Keep honey bees dry and draft free

After writing a post about upper entrances in winter, I received a lot of mail from beekeepers who insisted that an upper entrance in winter would place the colony at risk of freezing. My own experience with upper ventilation has been the exact opposite, and my colonies have thrived since I began using upper ventilation combined with a moisture quilt. Nevertheless, I decided I should consult other sources.

In Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (2013) Caron and Connor explain:

Colonies can survive very well without elaborate wintering preparations by the beekeeper as long as the bees are protected from winter winds and they are able to vent excess moisture. . . . Beekeepers should provide upward ventilation in every hive during the winter . . . An alternative is to place a wooden shim, carpet tack or stick in one of the corners at the top of the hive. Some beekeepers prefer to drill holes in hive bodies or use spacers or inner covers designed to allow air ventilation.

Beekeeping in Western Canada, published by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (1998), puts it this way:

An upper entrance is an important requirement for successful outdoor wintering. The colony cluster gives off water vapour as it respires, which rises to the top of the hive and must be allowed to escape.

A passage in The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015) is equally emphatic:

Thus, beekeepers in cold climates must provide an upper entrance to allow water to evaporate out of the hive by drilling a hole in the box or providing an inner cover with an opening in the rim.

In The Beekeeper’s Handbook (1998), Sammataro and Avitabile insist the winter survival depends on a number of items, including

“An upper entrance for winter/spring cleansing flight” and “Top ventilation to release moist air.”

Bees rarely die of cold

Although it is written in many texts and papers, beekeepers tend to forget that bees are extremely well adapted to staying warm in winter. Contrary to popular thought, they do not keep their entire hive warm in the way a human keeps a house warm, instead they only keep the cluster warm. This is aided to some extent by the structure of the hive, but even open-air colonies can survive a moderately cold winter if they can stay dry and out of the wind.

In chapter 21 of The Hive and the Honey Bee, Currie, Spivak, and Reuter report that a cluster of 16,000 bees can survive -112°F (-80°C) for 12 hours. That is an amazing feat, but to succeed at those temperatures, the cluster must be dry and free of drafts.

This phenomenon is easy to reproduce. Just go outside wearing your regular clothes on a 40°F day (4°C) for 15 minutes. Then try it again wearing the same clothes doused with water. Evaporation is a cooling process. When the water on your skin evaporates, it makes you cold. It will evaporate even faster in the wind, which makes you even colder.

Finding a compromise

Dry bees can withstand extremely cold temperatures, but as they say, a wet bee is a dead bee. So your priority for wintering bees should be to keep them dry and out of the wind. Yes, ventilation provides some amount of air movement through the hive, but there is a give and take between too much and not enough. The trick is to find the sweet spot in the middle.

My enthusiasm for moisture quilts is partly due to this give and take. The moist air moves through the wood chips, condenses on the inside of the lid, and rains down on the chips. The chips collect the moisture and then dry slowly. They dry because the space above the chips is vented to the outside. Once dry, they are ready to collect again. And since the air going through the chips does not have a straight-line path—it must wend its way between chips—there is very little draft inside the hive.

Bumble bees can do it too

The amazing ability of honey bees to keep their nest warm is shared by other bee species as well. In A Sting in the Tale (2013), Dave Goulson describes how he had to destroy a colony of bumble bees because they were brought into his country for research only and could not be released. He decided that freezing them would be the most humane way to kill them, so he put the entire colony in a freezer at -30°C (-22°F). He writes:

The next day I came back to find the colony very much alive and buzzing loudly; the workers had gathered into a tight clump over the brood and were presumably shivering at maximum capacity. The queen was hidden in their centre, and seemed quite unperturbed.

A convenient opening

As I mentioned in my previous post, An upper entrance in winter, before this year I never used an upper entrance, only a number of ventilation ports above the wood chips. This worked fine, but this year I added an Imirie shim with an entrance just below the candy board.

