Oct. 21, 2021

Preparing for Winter (044)

Preparing for Winter  (044)

If you are comfortable outside on Christmas Day, you probably don’t have to worry about wrapping your colonies for winter protection. Otherwise, this episode is for you! At least put up a windbreak. It’s easy, cheap and it helps. But what other...

WinterIf you are comfortable outside on Christmas Day, you probably don’t have to worry about wrapping your colonies for winter protection. Otherwise, this episode is for you!

At least put up a windbreak. It’s easy, cheap and it helps. But what other insulation is available? There’s history of what has been used, and what’s available now isn’t much different, but it’s better.

Tar paper was common, roofing insulation is often used, already packaged units like a Bee Cozy, or those made by BetterBee are available and work well.

New insulated tops are available and should be considered for both keeping warm in during winter, and heat out during summer.

Winter ventilation is still an issue with some kinds of wintering techniques and you have to deal with that, too. Styrofoam boxes, and sheets are used with good success.

Winter protection, wrapping, and all the different kinds of hives….now is the time to figure it out. 


We welcome Betterbee as sponsor of today's episode. BetterBee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, BetterBee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com


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

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2021 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 44 – Preparing for Winter


Jim Tew: On several previous segments, we've talked about things that we should possibly be doing preparing for winter. Now, it's time to implement those things and others too.

Kim Flottum: Well, it's finding the stuff that I need to do first.

Jim: I understand that. I understand that, Kim. Getting it all together and getting ready is hard to believe. Snow is coming and blowing, and going to be cold. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: We're coming to you today from Honey Bee Obscura where we're talking about what it takes to help protect your colony for winter, things you can do and not do.

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 and engaging in an informative discussion meant for all beekeepers, long-timers and those just starting their journey with bees. Sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: You know, Kim, through our history in beekeeping, we have waxed and waned in these winter preparations. Now, we're back to helping our colonies as much as we can with insulation, protection, dryness, warmness, whatever, because our bees are expensive and are more valuable to us than they used to be.

Kim: Yes. Well, let me put it this way, Jim. You're exactly right. We're getting back to it. I want to talk about what winter is really. Your bees are going to need some level of protection if it's so cold, you can't wear shorts on Christmas Day. Anybody any further south than that, you're probably okay, but anywhere north of that, you're probably going to need some level of protection.

Jim: That's interesting, Kim. If I go out on Christmas Day in shorts, my long-suffering neighbors are probably going to be saying, "He's doing it again. He's doing it again. He's out there on Christmas Day in his shorts." I know what you mean. Another person somewhere through the years has said, "If you're comfortable, your bees are comfortable."

Kim: Yes, I agree.

Jim: In a sense, that's what you're saying.

Kim: The simplest thing you can do and the easiest, if nothing else, put up a windbreak. Where is the primary direction? You know you're going to surround your hive on three sides maybe even to give it a little protection from that cool or cold winter wind.

Jim: That is so true. Just my experience, just go stand behind the fence. Even getting behind the tree line, just getting out of the wind. You can tell the difference just getting in the truck. Never mind the heater, I'm just out of the wind. A windbreak is an easy thing to do, and it meets the criteria. If you're more comfortable behind a windbreak, then your colony is more comfortable behind a windbreak. That's an easy one to do for the most part.

Kim: I use bales of straw because I've got them and they're easy. By the time winter's over, I've got another use for them. That works well for me, but anything, like you said, works. After windbreaks, then people start looking at doing some kind of wrapping, some kind of thermal protection.

Jim: That's the thing during the years, Kim. I didn't mean to step on you there, but that's that thing. I don't want to live in the past, but beekeeping has such a history of everything. If we're talking about this wintering and years gone by, all of this boxing and putting four hives together, so much has been done. Yes, you're exactly right. Cover these things in straw, pack hay around them. Beekeepers were doing that 100 years ago, and beekeepers are doing it today.

Kim: That evolved after a while. It's been a long time ago. When I first started, the rule of thumb was wrap them in tar paper, roofing paper. It was black, so it absorbed the sunlight during the day, and it warmed up the hive a little bit, supposedly, and nothing else. It served as a better windbreaker.

Jim: I remember. I know commercial beekeepers in Ohio-- We don't have them anymore. They've crossed over now, but they had a specific procedure for tar paper cut to specific sizes, everything about the tar paper was known. Then when they wrapped, wrapped, wrapped, they did their artistry like wrapping a Christmas gift. It was perfectly wrapped and folded. Everything was put right back on, and a little hole was torn for the bottom entrance and the upper entrance, and they did move on.

When you look at it, you think, "Well, it's very neatly done, but it's just a piece of tar paper. How much does that really help?" I don't know. I didn't know then, I don't know now, but they were serious about it. Every year, they put a lot of effort in wrapping with a single layer of tar paper, and we still do it now in many cases.

