Sept. 23, 2021

Winter Packing (040)

Winter Packing  (040)

Think about honey bees overwintering in a tree. There’s 4 to 6 inches of insulation, pretty good ventilation, and it’s lined with propolis. Now think of our bees living in a box with less than an inch of wood for protection. We pretty much don’t...

Think about honey bees overwintering in a tree. There’s 4 to 6 inches of insulation, pretty good ventilation, and it’s lined with propolis. Now think of our bees living in a box with less than an inch of wood for protection. We pretty much don’t think of wintering anymore. There’s lots of bees, swarms, we can replace what we lose easily…. well, it was easy, but it’s not so much anymore. Varroa changed that.

We can protect them if we want. Insulated covers, insulated wraps, roofing paper, all manner of things we can get, and all require some level of labor to make work.

Expanded styrene boxes seem to be pretty good. Lots of insulation for both winter cold and summer heat and they use both sides of every frame. They don’t recognize warm winter days though, so there’s that.

In the old days beekeepers went to a lot of trouble to keep their bees alive overwinter and with the new controlled environment buildings, that sort of care is coming back.

Winter protection can mean different things based on where you live – after all, all beekeeping is local. However, no matter where you live, preparing for winter and protecting the colony inside a hive is something our bees need now more than ever.


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Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 40 – Winter Packing


Jim: Kim, I'm going to try something this year that I've talked about, thought about, seen other people do it, but I never have tried it very much. I wanted to see if I can pack my colonies and help them get through the winter.

Kim: I learned beekeeping in Wisconsin. There's a law that says you have to pack in the winter.

Jim: I found just exactly the opposite. I grew up in a climate where winter meant you wore a long sleeve shirt. To put anything around a beehive in South Alabama, North Florida was laughable. It all changed when I came to Ohio. I want to talk about that summer.

Kim: Okay. Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew. We're talking to you from Honeybee Obscura today on packing honeybee colonies. Something that I don't know a lot about. Kim seems to know more.

Introduction: You are listening to Honeybee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind beekeeping today podcast. Each week on Honeybee Obscura, host Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. An engaging and 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.

Kim: When I was working on USDA research in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the grad students and postdocs there was working on wintering. He developed a technique that completely engulfed four colonies. He wrapped four colonies on a pallet, had insulated covers, and insulated bottoms, and little tiny entrances in the front of each one. He could keep it in there so warm that they didn't even form a cluster. That's the perfect wrap.

However, if you own 10,000 colonies, that's probably not going to work so well. Tom Seeley, Dr. Tom Seeley at Cornell has really thrown a lot of light on winter environment in my opinion. We all knew this, but he just brought it back, I think, and that's a bees in a tree don't have insulation wrapped around them. They don't have upper ventilation, and they're lined with Pro Plus. What are they doing that we're not doing unless we do all this fancy wrapping? That's what we're all both-- I think we all have to relearn wrapping.

Jim: I don't have any shred of science or data from my upcoming main comment here, but I think, I postulate that we got away from wrapping because The A.I. Root Company used to manufacture insulated beehives. This was a common thing to really help the bees in the winter, and then more and more and more just became bees in a box. I think that happened because bees were so plentiful before varroa, before tracheal mites, before Africanized bees, before everything. We would all get so many swarms per year nobody wanted any more. Why do all this wintering work? There'll be plenty of bees next spring. I think we got sloppy and if varroa's done nothing, it's made us go back to being more of a beekeeping concern for our wintering colonies.

Kim: If you're looking at taking a little bit better care of your bees this winter, there's some stuff on the market that is ready-made. There's the stuff by BeeSmart Apiary, the insulated cover which stops when warm air rises in the colony from the cluster, and it hits the bottom of an uninsulated cover. It's going to condense, water's going to form, it's going to drip back down on the cluster.

That insulated cover really reduces that problem. There's the NOD Apiary people up in Canada-- now there's winter. They have this manufactured wrap that goes around your box already. It's like five or six inches thick. I've got a couple of them and it's called-- it's an insulated wrap, Bee Cozy. There's stuff on the market that you can readily get if you're not into manufacturing your own.

