Tuesday January 08, 2013 | 09:25 AM

My hives wrapped and strapped for overwintering.

Phil Gaven and his wife Meghan own The Honey Exchange, a shop in Portland carrying beekeeping equipment and products derived from the hive.  Last year, Phil became an Eastern Apicultural Society Certified Master Beekeeper.

Winter survival of a honeybee colony depends on a healthy queen and large population of bees heading into winter with an adequate supply of honey in the hive. I’ve heard from a few experienced beekeepers in Maine who suspect starvation is the primary cause of the loss of a colony coming out of winter in the past. Based on your own beekeeping practice and what you hear from customers, what has been your experience when it comes to why a colony you thought was strong in the fall didn’t make it through the winter?


Winter survival in Maine requires a delicate balance.  A vigorous queen and a healthy store of honey are essential and the population must be big enough without being too big.  A healthy fall population is required to return fall nectar and pollen to the hive and the winter cluster must be large enough to warm itself on the coldest of days.  Unfortunately, some colonies (especially with southern queens that aren’t “winter hardy”) a too-big fall population can result in rapid depletion of honey stores.  True starvation, where a hive runs completely out of food stores, is an occasional cause for loss of a colony but hardly the most common.  More commonly a dead-out hive will be found with a cluster of bees surrounded by a few inches of empty comb and a large supply of remaining honey.  In these cases, starvation is the ultimate cause of death but the underlying cause was a too-small population.  This is most commonly due to high Varroa mite loads in the winter cluster and/or the many viral diseases associated with Varroa.  


I just had to purchase some ready-made fondant (emergency food, also known as sugar candy) from you for the stronger of my two hives. The colony I’m feeding had close to 100 pounds of honey (nearly twice the amount considered healthy) in mid-October.  Everything I’ve read indicates the colony should have been okay till February or March. When do you recommend beekeepers begin checking their wintering colonies for honey reserves? 


During the last few inspections of a season, when a beekeeper assesses a hive’s stores, one end of the hive should be hefted to establish what a heavy hive feels like.  Then, throughout the winter (maybe once a month) the hive should be hefted again to assess its weight in relation to the fall weight.  Generally hives will reduce their population and go through honey stores very slowly in the winter.  As brood rearing ramps up in February and March the hive’s weight should be monitored much more often – every week or two.



Hive with fondant.


Wrapping one’s hives with tar paper to help insulate them during Maine’s cold winters is a simple and inexpensive task. Do you know of any down side to doing it? What do you think of the idea of just painting hives darker to negate the step 


I wrap my hives with tar paper only because they are light in color.  (When I started out I painted everything yellow to match the chicken coop; yellow has since become somewhat of a trademark for The Honey Exchange and my hives.)  The insulation value of tar paper is negligible but the dark color provides solar warming that is especially beneficial in late winter as it encourages the bees to work laterally on their honey stores – if the side wall was always very cold they would avoid it.  If I were to start over again I’d paint my hives a deep color and could skip the step of wrapping the hives in the autumn.  Some people believe tarpaper helps reduce airflow between hive parts but I avoid disturbing the hive much in the late season and the bees do a good job of caulking everything up with propolis.  The most important steps for winterizing the hive are adding an absorbent cover to the top of the hive (I like homasote) and strapping the hive together.  Heavy winds can topple a hive and the strap helps hold the hive to the stand.  If the wind does get strong enough to topple the hive it can still remain intact if it’s strapped and this gives it a good chance of survival.


In the winter honeybees generate heat by clustering. They fill the spaces with comb and crawl into cells. I’ve heard this described as resembling a football in shape. Do you maintain an observation hive in a cool enough room for this effect to take place? Do you have plans to install a “winter hive” for educational purposes? 


A colony will completely cluster when the temperature surrounding the hive drops below 40 degrees or so.  The room where our observation hive lives only falls to about 50 degrees overnight so the bees still roam somewhat freely around the comb.  Even so, the colony has a distinct cluster that is noticeably warmer to the touch on the glass of the observation hive.  I would love to have the technology to install a micro camera inside an outdoor hive to see more natural winter behavior but we don’t have plans to do that in the near future.

 A photo Gaven provided of the observation hive at The Honey Exchange following the holiday weekend, when the thermostat in the store had been turned down to about 50 degrees. Gaven returned after two days to find the hive genuinely clustered.

Winter is a great time for beekeepers to continue learning about honeybees. What beekeeping books and periodicals are currently on your nightstand? 


I always look forward to the arrival of Bee Culture magazine in my mailbox – it is full of wonderful information whether one is a beginner or a beekeeper with years of experience.  In the past few winters I’ve gotten a great deal from reading Tom Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy and Jurgen Tautz’s The Buzz About Bees.  This winter I’m hoping to tackle a few books by Dr. Lawrence Connor, starting with Queen Rearing Essentials.  There is a long reading list I’d recommend but that is a pretty good tip of the iceberg.


You recently became one of Maine’s eight registered Master Beekeepers and are offering beekeeping classes for the second year in a row. If you could give a piece of advice to aspiring beekeepers what would it be?


This year there were five new Maine Master Beekeepers certified by the Eastern Apicultural Society (myself, Peter Richardson, Mark Cooper, Larry Peiffer, and Jack Hildreth.)  We joined the three EAS Master Beekeepers in Maine already – Erin Forbes, Carol Cottrill, and Rick Cooper, as well as Cindy Bee who is a certified Georgia Master Beekeeper.  I spend many hours a day giving advice to beekeepers on all manner of subjects but the one thing I try to stress more than anything is “worry less.”  Good beekeepers want to do everything we are able to do to help our bees survive.  It’s important to remember bees survived for millions of years without human help.  Admittedly, given the world we live in today most beehives can’t survive more than a year or two without human help so we do what we can, in as natural a way as possible.  With responsible stewardship, most hives will survive.  Some will die, and while that’s sad it is also the natural order of things.  I encourage beekeepers to spend the whole year getting their hives ready for winter; once winter comes it’s best to leave them alone and hope for the best. 


For more information on The Honey Exchange’s beekeeping classes visit here and for more information on the shop check out Meredith Goad’s piece here.


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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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