Winter Bees: An Accidental Experiment

We’re running a bit of an experiment over here at Bear’s Backyard Honey. We currently have two hives in our backyard, each configured a slightly different way for winter.

This is not for the purposes of science, mind you, but rather due to our, ahem, position on the learning curve as new beekeepers.

See, most beekeepers in our area go into winter with either one or two brood boxes, which are the chambers in which the bees store food and raise babies. This is opposed to the honey supers, which are separate boxes added during times of nectar flow that encourage the bees to stash extra honey above the brood. We then either leave this honey for them as winter supplies or take it for ourselves to extract. Incidentally, one of the things that humans love most about Apis mellifera is their hoarding instinct–given the opportunity, they will store more than they could ever possibly use.

Each beekeeper has a slightly different way of winterizing of course, with some beekeepers insisting upon going into winter with only one brood chamber (“You have to give the bees the size of house that they will occupy!”) with others¬†using two boxes, reasoning that it takes a considerable amount of skill to manipulate frames of brood and honey and pollen stores in order to condense the bees down to one box.

Beekeepers then add all sorts of additional equipment, such as roofs to keep rain out and entrance reducers, solid bottom boards, insulated roof caps, and bee cozies to keep heat in. Some also include “quilt boxes,” which consist of a chamber filled with something insulating to provide additional buffer against the cold.

In our area, the main winter challenge isn’t cold but damp, so we’re trying to keep moisture out and make sure the bees have enough provisions to make it through our generally cool and rainy spring weather.

This means that some beekeepers in our area choose to feed sugar syrup in the fall; most people we’ve talked to also provide food in the form of hard sugar (either in bricks or on candy boards) throughout the winter, along with pollen patties at some point. We didn’t feed in the fall because both hives seemed well provisioned, but we’re planning to offer winter food. Some beekeepers feed with fondant, but we’ve heard mixed results because the higher moisture content of the sugar-water mixture introduces extra, unwanted moisture into the hive.

One of our hives–which we creatively call the South Hive–is in the almost-admirable winter configuration of two brood boxes, topped by the inner cover and then an empty hive body filled with crumpled paper to insulate. The hive’s outer cover is capped with an insulating cover given to us by a friend, and the whole thing is wrapped with a bee cozy. The smaller area will in theory be easier for them to heat, and the hole in the inner cover makes it easy to give them food without cracking the propolis seal that they’ve created to defend against drafts. Because they went into winter with fewer food stores, we’re planning on feeding them. (I’m working on making sugar bricks as I type, and we’ve got full frames of honey stashed away in various places around our house.)

The other hive–dubbed, naturally, the North Hive–has been our boomer colony all along, which complicated winter prep.

When we were getting ready to winterize, we planned to take off the honey super, hoping that they’d drawn down stores enough to fit into two boxes. Instead, we found a super stuffed nearly full with honey! Between not knowing what to do and the pressures of yellow jacket predation, we waited too long to reconfigure the hive and they went into winter with not one, not two, but THREE boxes.

We left it in that configuration because our beekeeping mentor advised us to leave well enough alone, rather than taking apart the hive, exposing brood to cold temperatures, and forcing the bees to re-do their work of sealing up cracks with propolis.

The upside: They had about 70 pounds of honey in that one super, along with the significant stores they’d managed to accumulate in the lower brood chambers. Most people in our area recommend around 60-70 pounds of honey to make it through winter and spring.

The downside: They’re basically heating a mansion with nothing but the vibrations of their flight muscles. In addition, bees in cold regions naturally reduce their populations going into winter, so we’re making it extra hard on them.

However, with the warm-ish weather the past few days, bees from both hives have been flying around, and the North Hive in particular has been incredibly active.

Once it’s warm enough for regular hive inspections, we’ll check on their food stores and condense them into two boxes, while also trying to manage the hive’s population for swarm control. It hasn’t been a brutally cold winter so far, and both hives survived one of the coldest snaps uninsulated when the weather turned at the beginning of November right before we bought the bee cozies.

If the North Hive survives in strong fashion, my sense is that it’s due more to luck and colony genetics than proper beekeeping technique, but the contrast between the two hives has been instructive. In particular, I’m curious to see how the hive manages with abundant honey from their own stores rather than bricks made from store-bought white sugar.

In general, I hope that future experiments happen in a more controlled fashion, but as with so many things involving beekeeping, all we can do is try to be smarter tomorrow.

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