Nov. 3, 2022

Colony Winter Water (098)

Colony Winter Water (098)

Why on earth would honey bee foragers go out on a freezing day in winter to collect water? Ice and snow everywhere, but there they are, trying to get a drink and bring some home for their sisters. Why? Kim and Jim explore some of the reasons why. They...

Why on earth would honey bee foragers go out on a freezing day in winter to collect water? Ice and snow everywhere, but there they are, trying to get a drink and bring some home for their sisters. Why?

Kim and Jim explore some of the reasons why. They explore the uses of water by winter bees and where they collect it. Kim and Jim also explore aspects of ventilation, or lack thereof, in the winter. Should a beehive have lots, some or none? Industry experts continue to research.

Is too much water in winter a bad thing? If there’s no ventilation, what happens to all the moisture laden air in the hive? Lots and lots of questions, maybe some answers. Listen in and see.We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow or subscribe today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


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Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 98 – Winter Is Coming: Winter Water


Jim Tew: Kim, a short story here to open up the segment. December 17th, 2020, 37 degrees Fahrenheit, Northeast Ohio. I had about a dozen suicidal bees collecting water at my spring/summer/fall watering device. They were covered in frost. Those in the water were at death's door. It looked like an absolute desperation water run. What was up with that?

Kim Flottum: Boy. My first thought is the easy one, they were born water collectors and they're going to die water collectors. That's all they knew how to do, so they wake up in the morning and it's time to go get some water. I don't think that's it, though.

Jim: Let's talk about what you're guessing, what I'm guessing that it might be. Are you okay with that?

Kim: Yes.

Jim: Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: We're from Honey Bee Obscura, where each week we talk about something related to honeybees. Today I want to know why I had those water collecting bees.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honey bees.

Jim: I see that periodically, these bees making this off-season non-explained run. I don't know what's going on, Kim.

Kim: The only thing I can figure out, you said it was December, you said it was 37 degrees, is that in that hive where that cluster is, there is either crystallized or nearly crystallized honey that they need to dissolve so they can eat it. To do that, they need water. If they don't get water, they can't eat. That tells me that there isn't much water in that hive.

Jim: I'm not sure what to do about that because I asked myself that day. There is no way that I know of to provide winter-water to a wintering colony. Now, as usual, Kim, we're talking here from upper Northeast Ohio, and there's a lot of country above us, but for those people who live in warm climate, your bees fly all the time. I don't know if you ever noticed them getting water in the winter. For those listeners coming from warmer climates, do you see your bees at watering sites in the winter picking up water or do they not need it?

Kim: Yes, either or. Tom Seeley says in his book about water in the winter, and what he's referring to is, if I recall this right, he's talking about bees that live in a cavity in a tree that has no upper ventilation. Cold air in the winter comes in and it condenses on the bottom half of the high, where it starts to heat the area that the cluster's in that's warmer than outside. You get some condensation, but that's where it's going to condense, is on the sides and towards the bottom.

Bees always have a place, in theory, according to Tom, Bees have a place where they can go not very far and get some water to dissolve that honey or water to drink, just to have liquid. It's right in the hive. Now, you and I or lots of people, we provide upper ventilation. What that does is it removes that warm air that the bees are generating in the cluster up and out of the hive so there's no condensation. Forever, we've always been taught to make sure there's upper ventilation, because if you don't, the warm air will rise, condense on the bottom of the inner cover and then drip down on the bees and they get wet and die of being wet.

Jim: Everything you're saying, I agree with. When I say I agree with, it means I've read and understand as best I can what we're talking about. The whole water thing is confusing to me because, if I can quickly say, those bees out collecting water that day, number one in my confusing question list, what happened to bees forming a cluster at 57 degrees? That clearly didn't mean that bees won't fly at temperatures lower than 57 degrees. I have to believe that back in the hive, the routine bees had formed the usual 57-degree cluster. That's going on. That was the first fundamental question I had, is what happened to those bees essentially being done?