All of my colonies have taken a shine to this opening, peeking out of it on cold days and flying out on warm ones. In fact, the bees in all my hives seem to have abandoned the lower entrances altogether. I wondered about this, but realized that part of the attraction may simply be that it is close. As winter progresses, the cluster moves up. How much easier it is to exit through the top, than to go down three stories and exit through the bottom?

Of course, there may be more to it than that, and it will be interesting to see what they do as the winter warms into spring.

Honey Bee Suite

How I came to have a camo bee suit

Yes, I really do have a camouflage bee suit. It wasn’t an idea that came to me fully formed, but one that evolved piecemeal.

Over the past several years I’ve had frequent encounters with camouflage. The most embarrassing one occurred in 2009 when I was in graduate school at The Evergreen State College. The school is not far from my home, and by using a shortcut through the state forest, I can cover the distance in about 30 minutes, assuming all the trees are still standing.

No way home

On this particular day, we had torrential rains and the local roads were flooded. After class, I got as far as the local post office—a tiny dilapidated trailer that sits alongside a crusty old church—but I couldn’t go any further. It was 10 pm, dark as pitch, and Waddell Creek cascaded over the asphalt. I called home and my husband tried various routes, but he couldn’t find a way either. It was truly a case of “I can’t get there from here.”

Camo day at school
Off to class in my friend’s boyfriend’s rain gear. © Rich Davis.

I called my friend, the assistant postmaster, and she put me up for the night. The problem was that I had a mandatory field trip the next morning and I couldn’t get home before then. I had no clean clothes, no toothbrush, and no way to stay dry in the field. Ever the gentleman, my friend’s other loaned me his brand new, never-been-worn camo rain gear—straight from Cabelas.

Off to class

Bright and early the next morning, off I went to join my classmates and examine the biodiversity of urban forests. It was excruciating. All day long the guys, big handsome rogues half my age, would walk straight into me, nearly knocking me over. “Oh, Rusty! Sorry, I didn’t see you standing there!” At each new stop, the professor would do a head count, then solemnly pronounce, “We seem to be missing someone.” It was a long, long day.

By the end, I never wanted to see camo again. But as things happen, my daughter soon paid a visit and brought me a cache of BDUs she had leftover from her army days. They reminded her too much of Iraq, but they were perfectly good, so she thought I might want them for gardening.

From rain gear to BDUs

It turns out that, with a dirty job on the agenda, they were great. And so many pockets! I love pockets. I began wearing them for more and more things. And then, one day, I started wearing them for tending bees.

I’d always assumed that, being dark-colored, the camo would upset the bees. But they didn’t seem to mind . . . like maybe they didn’t see me either? And my regular bee suits were so gross—with  parallel lines of propolis permanently etched across my hips—that I was happy to have an alternative. Camo barely shows anything.

Then one day I went to the dump, stood in the back of my pickup, and with great ceremony, tossed my old suits into the void below. It was liberating. My suits were so worn and loose they attracted more bees than they repelled. Still, I would need a full suit for those days when I felt like a target.

A camo bee suit from England

My camo bee suit by Natural Apiary. © Rich Davis.

I had decided to try a suit from Natural Apiary. I liked the description, the customer comments, and the fact they had colors, and I especially liked the price. I was planning on the green one, figuring it wouldn’t look quite as bad as white when scored with parallel lines and bee poop. I was just about to hit the “place order” button when a sudden inexplicable urge guided my hand to the camouflage option. I hit that, then ordered.

Afterward, I struggled with this. Was I entirely crazy? Well, yes. Would it be hot in the summer? Of course. Would other beekeepers think I was fried? Yes, but they do anyway. I decided to live with it.

Two days later my suit arrived. I loved it! I wanted to wear it to dinner. It was described as having eight pockets, but it actually has ten if you count the ones on the sleeves, and it fits better than any suit I’ve had before. It has all the creature features of a good suit, and just think: my “mortified of bees” neighbors won’t even see me out there!

