Fall has arrived and you’re preparing your bees for winter. If you are new to beekeeping, this should make you nervous. You might lose every colony you have in the next few months. What you do now has a huge impact on how your bees will look in March. Don’t make the big mistake that I made when I moved from Saskatchewan to Alberta. I didn’t prepare my hives for winter properly and most of them died.
Some years ago, when I took a job in Calgary, I turned my Saskatchewan bee business over to a farm family that lived near me in the northern bush country. I’d been keeping 300 hives of bees on the side while I did my geophysics degree at the university in Saskatoon. But I was moving eight hours away. I sold everything I had in Saskatchewan, moved the family to Calgary, and started working. Once on my new job, I searched for a beekeeper with a few hives for sale. I bought six hives and put them on a friend’s farm outside the new city.
Things went OK that summer. I made a little honey. Almost every weekend, I had the fun of getting out of the big city (Calgary has a million people) and into the beautiful rustic countryside. When autumn arrived, I wrapped my hives. I wrapped them the way I did back in the northern bush, two hours north of Saskatoon. I piled layers and layers of extra-thick insulation around and overtop the hives, after grouping them into a single big cluster of six contiguous colonies. These bees were prepared to endure six months of Arctic cold, just like I’d seen in northern Saskatchewan. But my new hives were now in southern Alberta, which often has mild winters. It can get 15 degrees above freezing in January!
I lost four of my six hermetically-sealed colonies. By March, when I went to check on them, my hives were drenched in their own sweat. I had sealed them too tightly, they couldn’t exhaust their moisture, and (because they were so well insulated) they didn’t have a chance to enjoy the balmy days which we had during the winter. They were in the dark (literally) and the occasional warm winter days went unnoticed by the bees. I learned later that local beekeepers tend to lightly wrap the sides of the hives (to keep wind from blowing in) and put a little insulation over the tops. They always wrap their hives for winter, but not to the extreme I did my first year. In the next photo, you can see what I learned.
So, even though I’d been keeping bees for years by then, I had violated two of the big lessons every beekeeper should learn early – (1) all beekeeping is local; and, (2) learn from the locals. They might be gruff and snarky, but they have a lot to teach you.
Next time, I’ll write about one of the biggest causes of winter loss: water. We don’t think about moisture – dampness in the hives – often enough. Everyone worries about starvation and failing queens, moldy dead bees are a reality for a lot of beekeepers each spring.