The second thing that comes up to mind here is that there's a group, there are beekeepers amongst us who argue that this ventilation thing is not exactly the way to go, just for the reasons you said, that letting out that moisture-ladened air also lets out the bees' moisture source. That becomes somewhat confusing because, Kim, for 53 consecutive years of beekeeping, I've ventilated my hives in the winter. I just really guess, and I don't want to think that I've been wrong for 53 years, but when do you question things?

Here's this water thing. These groups say that that water is actually desirable, that bees want to be around 41 degrees Fahrenheit, which for me would be uncomfortably cool, and get ready for it, those bees want to be wet, they want to maintain a high humidity, at least 70% in the brood nest or the cluster. When they're raising brood, maybe as high as 95%. That by not breaking that propolis seal, even the hive closed up, it increases the CO2 content. It raises the CO2 content of the hive.

They say, they offer, they posit that higher CO2 contents puts those wintering bees in a moribund stupor, where their metabolic activity is lowered and is as consumption efficient as possible. Does all that make any sense to you? You had some comments on CO2 production and use inside the hive.

Kim: We talked to the people at the University of Washington who were looking at environmentally controlled building over wintering, and they're looking at what levels of CO2 to provide inside those buildings for mite control. You get a lot of CO2 in there and you will start seeing mites drop and without harming the bees. That's where that CO2 thinking. What you got to remember is, even in the lowest, absolute coldest middle of winter, that queen is still laying some eggs.

A study in Connecticut a bunch of years ago, the queen was laying in the middle of December about 30 eggs a day. That's 30. It's not 1,500, but it's 30 eggs a day. Those larvae got to have food, they got to have royal jelly and then jelly and then honey and water. There's stuff going on. Those bees may be in a stupor on the outside, I'm guessing, of the cluster, but in the inside, things are still probably going about normal.

Jim: These papers I've been reading would say that those bees in the quasi-stupor outside are normal, that what we've done is anthropomorphic, that we are trying to warm that hive the same way we would warm our house and bees are not running their life that way. Kim, this is conversation. I need to be crystal clear that this is conversation. What I'm thinking and speculating here is not fact, listeners, it's us trying to sort through what we should be doing in the winter to help our bees to get through the winter. That's where this is all going.

I suppose that it's okay to toss a stone at a sacred cow, and that sacred cow is that we need to ventilate our hives to have that moisture-ladened air escape. I must have said that to beekeepers several hundred times.

Kim: Probably several thousand. [laughs]

Jim: Don't make it worse than it is. Does that mean I've potentially been wrong several thousand times?

Kim: Here's the thing, 1860 Langstroth invented the hive. He over wintered and saw the moisture problem and made sure there was ventilation. Since 1860, we've been putting bees in skinny little boxes with essentially no insulation and lots of ventilation because we don't want them to get wet and have the water drip down. The tree thing might be, but the box thing seems to have worked up until we got mites.

Jim: Let me get my arms around this because, number one, the A. I. Root company manufactured insulated hives for years. The USDA published papers on how to insulate hives, how to pack them, how to wrap them. We went through a phenomenal phase, late '20s to early '40s, on an unwrapped beehive was an unhappy hive. Why did they go away, Kim? Why did we do that? Why did beekeepers, long gone now, spend so much time on putting bees in cellars, pulling them out, packing bees in sawdust shavings.

Kim, there were people who buried their beehives and then dug those things up because those buried hives were in a stable temperature all the time. Yes, Langstroth did that, but boy, in later years, there were some different concepts on that. Then they've all gone away. Why did we start with Langstroth in a box, go through all these decades of insulating, and then come back to bees in a box?

Kim: [chuckles] Well, I learned to winter bees in Wisconsin. At the USDA lab there in Madison, one of the researchers was studying that exact thing, how much insulation can we put on bees. He had it figured out, he put four of them on a pallet and he wrapped them all together with an R20 insulation on the top and provided no ventilation and no entrance in the bottom. They never formed a cluster in the winter. They were just happy in there, it seemed. Maybe they weren't. Maybe they were just mad because they couldn't get out.

Jim: Did they survive?

