or area above the bees insulated to prevent condensation there. Cold winds blowing through a hive are not ideal, although the bees do need ventilation.  Here are a few of the ideas I’ve heard and what I’ve personally decided to do with them: (Photos follow the list below.)

  1. mouse guard (place in Fall) – you can purchase metal ones with holes from beekeeping supply companies but local beekeepers tell me the bees have trouble cleaning out the dead bees through these, 1/4″ hardware cloth will keep 100% of the mice out but the small size makes it difficult for bees to bring out their dead and the bees are a little slow getting through, 1/2″ hardware cloth may allow a rare mouse to squeeze through but it’s a lot easier for the bees to get in and out compared to the first two options – cut and place the mesh so the tines face down then the bees don’t have to step over the wire – I use 1/2″ hardware cloth
  2. reduce lower entrance size (do this in Fall) – I reduced mine as the bees became less active
  3. provide upper entrance (in the winter) – this allows bees to go out for cleansing flights and eliminate on warm days even when snow is covering their lower entrance [caution leaving upper entrances open in the Fall as hives may have trouble with robbing if they are trying to guard too many entrances] this winter, I used notched inner covers and notched shims for upper entrances
  4. install bottom board observation trays if you have screened bottom boards – this will reduce the amount of wind blowing through your hive – I did this
  5. strap hives – keeps hive covers from blowing off, rocks or cement tiles (that’s what I have) can slide off as snow melts, freezes and melts again – I strapped my hives
  6. turn the inner cover notch down facing the front of the hive – this forces air to travel along the front face of the hive, if the notch is up, the air will circulate from the lower entrance, up through the center of the hive [and the cluster] and out the inner cover central hole before it can exit the inner cover notch – I turn my notch down in late Fall
  7. wind break – my bees are exposed to strong winds coming across big fields at them and so I put up metal “U” stakes and strapped on some landscaping fabric about 3 feet from them
  8. wrap hive in tar paper – this cuts down on wind blowing through the hive and the black paper helps increase solar gain and warm the inside of the hive a little bit – the argument against this is that cycles of warming and cooling may make the bees eat more and go through their stores faster, but I think it’s cold enough in our area, that the little extra heat might help the cluster warm up to move to their honey – this is what I did
  9. wrap hive in Tyvek or other housewrap – this would cut down on wind through the hive, but you don’t get any solar gain – I did not do this
  10.  wrap hive in rigid insulation – this would cut down on wind through the hive, but you don’t get any solar gain and it’s like you’ve created a “cooler”, the insulation is going to slow the hive from warming up from the outside, although the bees can warm it up from the inside once they start raising brood and their body temperatures go from 42º to 98º F (5º to 36º C) or so – I did not do this
  11. quilt box – a quilt box above the bees contains some organic material to absorb moisture from the bees below, some people use metal window screen or 1/8″ hardware cloth stapled inside the lower part of a hive body and fill the hive body with leaves or shavings or cloth scraps, etc. I placed an upper ventilation screen above the inner cover, a hive body above the screen, placed a dollar store laundry bag full of pine shavings in the hive body and then an outer cover on top of that
  12. newspaper and Reflectix – you can fold up sheets of newspaper and place them on the inner cover around the central hole, these will absorb moisture (you may want to replace them part way through the winter with dry newspaper) on top of that you can place a piece of Reflectix thermal insulation to insulate the top of the hive – I did not do this
  13. homasote board and rigid insulation – the homasote will absorb moisture and the rigid insulation will insulate the top of the hive. I purchased mine pre-cut by Hudson Valley Bee Supply, but you can purchase the material from home improvement stores and cut them yourself. My homasote has a dado or groove cut in it to allow some upper ventilation. I decided last minute to run quilt boxes and I threw the homasote and insulation on top just because I already owned them.
  14. feed if needed – late winter/early spring is when we suffer our greatest losses in our area as hives die from starvation, you need to check your hive and if the cluster is all the way at the top, feed dry cane sugar or fondant, dry sugar will also help absorb moisture and then turn hard – I fed dry sugar Mountain Camp style
  15. turn off your electric bear fence once the snow touches it, dig it out in the Spring and turn it back on when you suspect bears will start roaming again – I did this

*It’s interesting that in late winter, when I inspected the Langstroth hives, the homasote was damp even when the quilt box’s pine shavings were dry. So maybe in this area with our long winters, a quilt box isn’t enough.