Jim: I use those tops and they work well year around, not just for wintering. That helps a lot. The whole thing about wintering and helping the bees prepare with the packing seems to be just a factor of labor. That's just one more thing for the beekeeper to do, to go out and tuck the bees in to get them ready to go and close them up. I think it's increasingly a good thing to do even in mild winter.

Kim: It can't hurt and you're right, I think more people are doing it and there's more equipment available to do it. There's more science behind how to do it that people can draw on. I'll go back to Seeley again and when he describes the inside of a tree, a good tree got an R-value. The walls of a good tree have an R-value four to six, somewhere in that neighborhood. The box, the length strap box that we're using is 0.4. It's like 10 times warmer, 10 times better than the box we've got them in. If my bees don't have to work hard all winter to keep warm, they're just going to be better come spring.

Jim: They have more energy now. You know, Kim, one of the disadvantages to being old that's happened to me now officially is that you think you remember something from long ago. Did I not remember reading that in these unventilated colonies, they accumulate CO2, and that lowers the metabolic rate of the bees that end in an oxygen-deprived stupor. Am I making that up or have I honestly read that somewhere?

Kim: Now that you mention it, I remember it from somewhere. There's got to be some ventilation in there.

Jim: There's got to be some, they won't just breathe straight CO2, but if you slowed their metabolic activity-- I need to get off this subject because I'm not prepared to talk about it. I don't know what I'm talking about.

Kim: I do know, I can tell you this, that the people who wintering indoors in those big buildings they're controlling CO2 in there. There is something to be said about keeping those levels where you want them. They're controlling temperature, they're controlling CO2, and they're controlling lights. Those things on a commercial scale are going on inside that tree trunk.

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Jim: I'm afraid we're going to lose a lot of people in the warm climate with this packing your colonies for the winter thing. Let me throw this out there. First of all, a disclaimer, I'm not trying to sell anything. I am strictly just being conversational here. I have one of those expanded polystyrene boxes. It's a six-frame nuke. It's basically a Styrofoam box, it has the bottom board that allows the mite to drop out, got a feeder on it, nice contraption. I neglected it, set it off and weeds grew around it, and I thought I better check that it was packed side to side, Kim, had that happened before. Those Styrofoam boxes, the bees will use the outside frames just as they would use the inside frames and the wooden boxes.

I know it's because of that insulated value when the sun strikes the side of that colony, it doesn't just immediately skyrocket because of that low R-value you mentioned in that wood box a bit ago. I had a chock-a-block box full of bees when I took that thing out because it was so packed with brood from side to side. All that to ask you this, if you're in a warm climate, are you still improved to have an insulatory effect on those outside walls so that the sun won't jack that temperature straight up. Make the bees neglect the outer frames as an insulation space.

Kim: They're living in trees where it's warm, they're living in trees where it's cold, and they're doing pretty good in both places for exactly the same reason, is that when it gets really hot and the sun hits that tree, that insulation is keeping it cooler inside or allowing it not-- not warming up inside, I guess I should say. When it's cool and it gets cold outside it doesn't allow the heat to escape as rapidly as it does in the box.

I've got to believe that if we could do anything without having to do much, it would be provide more insulation for our bees, because those fluctuations in temperature up and down and up and down have got to be-- you know what it's like to be sitting someplace and you're in a shade, and it's cold and the sun comes out and you're hot.

Jim: Yes, it makes an amazing difference. For those of you who are new to beekeeping, you may not know that this pack or don't pack is right up there with use queen excluders or don't use queen excluders. Everything you just said, Kim, is the primary argument that some would use for not packing, that on those warm winter days when the sun comes out and everything feels good, your bees won't know it because the colony is insulated and the temperature stays the same inside, and they don't take advantage of those nice, warm days. I have said that, others said it, it's in the literature, but more and more, after using those expanded polystyrene boxes and saying how much more brood they'll put in there, I want to know more about this insulated packing thing.

Why don't we spend so much time, Kim? All those USDA documents in the '20s. Can you believe they used to bury bees? You'd dig a trench and you would bury your bees in a straw pit. There were beekeeping cellars that were specifically designed for backing wagon loads of bees with two mules into a cellar and closing them off and then pulling them out on warm days and letting them fly and rolling them back in. That Buckeye Hive that A.I. Root manufactured. In the old days, there was a significant amount of emphasis put on insulating those colonies that we don't do now much of anymore.