The trouble with pockets

The second day I wore it, though, I had a problem. Remember all those pockets? Big, deep pockets? Well, I dropped my keys in one and forgot about them. At the end of the day, I hung my prized suit in the garden shed, locked up for the evening, and forgot about the keys until the next day when it was time to let the chickens out of their coop.

I live in the woods along with all kinds of things that are not conducive to hen health, things like foxes, owls, weasels, and ermines. So we lock down the birds at night. But as soon as I went to release them the next morning, I remembered my keys in the pocket of my new bee suit, which was safely looked in the shed where I couldn’t get them. The chickens squawked a fright and I couldn’t bear to leave them incarcerated all day.

To the rescue

The chicken coop has two doors. One for humans and one on the opposite end appropriately sized for chickens. Once the chickens exit, they go down a ramp and through a wire tunnel that leads across a corner of the vegetable garden and through a second appropriately-sized entrance into their own yard.

To open their door from the outside, I would have to go through this second “appropriately-sized” entrance. It went like this:

  1. Wear BDUs
  2. Ignore rain and hail
  3. Lay face down in 16 years worth of chicken s–t
  4. Pull self through 12” x 16” wire opening
  5. While laying on stomach, reach through tunnel and pry wooden door with crow bar (which I actually remembered to bring)
  6. Say “good morning” to chickens
  7. Pull self back through the 16 years worth
  8. Injure both hands on the way out
  9. Write about experience
  10. Clean blood from keyboard

That was yesterday. Today my right hand is bruised and swollen but I can still type. I have my keys. The chickens are happy. I haven’t figured out what to do with all those extra bees, but I’m still in love with my camo bee suit.

Honey Bee Suite

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A hive population wake-up call

Overwintered colonies that starve usually do so in early spring, just before the first nectar flows. In the northern climates, colonies may starve as late as April, even though everything appears green and lush.

Part of the reason is that many pollen plants bloom before nectar plants. Here in the Pacific Northwest, red alders flower early and sprinkle butter-hued drifts of pollen on car windshields and picnic tables. But pollen isn’t nectar and it doesn’t provide the sugar fix the honey bees need. Nectar-producing flowers may not appear for several weeks after those first dustings of pollen.

Then too, some of the earliest nectar supplies may be unavailable to honey bees due to inclement weather. To use another local example, big-leaf maples provide buckets of early nectar (and to-die-for honey) but in most years it is lost to spring rains that keep the honey bees inside. They can only look out their windows and sigh.

Consumption goes up while supplies go down

Aside from the weather, the annual life cycle of a honey bee colony puts it at risk of spring starvation. In the northern hemisphere, most colonies have plenty of food from the end of summer through December. During that period, the colony continues to shrink, brood rearing slows or stops altogether, and without brood, the colony keeps the nest cooler, at around 68°F (20°C). All of these factors reduce the daily food requirement.

But in the weeks following the winter solstice, the colony slowly reverses itself. Brood rearing begins again, and with brood rearing comes the need to keep the nest warmer, at around 93°F (34°C), give or take. On warmish days, the bees may venture out for cleansing flights, and flying bees use more fuel than clustering bees. On really warm days, they may actually attempt foraging, an activity that expends even more fuel.

Slowly at first, the hive population increases. Within weeks, the population gains momentum, and before you know it, there are many more mouths to feed. The food supply gets used up faster and faster as the supply gets lower and lower. It is easy to breathe a sigh of relief on that first April morning when you see your bees flowing out of the hive and playing in the sunshine. But depending on your local area, some of those colonies may not live to see May Day.

This year I took the unusual step of providing candy boards to all my colonies. Normally, I only supply them to colonies that lack sufficient honey stores. But after our unusually long, dry summer and parched autumn, I decided it was safer to feed everyone. With the candy boards in place, I relaxed. Bad move.

The population problem

It turns out that last Monday was a wake-up call for me. The weather was a balmy 55°F (13°C) with no rain, so I inspected every hive. What I found floored me.

My colonies are out of control. If I didn’t know it was January, I would have guessed it was May. My doubles have bees covering all twenty frames. My triples have bees covering 25 frames. Bees oozed from every seam, even along the sides. A few of the candy boards have golf ball-sized lumps of sugar remaining.

