Bees In Winter
Bees in the winter
Assess the size of the dead cluster. Remember, you need a minimum of 40,000 bees in the winter to survive in the north. That is the equivalence of four 3 pound packages of bees. Do you see that size of cluster? Probably not. You'll probably see around 10-20,000 bees meaning that your colony was not populated adequately in the fall to survive winter. Or they might have been large, but since viruses shorten the lives of bees, half of the colony perished prematurely and reduced the number below what was needed to stay warm. The rest froze to death without their sisters to help them stay warm.
For those of us in the north, we know all about wind chill factor. The wind chill is basically how cold winter air feels blowing against our skin. If it is 10 degrees (f) outside but the wind is blowing 22 miles an hour, the wind chill is a negative 9.66. The NOAA calculation table for wind chill changed in 2001. Prior to 2001, the wind chill above would have been 26.39 (f). Now it is 9.66 (f).
Of course we all agree that wind makes a cold day feel much colder. Wind also can blow (or pull) away warmer air. Within a colony, the winter cluster is producing heat within the cluster to keep all the bees warm. Bees do not heat the inside of their hive like we do our homes. Instead bees only keep each other warm. Bees must consume food to stay warm, just like us. That's why bees need 60+ pounds of honey to survive a northern winter. Wind can pull heat away from the hive. A strong, healthy colony can compensate for this, but it does require more effort.
Winter Cluster In Trees
Honey bees in their natural habitat, the tree, have 3"-6" of wood to shield the winter cluster from the cold, windy air outside. And where is this tree found? Among other trees which provide an additional wind break. But to put bees in a managed hive box usually made of 3/4" wood, out in the open wind, makes it more challenging for the colonies that are low in resources or small in numbers. Therefore, a wind block is a big help.
Now, what can a wind block be made of? It could be a doubled wall hive. These were experimented with back in Langstroth's day (1800s) but they were too costly and heavy. Today, very few hobbyist would pay twice as much for a hive. Instead of $249, a doubled wall hive would cost $498. Other parts would not fit well either.
What about using buildings as wind blocks? Perfect. In fact, after a few weeks of bees being in their winter cluster, you can move your hive to a more sheltered location. Do not take the hive apart to move it. Keep it together and be gentle so as not to dislodge and break up the cluster. We place a large bar on the top cover then use a large tie down strap that wraps all the way around the hive and bar. One person on each side of the bar can easily relocate the hive.
If you do not want to move your hive, build a wind break. Remember, if you need a wind break it means it must really be windy where you live so you all need to build something that can withstand strong winds. I love wind breaks. It really can make a huge difference, in my opinion, on how well a hive overwinters.
A wind break can be as easy as a few bales of hay. Stack them up around a hive, but not too close or they will retain moisture and keep the hive too moist during the winter. This is an inexpensive way to go especially if you have a barn full of hay bales.
I like to make my own wind breaks. I take a few wooden sticks or small posts and beat them into the ground, then wrap visqueen (plastic sheeting) around the posts. I leave the front side open for the bees to fly in and out. On a warm summer day, when the wind isn't blowing, the sun shining through the visqueen has a warming effect on the hive sort of like a green house effect. I usually use 4 or 6 mil clear visqueen. Usually a roll of 4 mil, 10 x 100 feet is what I use, but I double it up for extra strength. This hive is facing east and we seldom get winter winds from the east.
But you can make it out of any materials, wood or metal, that would block the wind. Call Julie before you pound stakes in the ground. I am uncomfortable making 4 walls and completely surrounding a hive in fear that the bees may not find their entrance easily. I would hope they would, but I do not want to take that risk.
I have built 4 walled wind blocks before as shown in the picture below, and I cut holes at the bottom so bees could go in and out but I noticed bees were confused and some clung to my black paper on warm winter days. But bees survived well in these boxed wind breaks. I just slide them down over the hive and the arenât tight against the hive which allows moisture to evaporate away.
You can still build a wind block around your hives no matter how cold it is. So take some of my ideas and run with them and see what you can come up with.
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David & Sheri Burns
Long Lane Honey Bee Farms