Kim: Yes. I'm thinking, if I'm a commercial beekeeper, am I going to do that to every four hives I own? If you own four hives, it's one thing, if you own 4,000, it's something entirely different. It's a cost factor there too.

Jim: Yes. I'm still confused, Kim, I can't tell if you're helping me or not. I don't know why those bees were out foraging on that water desperately. I don't know exactly what's supposed to happen with this new concept, to me, that some of this winter wetness, confined, don't break the propolis seal, that whole concept is the way the bees wanted it, wet and damp with high humidity, access to food. Uncomfortable for me, but the way they wanted it. Everything about this flies in my face. They should have been clustered while those bees are in the water thing? Then they should be dry, why do they want to be wet?

Everything about this flies in my face. I've always said, if you're comfortable, then your bees are comfortable. Well, I'm standing there in an insulated vest and a winter jacket with the hood up and two pairs of socks on. I want my bees to be as warm as I am, and it's sobering for someone to say, "No, they don't want to be that warm. They want to be remarkably cool because it lowers their metabolic output, increases their CO2 content, which would have the ancillary advantage as a byproduct of knocking off mites." Everything about this, Kim-- I need to say again, this is strictly conversation, people, stick with what you've always done. This always worked, but it's okay to wonder, isn't it?

Kim: Yes. Then one thing you got to throw into the conversation, though, is that most of our history, I guess I should say, didn't include Varroa. That's changed the equation. The Varroa, the viruses, is that changing the physiology of wintering bees, is that changing their ability to do the things they were doing 50 years ago in wooden boxes, or is it giving them an ability to do things in a wooden box that they could do in a tree? I'm just guessing. I'm like you.

Jim: Let me just take a minute. We'll hear from our sponsor. I'll come back and we'll see if we can lay this thing to rest.

Speaker 3: Now, that the honey harvest is over, it's time to think about winter. It's important to make sure your bees have enough stores to get them through to spring. Visit to learn how to make your own two-to-one sugar syrup for fall feeding and to shop for a hive top or in-hive feeder to make sure all your bees get fed. Remember to stop feeding sugar syrup once your daily temperatures consistently dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Visit to learn all about fall feeding. Betterbee, your partners in better beekeeping.

Jim: Kim, when it comes down to it just in a couple of weeks here, I'm going to go out and I'm going to do what I've always done. I've already tried to knock the mites off. I'll do a treatment later on in the winter. I'll do my best to control mites. I'm going to leave plenty of honey. I'm going to reduce the entrance. I don't know if I'm going to try insulation techniques or not. I don't know. I'm not a scientist in any way now.

The younger man, I would say, I'm going to wrap some hives. No, I'm not doing all that. It's probably going to be too much work. I think I'll just keep watching the literature and I'll let the younger people with better minds continue to explore this while I continue in a very old-fashioned way to do what I've always done. Is that something that causes you and the listeners to think less of me or what?

Kim: [chuckles] No, I think that's pretty much what all of us do or most of us do. I will say one thing, I'm watching more baseball this year than I watched in a long time. I'm watching Cleveland heading for the World Series. Let's see what they can do, huh?


Jim: Where did that come from? [laughs]

Kim: Well, that's what I'm doing this year.

Jim: Well, that doesn't help me and my bee wintering thing at all, but it does leave me at a better frame of mind. What are you going do? Are you going to do any packing or insulating? We talked about that on a previous segment here just a few days ago. What does all this mean to you?

Kim: I'm not changing anything. I've got all the winter food done in all the hives. I've got the entrances reduced. Now that the guy on television told me about frost in low spots, I'm going to go put on that plastic sheet of insulation I got just to keep the wind from going through the cracks and call it another year.

Jim: Well, we sound like two old guys. I'm going to do what I've always done; you're going to do what you've always done. Don't bother us with all this new stuff, we've got our minds made up.

Kim: There you go.

Jim: Thanks for listening, to everybody. Kim, thanks for talking to me.

Kim: Yes, take it easy. Stay warm, guy.

Jim: I'll do my best.

Kim: All right.

Jim: Bye-bye.

[00:17:24] [END OF AUDIO]