Winterprep: What’s the neighbour doing?

After talking to the neighbouring beekeepers, we found the best way to wrap the bees in our area – not too much insulation, but wind-resistant wraps are essential here.

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.

Over-dressed for occasion

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.

In a windy winter area, weights and straps hold the wraps on. We didn’t use side insulation, but there is a little above the covers.

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.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Beekeeping and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Winterprep: What’s the neighbour doing?

  1. Pingback: Winterprep: What’s the neighbour doing? | Raising Honey Bees

  2. Emily Scott says:

    It’s refreshing to hear that even you, having been a pro and then keeping 300 hives of bees “on the side” could still make mistakes. Makes me hopeful for my own beekeeping. In London I overwintered bees in a similar way to how you describe, except Emma and I didn’t always wrap them.

    I read an article this week which said open-mesh floors are varroa’s only contribution to beekeeping, since they have positives which go far beyond varroa control.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, Emily! I’ve made enough bad beekeeping mistakes to fill a book!

      I like your comment about the open-mesh floors as a contribution to beekeeping. I hadn’t thought of that before. If you consider natural-cavity colonies, they usually have a lot of empty space under the combs, don’t they?


      • Emily Scott says:

        Well, I can’t take credit for the thought, it was from an article in the September 2017 issue of BBKA News. They were talking about how damp kills bees, not cold. And that open mesh floors had brought big improvements to overwintering, more so than varroa control as was originally intended. Yes, I think you’re right about natural colonies.


  3. Erik says:

    We just started getting cluster-worthy weather this week, though still warm and sunny during the day. I’m feeding my hives to try and get their weight up, it is the lack of food rather than the cold that can be a problem here in Virginia.


  4. Pingback: Winterprep: What’s the neighbour doing? | Beginner Beekeeper

  5. Pingback: Why are Hives Damp in the Winter? | Bad Beekeeping Blog

  6. Pingback: Welcoming some new friends | Bad Beekeeping Blog

  7. Robert Hughes says:

    Hi Ron,
    The whole ‘moisture in the hive in winter’ thing is like many other topics in beekeeping, just when you think you have arrived at some sort of conclusion, other information comes up that challenges it. I am doing some research on hive ventilation this winter, partly as a project requirement for a Master Beekeeper course I am taking. However I had already started some experiments two winters ago looking at hive ventilation in winter from my own interest. Many texts state in bald terms that a top entrance in winter is essential. Yet some beekeepers successfully flout this ‘rule’, and there is some theoretical, as well as observational evidence that challenges it as well. The theoretical is based on thermodynamic studies, and the observational rests on the characteristics of preferred nest sites selected by wild bees – they prefer below-centre entrances. So – I am wondering, in those hives of your that you lost, what type and size of lower entrances they had, and if those lower entrances were blocked for any significant part of the winter?
    Upper Kingsclear NB


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi Robert,
      Thanks for writing. We usually lost around 15%, back in the day, which is about normal here. Sealed bottoms (to keep mice out) and small upper entrances (to let the bees out). Some years, metre-deep snow drifts cover the hives into late winter, so it helps their cleansing flights and early pollen collection if they have a way out.


Leave a Reply to Ron Miksha Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.