A bottom entrance on a Langstroth hive: several bees are coming and going. A piece of 1/2" hardware cloth is held in place over the entrance by push pins. The tines point down towards the landing board.
This is the larger Langstroth hive (hive A if you’re following along) in the Fall when the mouse guard was applied. Note the tines are down so bees can walk in and out without having to climb over a wire. I left them a pretty big entrance, but with such a large population, they were easily able to defend it from robbing in the Fall. There is a wind break in the background which is to the north of this hive – landscaping fabric strapped to metal garden “U” posts.
Many bees are coming and going from a lower entrance on a Langstroth hive that has a 1/2" hardware cloth mouse guard and a tar paper wrap.
This is the larger hive, hive A, after their tar paper wrap was applied. (Looking pretty ghetto here with the blue label – I changed it out later to be more photogenic). You can see how busy their lower entrance is on a warm day. Note the white bottom observation board is in place: I left them in over the winter to reduce wind through the screened bottom board.
Many bees are coming and going from a lower entrance on a Langstroth hive that has a 1/2" hardware cloth mouse guard and a tar paper wrap.
This is hive B, the smaller Langstroth hive. They have a smaller entrance and it’s pretty crowded on this warm day. They have had a mouse guard applied, a tar paper wrap installed and they have their white bottom observation board in place. You can also see the landscape fabric wind break off to the west, in the background in this photo. (Random: I love that bee’s shadow on the tar paper.)
There is a little snow on the landing board of a langstroth bee hive. The lower entrance is reduced to a small opening, there's a 1/2" hardware cloth mouse guard on and a tar paper wrap around the hive.  A dead bee lays in the entrance.
Here is the smaller Langstroth hive B with some snow on the landing board. You can see how small their entrance is and how easy it must be to clog an entrance with little bee bodies in the winter. I moved this bee after I took the photo, but there are many more inside I can’t reach until Spring.
A unorganized pile of ventilation screens, inner covers, beekeeping tools, bag of pine shavings, and straps sit in a bee yard.
It helps when doing cold weather chores to think step by step through what you’re going to need to do first and gather everything you’ll need ahead of time. Bees can get cranky in cold weather, so I lit a smoker although I didn’t need to use it. Here I’m getting ready to quickly install quilt boxes, homasote and rigid insulation boards, winter straps. Organized chaos. (I was happy I wore a veil – a few bees flew up at my face when I cracked the propolis seal on the hive, it was as gentle as possible but they didn’t like it!)
An inner cover sits on a Langstroth hive.
I started with an inner cover, notch turned down as an upper entrance for the bees. Notch down also keeps the cold air coming in the bottom of the hive and running up the face of the hive to go back out the notch. If the notch is turned up, the air has to go through the center of the hive to get out and is more likely to chill the bees. This inner cover is from Betterbee & I like it! You can see it was notch up over the summer by all the orange propolis the bees applied to what is now the top edge. (PS My hives are 8 frame medium from Brushy Mountain and I love them too!)
An upper ventilation screen sits on a Langstroth hive.
Here I’ve placed an upper ventilation screen above the inner cover. This is to act as the bottom of the quilt box. I also like the extra ventilation that occurs with this piece of beekeeping equipment. (This screen was made by an Amish local, so no link – sorry! Here’s Brushy Mountain’s version.)
An empty medium hive body sits on a Langstroth hive.
Above the ventilation screen goes an empty hive body, to act as a quilt box. You can skip the upper ventilation screen and staple either metal window screen or 1/8″ hardware cloth into the bottom of the hive body to hold the quilt box contents above the bees. It would be best the recess the screen up into the hive body a little to leave bee space if your quilt box is right above your frames to give the bees room to walk.
A finger points to a gap left between an upper ventilation screen and a hive body on a Langstroth hive.
You can see the gap my finger is in that the upper ventilation screen leaves along each side of the hive. I worried that wind would blow through these so I cut up sponges and stuffed them into these spaces to block the openings. Later I had to pull some of the sponges back out (photo below) because there wasn’t enough ventilation and moisture was dripping down the inner walls, running out onto the landing board and freezing in a puddle. Surprising how much ventilation hives really need.
A bright red laundry bag containing pine shavings sits in a hive body on top of a Langstroth hive.
The quilt box now contains a laundry bag with pine shavings.
A Langstroth hive is topped with a homasote board.
Here is a homasote board with a dado in it. It is upside down, so flip it over if you’re installing one of these to provide some more ventilation. I have heard that some folks pull these off in the spring and they are swollen with POUNDS of moisture. I placed my homasote board on top of the quilt box.
