Winter’s coming – are you insulated?

Neither me nor the bees needed insulation in Florida’s winter.

When I kept bees in Florida, I didn’t wrap my hives for winter. In Pennsylvania, where I grew up, we sometimes wrapped hives with thin black building paper. That was supposed to keep wind out of the cracks and heat the hives with absorbed sunlight on those rare winter days when the sun shone on the Appalachians. It was there that my father also taught me that “moisture is the real killer” and he showed me how to slip burlap under the hive lid, leaving part of it dangling outside the hive, because “the burlap will act as a wick and draw the bees’ vapors out.”

Southern Saskatchewan (near Montana) – bees wrapped in wind-breaking cardboard.

In my 20s, keeping bees on southern Saskatchewan’s bald prairies (a dozen miles north of Montana), I used black cardboard boxes with a bit of pink insulation just over the lids. Winter winds sure can blow way out there. During my mid-thirties, I kept bees in northern Saskatchewan while attending university. My 300 hives were always grouped in blocks of four, each touching the other, the block surrounded with R-12 insulation on the sides and R-20 atop, then wrapped with tar paper and tied half as neatly as a solstice gift.

When I kept a few bees in the Rocky Mountain foothills, southwest of Calgary, the insulation pack was lighter. But later, I had 500 hives out on the prairie, east of the city. We sometimes strung the bees in long lines and wrapped them – because that’s what a local beekeeper was doing. (I’m a great fan of copying the locals.) But I don’t think it was that smart.

This is an odd way to winter. Drifting can be bad and working the hives isn’t easy.

We changed the formation the next year to this:

This works better. Notice the sides have little insulation.
There was R-8 equivalent on the lids.

Now I’m down to 2 backyard hives in the city. I always dreaded dealing with insulation and wrapping material, which would rip in the winter, spewing material across the landscape. It was hard, working alone, to pull winter material around a hundred hives a day when the wind was whipping. Sometimes the wind worked as a third hand, holding stuff in place, but wind has a short attention span.

Even well-wrapped hives can end up with ripped cases by spring.
This didn’t bother the bees fetching pollen.

So, I was determined to try something different. Someone mentioned polystyrene hives. These are thick-walled plastic boxes that keep hives cool in summer and warm in winter. Calgary rarely has hot summer days, but we get plenty of chilly summer mornings because of our high altitude near the Rockies and because we have very dry air. So, in Calgary, keeping bees in R-7 packaging year-round isn’t a bad idea.

Polystyrene walls are thick! The bee cluster looks like they are inside a tree trunk.

I started with two new packages and all new equipment last year for our backyard bees. It was partly so that I could experience what hobby beekeepers face, since I teach hobby beekeepers. Starting anew, I figured that I’d try the extruded polystyrene foam hives.

In a way, this brought to mind  memories of my Pennsylvania beginnings. My father was a big fan of plastics, which were relatively new in those days. He had built a home-made vacuum mould which turned clear thin sheets of plastic into comb-honey trays. He built a plastic frame which snapped together around a sheet of foundation. I was 17 when he asked me to build a wooden form that could serve as a mould for a hive body. I made one, rather crudely, and he came home a few days later with two cans of chemical which, mixed together, foamed up and hardened into polyurethane. That’s the stuff you see sprayed inside the rafters, beams, and ceilings of some big hollow steel warehouses. My polyurethane box held frames, but shattered when I dropped it. Luckily, no bees were involved. That was my only effort with urethane hives.

In Calgary, decades later, I was again holding a plastic foam hive box. This one didn’t break when I dropped it. I installed packages into my two polystyrene hive bodies. When the inevitable spring snowstorm arrived a week later, the bees clustered warmly. The package bees grew inside their cave. But, honestly, I didn’t see any big summertime advantage. And the boxes were big and clunky.

In July, I was asked by a friend, Robert, what I thought of the insulated hives. I told him that they didn’t seem so special. Robert told me to wait until next March, “that’s when they show their value.”  Well, I was glad already, in the fall, when I didn’t have to winterize the two colonies. [By the way, those two packages each drew 35 frames of foundation, gave us 40 pounds of excess honey each, and both had stored 60 pounds of winter honey.]

One of the two packages performed more poorer than the other, going into winter with just seven deep frames of bees, but plenty of honey. By February, it was down to three frames. I ordered a replacement package, set to arrive in April. The other colony was fine. In early March, the weak hive was even weaker, with just two frames of bees. But a month later, it had overcome its funk and was developing nicely. I cancelled the package bee order. My little colony continued to grow, generating a huge mass of bees that gave us 80 pounds of honey (we extracted 120 pounds from the better colony). I’ve seldom seen an almost-dead March colony recover and make honey like that. I think the success was due to the hive’s wind-tight, thermal-right brood chambers.

I’ve been asked about moisture problems with polystyrene equipment. My own experience showed no issue. No moisture built up under the lid, though I kept an upper entrance open for ventilation, just in case. In our dry climate, too much water in the hive is rare.