Kim: Well, they moved on from tar paper. It went on to-- There's a plastic sheet with a quarter inch of insulation on one side that people are using also, and you can use that. That acts like the tar paper when it breaks the wind. It's black, so it helps. The little bit of insulation is supposed to help a little bit. I think that's probably what it does, a little bit.

Jim: Well, insulation is insulation, isn't it? I suppose anything is better than nothing in most cases. I thought and wondered if we shouldn't go to these big-box construction supply stores and just look around and see what insulation materials are available there. This blue insulated foam, can you just cut blocks of that and put it on the outside of a beehive? I see beekeepers occasionally doing that, but I don't know that it's a recommendation, or you just improvise protective insulated sheets that go around the colony. I don't know if you can do it or not.

Kim: Yes, you can. I've seen it done, and then there's just regular roofing insulation. You can do that, plastic on one side and fussy on the other. It will keep your hive warm. That's what we were doing in Wisconsin when we talked about way back when. You can insulate them to the point where they don't even form a cluster, but if you've got 50 hives, that's probably unrealistic.

Jim: Is a lot of this packing and winter preparation the things that beekeepers with lesser numbers of bees can do? What can a beekeeper do with 3,000 colonies for winter packing? I think they'd just put them on trucks and head to Florida.

Kim: Yes, I think you're right.

Jim: I think that most of these high-labor efforts are for beekeepers like me, 15 colonies of bees or so, and I could in theory - do it. We can wrap, do something, buy something, put something around them, but we are now back to a place where mini-beekeepers and mini-beekeeping authorities agree that wrapping or doing something to help a colony is beneficial now.

Kim: One of the issues coming up is the fact that there's so many kinds of hives right now, different sizes, different styles that there's no one-size-fits-all piece of equipment out there. If you got a top bar hive, you got 8-frame, 10-frame, 5-frame.

Jim: Excellent point. That's a good point.

Kim: You either are looking for something really specific, my 8 frames versus your 10 frames, or you're looking for something that's, like I said, maybe one-size-fits-all which would be a roll of house insulation or a roll of that plastic. That would fit anything you put it on.

Jim: You're making excellent points there.

Kim: There's the 10-frame bee cozy. That fits on a 10-frame hive, but how high? If you're used to wintering in three boxes or four boxes instead of two boxes, a lot of things to think about on what you're going to pick.

Jim: Betterbee Bee Supply makes different types of wraps for different-sized numbers of frames of colonies, 5, 8, 10. Let's take a moment here for them right now.

Sponsor: Betterbee is pleased to sponsor today's episode of Honey Bee Obscura Podcast. For over 40 years, Betterbee has supplied beekeepers across the country with the tools, equipment and knowledge needed to succeed. Because many Betterbee employees are beekeepers themselves, they understand your needs and challenges and are better prepared to answer your beekeeping questions. From their colorful catalog to their supportive beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast, Betterbee truly lives up to their tagline of beekeepers serving beekeepers. See for yourself at Betterbee.com.

Jim: Do something. If we've got the colony wrapped, Kim, do you do anything with the bottom board? I've never really heard that you put something under the bottom board, piece of insulation, styrofoam, or something.

Kim: Well, I've got all of my hives around hive stands, so they're raised up above the ground. I don't use screened bottom boards at all anymore. When I wrap my hives, I run my insulation down below the bottom of the hive so that-- but underneath, I try and close it in so you got a dead airspace underneath.

Jim: Well, I don't do much on the bottom, and I wonder if I should, but let's talk about bottom boards some more in some other segment because they're a necessary but unloved piece of equipment. Most of us don't insulate the bottom, but we do insulate the tops. The commercially available bee supply companies sell insulated top covers. I've got one here that works reasonably well. In fact, it works well from Bee Smart Designs. It has an insulated top that is a single unit. It's ready to go. Take it out of the box, put it on.

We're into throwing around company names now, but people need to know where to find these. Betterbee has an insulated cover with a one-inch piece inside the top. These are all new concepts for this time. They're not new concepts for old times where we used different things, but right now, you can buy insulated outer covers.

Kim: Those are put up because one of the big issues with wintering is ventilation. When you're bringing cold air in the bottom and having it leave the top, you've got cold air in your hive all winter long that the bees are having to deal with. An insulated cover helps that in that that cold air going up through the cluster, warming up, gathering moisture, hitting a cold cover, it will condense and rain back down on the bees, so you've got cold wet bees all winter. These insulated covers make that go away, and it just allows the air to escape without the condensation.

Jim: We're doing this in an artificial faction, but that's a different story for a different time. A beehive isn't really a natural nesting site for a bee colony, but it's one that they can use, and we have a lot of experience using, that's there. One of the things that was old and now it's new again, Kim, and I need to tell you and the readers, I really haven't used this before other than two times just playing, and that's these quilt boxes that go on top.