At first blush, you may think this is a good thing, but my immediate thought was, “How the heck can I keep these bees alive till spring?” In truth, I don’t know if I can. We still have two or maybe three months to get through and I’ve got about three times more bees than I had in October. Although I’ve seen this happen in the past, it was always an isolated hive or two, never an entire apiary.

Bad weather or bad management?

My first thought was to blame the weather. Okay, the weather is weird. Early in the winter we had a cold-snap that lasted about two weeks, but since then it has been warm—lots of days in the forties and even the fifties. The warm days could easily cause an early population increase.

On the other hand, I put pollen supplement in the candy boards. Normally, if I use pollen supplement at all, I don’t offer it until after the solstice. But this year, due to a poor foraging season, I put the boards on a month early. That may have been my big mistake: too much pollen too soon. I had buried the pollen patty inside the sugar, thinking that they wouldn’t get to it right away, but they excavated passages to it immediately.

Considering the alternatives

So now what? When I knock on the individual boxes, some sound dense, as though they may still contain honey. Since it’s warm, I can go in and rearrange the remaining honey frames, making sure they are above or immediately beside the cluster—except they aren’t in clusters, they are teeming mobs. Or I can go buy a pickup load of sugar, something that doesn’t appeal to me in the least. I’m still undecided.

I have to say, tiny clusters in winter worry me, but this worries me even more. I wonder where to go from here.

Honey Bee Suite

Too early for spring
Spring is still months away. Public domain photo.

So you want to be treatment free

My last two posts about Varroa mites led into a discussion of treatment-free beekeeping, a place I didn’t want to go.

The truth is, I would love to see everyone become treatment free. But at the same time, I do not want to extinguish the fire, the passion, and the fascination that newcomers have with their honey bees. The conflict arises because many folks, especially those newbees, don’t have the knowledge to begin treatment free properly. Almost without exception, their colonies die. The following year they buy more bees, and they die as well. Many give up after two or three years of loss.

Why treatment free so often fails

I’ve been writing my entire life, but if I had five more lifetimes to explain why treatment-free beekeepers so often fail, I couldn’t say it better than Randy Oliver did in a few short paragraphs. Even if you are not interested in raising your own queens, go back and read the introduction to Randy’s article called “Queens for Pennies.” The first sub-head, “But First a Rant” explains the treatment-free conundrum in a nutshell.

As Randy so plainly states, the package bees we buy from large commercial producers are raised to perform in certain ways. They are usually good honey producers, they are often gentle, and they will overwinter if managed properly. But they are not treatment-free stock. They have been raised in a treated environment, and once you take that away, they will most likely die—if not in the first year, then in the second.

In my opinion, purchasing livestock that needs care, and then withholding that care, is animal abuse. I believe it is ethically and morally wrong to watch something die just because you want to call yourself “treatment free,” and I think some folks are more interested in wearing the label than in succeeding. “Treatment free” is not a badge of honor if everything around you dies.

The gold standard

Treatment free is the gold standard we all want to attain. But to succeed at treatment free, you need experience, basic knowledge of honey bee genetics, and stock that has potential. Moreover, you need a plan. If you don’t have a plan, if you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there, you will spend your time raising mites instead of bees. We’ve all seen it happen. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Many new beekeepers want to start treatment free without any knowledge or skill whatsoever. Some are into it before they’ve ever lit a smoker or inspected a hive. You can’t race an Indy car before you learn to drive, and you can’t land a triple loop if you don’t know how to skate. Likewise, you can’t improve honey bees if you don’t know how they work.

Pay your dues

In Chapter 21 of the 2015 edition of The Hive and the Honey Bee, authors Currie, Spivak and Reuter say it well:

New beekeepers should first focus on learning best management practices and later, with experience, focus on the nuances of bee genetics.

