In this article I would like to discuss the factors in a honey bee colony that pertain to winter and early spring. How does a colony make it through the cold winter? What are some of the hazards? What can we do to help?
There are some similarities between the way the bees heat their hive and we heat our homes. There are also a lot of differences.
A major difference between bees and us is that we heat our entire house; the bees only heat the area they are in at the time. It would be like gathering your family together under a bunch of blankets on the bed to stay warm with no other heat source. You really would not care how cold the room is as long as you have enough blankets and can stay under there bundled together. I hope you brought enough food under the blankets with you!
What happens when you run out of food under the blanket? Someone will have to go get more food or you will starve. How can you do that without freezing to death? It may depend on how cold it is outside. Can everyone go and bring the blankets to keep warm or should just one person run and bring back a load of food?
Most of us heat with some kind of combustible fuel (oil, gas). This causes a large amount of air to be passed into the house to provide for burning of the fuel and exhausting of fumes. Bringing outside cold air into the warm house causes the humidity in the house to be low. If you have electric or solar heat you would actually have high humidity in the house. Bees use internally produced and moisture is produced from metabolizing honey; therefore, without ventilation their hive will have high humidity. High humidity is not good for insects in the winter. Therefore, you must be sure to leave openings for ventilation to bring in some dryer air.
Speaking of entrances, now you know you must leave an entrance. You should provide an upper and a lower entrance. You should be careful not to leave a large entrance on the bottom that would allow mice to enter the hive. Mice are a problem because they build a nest in an unprotected (by the bees) area and destroy comb and stink up the hive. So how small of a hole can a mouse fit into? I have used 3/8” entrance reducers for years and have not had a mouse go in. EXCEPT when they chewed out the reducer to make the hole bigger. They did not have to make it much bigger; in fact I think they just needed to round if off. I have now stapled a piece of 8 x 8 hardware cloth on the opening so they can’t chew it. You can use any metal you have around.
What you need to have to get a colony through winter is (in no particular order):
- Sufficient population of healthy bees
- Enough honey
- Healthy young queen
- Adequate moisture control
- Pollen stores available in late winter.