A rigid insulation board sits on a homasote board, which sits on a langstroth hive.
Here is some rigid insulation topping the homasote board, to keep the area above the bees slightly warmer than the walls. Hopefully the moisture will condense on the slightly colder walls and run down the sides rather than gather above the bees and drip on them. (Note the upside down homasote board – flip the groove/dado down for ventilation.)
A Langstroth hive sits in a bee yard with a landscaping fabric wind break behind it, and a telescoping outer cover on
The telescoping outer cover is replaced.
Two Langstroth hives sit strapped with cement tiles on top behind a wind break with quilt boxes on.
Heavy objects on the tops of hives can keep outer covers from blowing off in inclement weather. But in the winter, repeated cycles of snow thawing and freezing can make the rock or weights slip off the top. So I strapped my hives to keep the covers on and anchored the hives to their cinder block hive stands for extra stability.
Winterized Langstroth hive - the hive is opened so you can see under the outer cover a rigid insulation board, a homasote board and below that a quilt box with pine shavings in a laundry bag.
A review of the layers on my hives this winter: inner cover, upper ventilation screen, hive body with laundry bag of pine shavings, homasote board, rigid insulation and telescoping outer cover.
A roll of tar paper sits in the foreground with a box of roofing nails and a beehive in the background
Getting ready to wrap the Langstroth hives in tar paper. I have scissors, a tape measure, hammer, tar paper (aka “roofing felt” in the US) and roofing nails. Also a veil in the event I annoy the bees with my hammering on their hives. It was too cold for them to come out this day.
Two Langstroth hives sit strapped and wrapped in tar paper behind a wind break.
Here are the two Langstroth bee hives wrapped in tar paper (before I rewrapped the closest hive with more attractive tar paper). I didn’t seal them up tight, I just wanted a wind block around them. I made sure bottom and upper entrances were open.
Two Langstroth hives with approx 2.5 feet of snow drifting around them. There are sponges closing off the gaps left by the upper ventilation screens.
You can see on the hive to the right (bigger hive A), that there are cut pieces of sponge blocking the wind from getting in along the upper ventilation screens. The problem was that it also reduced ventilation and this hive has so many bees, that I could see frozen puddles of condensation on the landing board. I pulled out those sponges you can see dangling, to open up more ventilation for them: the frozen puddles disappeared. I suspect condensation was forming along the inner walls and running down and out the front of the hive and freezing into a puddle. You can also see in the hive closer to us on the left, that the bees created enough warmth that some of the snow melted away from the bottom board in the front of the hive.
Two Langstroth hives sit in about 1.5 feet of snow.
Brrrr. Sometimes I just want to knit a sweater for every bee and invite them in by the fire for some hot chocolate.
A large cluster of bees feeds on some dry sugar at the top of a langstroth hive.
Hive A had eaten about 3.5 lbs of sugar as this photo was taken. You can see how I set down newspaper on the tops of the frames, poured cane sugar on top of that, placed some shims around them. The bees eat the sugar and tear up the newspaper and remove it from the hive. This method of feeding bees is credited to Mountain Camp on the beesource.com forums and so is called the Mountain Camp method of feeding bees. You could also feed fondant in the winter as an emergency stop gap. The dry sugar will absorb moisture from the cluster: you can see some of the chunks of sugar that are hard from moisture being previously absorbed. I think the ideal is to leave your bees with enough honey in the Fall that they don’t need to be fed. But the reality is that these bees were going to starve. I’d rather feed them some sugar rather than let them starve because I made some beginner mistakes and they didn’t have enough stores. Every beekeeper has to make their own decisions about feeding bees and be comfortable with what they decide to do.
A small cluster of bees in a Langstroth hive sit next to a pile of sugar, but they are not interested in eating it.
Tiny little hive B that was so light in the Fall with so little stores, ignores their sugar. Good for them! When it warms up, they’ll start carrying out the sugar and newspaper like we take out the trash. At that point, I’ll scoop this out of the hive and into a container. If I need to feed them in the Spring, I’ll mix it with water and feed it back to them as syrup.
Pink and yellow sunset sky over a snowy bee yard.
Happy beekeeping!!

 

Hope this helps give you ideas for winterizing your beehives if you live somewhere with cold winters. And if you do, good luck!!

 

Happy beekeeping everybody!!

 

7 Replies to “Bee hive winter preparation – northern climes”

  1. I have used a quilt box for years, the one reason your homosote was wet was because it doesn’t transpire and no air can circulate and dry it back out. I use Cedar shavings and have never found them wet, unless the roof leaked, but it dries fast and is cosy warm for the bees. Because its cedar, not many critters like it.

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