About the only complaints I have with the brand of polystyrene boxes I have is that the bottom boards aren’t removable for spring cleaning, the boxes can chip easily with a hive tool, and frames fit too tightly – another 1/8-inch would have helped.

Frames fit too snuggly. Glued with wax and propolis, they are hard to pull loose.

I also had problems with birds and squirrels picking at the material. We have big black and grey squirrels living in the trees beside the hives. I caught one chewing on the hive. I don’t know if the poor girl was trying to sharpen her teeth, lining her home with polystyrene chips, or simply snacking on plastic.

The white area was eaten and exposed by critters.
You can see polystyrene ‘sawdust’ on the ground.

At $30 to $40 for each chamber, they are pricey. But winterizing material also costs money and I didn’t want to fuss with wrapping insulating material around my hives. I guess the bottom line is that I’m happy to use them again this winter. And I think they saved a hive that would have died last winter.

All wrapped for winter!
Snow atop a hive either means the hive is dead or the lid is well-insulated.

The polystyrene lids keep heat in the hives well.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site:
This entry was posted in Beekeeping, Hives and Combs, Tools and Gadgets and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Winter’s coming – are you insulated?

  1. Glad you came back to the question of – and had such good results with – these styrene(styrofoam) hive boxes. Are you under snow already ‘way up there Ron, or is that a pic from last year?
    Loving your dad’s suggestion about burlap wicking away moisture (‘cause this ain’t Alberta; ) and that’s the 3rd time in less than 24 hours that Ian Tyson’s been brought to mind. Sure hope he’s okay! From the ‘Way Back Machine…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      The snow shot is from last October, but snow is in Calgary’s weekend forecast.

      I was wondering if anyone would catch the Ian Tyson reference. Well done! Ian is 85 and had heart surgery last year, but he was scheduled to do two shows (Calgary area) in 2019. He has some true country classics besides “Four Strong Winds” – his compositions earned him induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame this summer. Last I knew, he was still living on his ranch southwest of Calgary. A few years ago, I had an apiary beside his home quarter. Here’s a picture of my bees with Ian’s place behind.

      Bees near Ian's

      Liked by 1 person

      • lol Ron. It seems that Ian has an attraction for bees. Way back, when they (Ian and Sylvia) lived in this area their closest neighbour was also a beekeeper. But sigh he’s had a rough go of it these last few years and (along with the rest of him:/) his voice has taken a beating. But I see he’s been teaming up with Corb Lund recently (speaking of the talent for song-writing)


      • Ron Miksha says:

        Corb Lund is great, everyone says he has picked up where Ian is leaving off. But Ian is still a huge favourite of mine. My favourite Tyson tune is probably Navajo Rug. There’s a coffee shop called the Navajo Mug at 140 Cowboy Trail in Longview, a village near Ian’s ranch. It’s a tribute to Ian and a place to buy a mug or a few CDs and Ian stuff.

        Navajo Mug

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, darn it all, you beat me to it Ron! You’d set me wondering about my own favourites with that comment about Ian having more country classics besides “Four Strong Winds” and I’ve had bits and pieces of ‘Navajo Rug’ running through my head, off and on ever since… Aye aye aye Katy:

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Our family breaks into an occasional, spontaneous, audible “Aye, aye, aye Katy”, too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oops, did a premature ‘send’ there… Been studying this photo of your bee yard near Ian’s place and wondering about equipment… So, you were doing mostly single brood-chamber hives here, I think? But was really admiring those built-in(on) heavy duty handles for picking up the honey supers (a great idea: ) and the extra entrance holes built in to your lids for good ventilation (and leads right back to your Dad’s advise about moisture being the enemy: ) And (totally gonna state the obvious here; ) good circulation means no condensation/low moisture levels in the hive; which also means no over-heating and easier honey development in the summer; plus, with such a great location, high & dry hives don’t tend to get sick/ can handle their own environment better. Don’t suppose you’d recall whether those overhanging branches in the photo belong to Balsam Poplar(Cottonwood) trees, would you? Really can’t beat a handy source of propolis to help maintain a healthy bee yard either, hey?; )

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        You have a keen eye, as a beekeeper should.

        This was a comb-honey yard. The were only single-storey from about July 10 to August 20 when the doubles were crowded down to singles and comb honey supers were added. The entrances in the lids were for both ventilation and easier access for the bees so that they were less likely to track their dirty boots across white comb cells. The hand-grips were on all our equipment. It re-enforces the weakest part of the box (the rabbet-joint where the frames rest) and certainly make it easier for a beekeeper to lift and carry a couple hundred boxes a day. Finally, those were some sort of poplar, probably Walker poplar, a popular poplar.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh and about that keen eye of mine… I probably spent more time on my hands and knees as a kid than on my my feet, with eyes glued on the endlessly fascinating micro-world we merely walk on as adults… ; )

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Sounds like a squandered childhood. Imagine how much screen time you could have had!