Kim: Maybe that's changing. Those big operations in the Dakotas that are packing thousands of colonies into a building or looking at, let's see, 30% loss versus 45% loss.

Jim: Right. Nothing forces innovation like 40% winter kill and uncontrollable varroa mite populations in most cases.

Kim: I pack. I've packed every winter. Some of the years I do it better. Like I mentioned, the thing from NOD Apiaries and then there's the cardboard box I think you get from one of the companies, and there's the insulated covers, and then there's roofing insulation. There's a lot of ways to do this. I'm just an advocate of the better I can keep the environment inside those boxes for my bees, the better off I think they're going to be, and I think the better I'll sleep at night.

Jim: I admitted when we first started this that I am from a warm climate ancestrally, but my bees and I have been here in northeast Ohio for a long time, and I'm going to try to see if I can't help them along more than that. I don't know what I'm going to do. Should I-- again, not trying to sell a product. Should I just go over to a home supply store and buy insulatory sheets and cut it to fit and improvise a protective barrier? Should I be using these insulated tops and commercial stuff? What?

Kim: Yes. All of the above.

Jim: How about the black tar paper? That was always common, wrapping them in black tar paper, roofing paper.

Kim: I think that's going to help. It acts as a good windbreak if you got holes between supers or in it. It helps as a windbreak, and then on warm days, it's going to warm up a little bit and warm up the inside a little bit, but on cold days, it doesn't have nearly as much. I think that polystyrene box you got is the answer. I think everything you need to know is in that box.

Jim: That's interesting because-- Oh, Kim, it's so easy to get off the subject. They want us to paint the inside of those things. People are always troubled by using paint, in the old lead paint days that paint's all gone. Don't want to get involved in that right now, but you're probably completely safe painting inside, but you're going to need to paint those boxes inside and out or the bees will chew them up. What the bees don't chew up, the carpenter ants and the wax moth will chew up, bizarrely. You'll have whole carpenter ant nests inside some of these things. A lot of animals like living there, it's cozy in the winter.

Kim: Does that tell you something?

Jim: It does tell me something, doesn't it? I know you want to quit, I'm getting the eye movement from you here, but let me tell you this, I really love doing this. Buy a cheap stethoscope, a physician's stethoscope, and in the winter, go out when the neighbors aren't watching and squat beside your colony and put that stethoscope against that wall. When those colonies are alive, it sounds like there's an air handler running inside that colony, it's exhilarating. Even you folks in warm climates, have at it, go out there in a wintering colony and stick that stethoscope to the side and listen to your bees working in there.

Does it matter? No. Does it make things better? No. Does it make you look weird? Yes, it does do that, but if you stick that same stethoscope to a dead colony, it sounds like this. It is dead. [chuckles] There is nothing there. Just for fun, pay $5 for a cheap stethoscope and go out there and listen to your bees in the winter.

Kim: One thing, it just dawned on me in listening to you talk about putting a stethoscope on there, one of the things that you can do with a wintering colony to see how it's doing is use that, was it infrared, measures heat?

Jim: Oh, yes.

Kim: With all that insulation, you've got no measure. You won't see a thing. It's not telling you anything. If you're looking at doing something with that direction, keep that in mind is that you're not going to see that heat bubble inside through all of that insulation.

Jim: I'll just go the thermocouple route, Kim. I'll sit in my warm den watching TV, checking the temperature of my bee colonies.

Kim: Yes, have it come to my cellphone and say everything's all right.

Jim: If anyone thinks I know anything about packing colonies, dash that thought, but I do think that this packing colony thing probably has some potential. It's interesting. If nothing else, it's been entertaining. I'm punching out.

Kim: All right, I'll see you next time, Jim.

Jim: I want to thank everybody who listens. If you feel so inclined, why don't you subscribe, so it'll make our sponsors feel better about what we're doing here. Anyway, thank you for listening, all of you. We'll talk to you again. Bye-bye.

Kim: Bye-bye.

[00:17:01] [END OF AUDIO]