In the old days, the late 1800s, 1910s, 1920s, quilts were commonly used on the hive top. They were actually a quilt. Beekeepers would refer to their wives using various kinds of batting, B-A-T-T-I-N-G, batting, to make these quilts and to sew them so that they would fit the hive tops very closely, and then they would say that that would absorb moisture. These things were well established. Do you know anything about them, Kim, any concept from the old book?

Kim: Before my time, I don't know. [laughs]

Jim: I understand that. It was funny that I found one of these old books where the guy was giving exact dimensions and telling you what to use so that when the bees wet it and it would shrink, it would still be the right size. It was very specific. Then, in another old book, Kim, I read, "Why would you ever use these things? They're a piece of junk. The bees glue the quilt to the top bars, and then you have to rip them apart." The guy poetically said how the bees hated having their hives ripped apart. Yes, this beekeeping, always do it. Yes, this beekeeping, never do it.

These quilts are backed, but they're basically different. There really is no quilt per se now, but there are boxes that go on top of the hive that are available with wood chips, wood shavings in them. Then you have a shim down below with a hole to let the moisture out, and then you have a shim above this box to let the moisture out. This top quilt box with shavings, no quilt is supposed to insulate the hive and to hold the moisture that the hive is collecting.

I've read somewhere, Kim, that then that moisture is available to the colony when there's a shortage of moisture in the hive later in the season. I don't know about that because if you get too much moisture, it's going to be soggy. I know you want to get involved in this because you don't like moisture in the hive, but these quilt boxes are new to me. I know people are using them because they're available commercially and there's plans on the web for building your own, so shoot holes and all of that.

Kim: Well, I'll go back to what you just said. Too much ventilation in a hive, you get any kind of ventilation, you've got to do something with the condensate that collects on the roof. You can soak it up in wood chips or you can insulate the roof so that it doesn't condense. That's my first choice all the time, every time is to reduce ventilation, reduce condensation, and keep the hive dry. I'll stick to what I've been doing. I've had good luck.

Jim: Well, I have just been kind of putzing around. How much can we cover, Kim? Maybe later in another discussion, but these expanded polystyrene hives, they're basically Styrofoam boxes. Many beekeepers are now keeping bees in Styrofoam boxes, so there's a whole different concept of insulation.

Forget wood, forget wrapping, forget everything because you're basically keeping your beehive in a ice cooler. There is that. For insulation, find what works for you. You've got a lot of options available to you right now. When you have a lot of options available, that means there's no clear way to doing it correctly. If you've got something that's always worked for you,-

Kim: Stick to it.

Jim: -then I would say always do it. [chuckles] Then there is this one other group. That other group that I want to talk about are those beekeepers who can wear shorts on Christmas Day and their apron. Kim, what do they do? What do people do in warmer climates that don't have to worry about insulated hives or packing or whatever?

Kim: Make sure their bees have enough food all season long. I think that's the biggest concern is because if they're going to be active, they're going to be flying, they're going to probably be raising brood, make sure they have enough food. I think that's probably as far as you need to go.

Jim: They're going to have it easier in many ways, but I think you're exactly right. A lot more flying, a lot more food consumption than you might expect. Then people like me, I used to keep bees in those warm climates where you could always feed. Well, if you're having to feed and if bees are starving, you can rest assured you're going to get robbing going. You had to always be cautious that you didn't get bees robbing each other in the yard where the colonies were close together on those days when nothing else is out there except what's on your neighbor's beehive.

Just so you folks know, we are aware that warm climates don't have all these issues, I think. Kim, I want to ask, in Alabama when it's-- Deep South Alabama, North Florida is 100 degrees on those summer days. Would an insulated hive top be helpful then? Not for the cold but for heat. I don't have the answer to that.

Kim: Well, the people that have looked at it, and I'll go back to Seeley's tree trunk hive, it's perfectly insulated for winter and summer. You don't have a cold or a hot roof. The goal is to keep your ceiling the same temperature year-round, insulated in the summer against the heat, same insulation in the winter to keep the cold out and the moisture down and the heat in.

Jim: If we happen to have any listeners in the South who actually have been using these insulated covers on the top and have an opinion, I'd like to hear from them because we worry about cold, but I wonder if at times we should be worrying about heat. I don't know, but that's a different subject for a different time. In essence, Kim, do something.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: You have a plan. As I reduce the size of my colonies more and more, I'm going to use insulation more and more and explore some of this top stuff and see if I can stay in the beekeeping business a while longer.

Kim: Well, good luck to you.

Jim: Good luck to you, buddy.

Kim: Take care.

Jim: Till next Thursday, I'll talk to you again. Bye-bye.

[00:19:38] [END OF AUDIO]