        Liked by 1 person

      • HaHaHa! (LOVE Lichen; )


  2. Rich Wieske says:

    Good Morning Ron I had the pleasure of hearing you talk at Apimondia great job. I’ve had a very similar experience with the polystyrene hives and love how well the clusters do in the spring, they also seem to have a lot less stress in the summer. My only issue here in Detroit is the ANTS, which also seem to love how warm and cuddly they can get inside the polystyrene. I/ve tried spraying with a mixture of cinnamon and also soapy water and alcohol directly on the ants. But most of the yards i have used the polystyrene hives in are only seen every 2 two to three weeks and the ants move right back in and seem to have a great time, Any thoughts on what best to do to stop the ants,? Oil is problematic for the legs 90% of my hives are on cinder blocks

    Rich Wieske

    (\ -({{{8- (/


    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi Rich,

      Glad you made it up to Apimondia and thanks for the kind remarks on my presentation. I got a lot of value out of the conference, the speakers, the exhibits. It was a great event.

      I’ve seen a trivial number of ants here in Calgary but none have chosen to make my hives their home. I’m afraid that your best natural defence may require that you place your hives on stands. Lot of work, but maybe the best option in the long run.

      Thanks for reading this blog,


  3. Etienne says:

    Good write up… On the fixed bottom board/1st brood box, they are held together by 6 screws…. I almost destroyed mine trying to get them apart thinking it was the paint holding them together. I finally checked underneath and noticed the screws… I’m having mixed results up in the Yukon. I got the top feeder with the kit and it keeps filling with condensation. Our summer early mornings typically drop between 0 to 5C with daily highs of 20 to 25C. This is my 1st season using this type of hive. I like my other brand of polys better so far. I found that every model has pros and cons… I’ve got my 2 winter setups outfitted with temp and humidity sensors to better understand how the bees really cluster/behave under cold climates. I use an empty medium to fit in 3 x 2″ R10 Styrofoam in addition to the top cover with no top entrance. I missed you at Apimondia 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi Etienne,

      I saw the screws and considered taking them out, but didn’t. I should have. You have a good point regarding differences in manufacturer. I should have mentioned that.

      I really appreciated your talk on ‘Adaptive beekeeping in the far north.’ It was a really good talk. I was thinking that I’d like to learn more about how you are using the data collected in hives. Seems like a very ambitious project. Thanks for presenting.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Etienne says:

        Hi Ron, I will be sharing and putting out material on my data collection. One of the question is to prove with data that top entrances actually cause more condensation potential and heat loss than setup without them (in well insulated and sealed hives) with a bottom entrance and open draft protected screened bottom board. For example, just 2 days ago I installed a 2″ XPS like styro (foil side down) insert in a medium above a single brood box with an insulated slatted rack to give the bees a bit of room below and prevent drafts. This single action increased internal temps over the last 48hrs from 20C to 27C and dropped the RH% from 60 to 50%. The upper area of the hive with a R30 roof never reaches the dew point. I have 1 T sensor along both side walls to measure if the bees ever actual go into full cluster or not. Most of the research I’ve read have basic wooden hives in refrigerated enclosures, therefore fully exposed to the cold.
        (Sorry for the long post – as you could tell I can talk bees for hours on end)
        Here is a link to my hive monitoring write-up that I will be expanding on as the winter progresses.


  4. Emily Scott says:

    I’m using poly hives this year too, especially poly nucs. They are cheaper over here than buying pre-made wooden hives.

    My only worry with them is that to properly clean them you’re supposed to submerge them completely in a bleach solution – I have no container big enough for that! Whereas wooden hives can be blowtorched. Our local bee inspector has raised concerns about what would happen if AFB was diagnosed in one of these poly hives, usually the hives would be burned but that’s not possible with a poly hive. Do you know what’s recommended for cleaning poly hives in Canada? Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Wow, that’s a great question and a real concern, Emily. I don’t have an answer.
      Does anyone know how to dispose of a poly-hive if it has held an AFB-infected hive?


      • Etienne says:

        Here is the instructions for cleaning on my other poly hives – “Polystyrene does not rot, wrap or absorb moisture. Therefore the maintenance of the hive is minimal and the first painting will last for tens of years. Parts soiled by bees can be washed gently by hand, or with a steam washer. Careful steam washing will remove almost all pathogens. If the bee colonies have had major problems with bee diseases the boxes can be disinfected by washing them with a 4 % solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH). The same can be achieved by washing the hive parts with a solution of dishwasher detergent powder. A solution of one tablet in 5 litres of water is of appropriate strength. Virkon S is a disinfectant widely used in Europe. A 2 % solution of this disinfectant will kill all bacteria and spores of bee diseases when sprayed on pre-cleaned hive surfaces. Virkon S is biologically degradable and is not harmful to bees. The active ingredients are among others potassium monopersulfate 50% and organic acids.”
        I use the vinegar when I pull boxes out before storage or after winter where I found evidence of Nosema. Seems to work…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Thanks! That’s a thorough explanation that even Emily’s inspector should like!


  5. Speaking of getting ready for Winter, Ron… While I was taught that you always leave enough honey in the hive/brood chamber for Winter stores, more and more I hear of people feeding sugar syrup in the Fall… Wondering what your opinion is on the subject?


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