It’s no exaggeration that I’ve talked to so-called treatment-free beekeepers who don’t know the first thing about bee biology. I even met a self-described “breeder” this past summer who had never heard of a diploid drone. Whoops. It’s not hard to make yourself look ridiculous. So get real. Pay your dues. Learn about bees and mites before you try to change them.

Evaluate your apiary

Then too, be sure to evaluate your local area. If your home-town bee club is importing hundreds of packages every spring, you have a long row to hoe. Trying to influence the gene pool in an area that is constantly deluged with commercial stock will require some serious management, if it’s possible at all. Consider finding a better place to keep your bees.

And be realistic about how many colonies you can effectively manage. You can’t have a treatment-free program with only two or three colonies. If you think you can, go back and study the effects of polyandry and haplodiploidy on honey bee inheritance. It’s a numbers game, and with a small colony count, the numbers are not on your side. Perhaps you would be better off forming a group of like-minded individuals and pooling your resources.

The thing is, there are ways to succeed at treatment free, but you need mindfulness. You need a plan. You need some education. Trying to “save the bees” by letting them all die, is not an auspicious beginning.

Science without politics

My own education is in agronomy (the science of soil management and crop production) and environmental science. I try to use that knowledge to teach others about bees (both native and not) without a particular agenda. I simply believe that the more we know, the better we can understand the nuances, the alternatives, and the consequences. After that, what you do and how you do it is entirely up to you.

Honey Bee Suite

Are we obsessed with Varroa mites?

Those treasured folks who comment on my site often force me to re-visit an issue. Sometimes they alter my thinking, sometimes they reinforce it, and sometimes they send me in new directions. The careful re-inspection of an issue can be both illuminating and humbling.

In an earlier post called “Absconding bees or death by Varroa?,” I wrote that “I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites.”  A beekeeper named Bryan responded with the following observation:

I have no problem placing blame on Varroa if that is the cause. However, the obsession with [this parasite] needs to stop. Bees are supposed to be the obsession. Varroa cannot drown out all other conversations. Beekeepers dismiss being told it’s Varroa because they are told it’s Varroa nearly every time they bring up a loss. A continued conversation becomes a broken record. Club presentations and discussions are infested with this myopic view. . . .

Though it is a problem, I don`t like seeing it portrayed as THE problem.

Whoa! This caught me up short. Bryan’s perspective is drastically different from my own, but I immediately realized that the amount of emphasis given to Varroa could vary wildly depending on your club, your reading material, and those beekeepers you associate with.

My own myopic view

I agree that honey bees should be the main attraction and that discussions of Varroa should not preempt all other conversations. But I find that beekeepers—especially newer ones—tend to sweep the discussion of Varroa under the table. Most beekeeping books list Varroa destructor as an “also ran,” usually buried in a section that lists other parasites and diseases. If anything, I think meaningful discussions of Varroa are lacking.

In my view, the most overworked topics are feeding and swarming. Seriously, how many different ways can you explain how to make 1:1 syrup? How many times can you explain why honey bees swarm? It’s mind numbing, but beekeepers need to know these things so it is logical that they ask.

Truth be told, I often worry that I don’t say enough about Varroa mites. Furthermore, I believe Varroa is the problem, and I think most people who kept honey bees before Varroa would agree.

Finding the true culprit

The point of my previous post was that collapse by Varroa is often mistaken for absconding. But Varroa mites—or more accurately, the diseases they carry—are responsible for a wide array of maladies that are often mistaken for something else. When we don’t see physical evidence of mites—that is, when they are not parading across the bottom board with flags and banners—we tend to blame the something else, whether that something else be absconding, queen failure, starvation, cold, moisture, Nosema, or yellowjackets.

Although they exist, none of these other ailments is as common as infection by Varroa. Bryan observes that, “Beekeepers dismiss being told it’s Varroa because they are told it’s Varroa nearly every time they bring up a loss.” That dismissal is sad because, most likely, it is Varroa that caused their loss. If the answer is dismissed, the problem will not go away. If that beekeeper doesn’t change his management methods, the same will occur again.

Two for the price of one

As I’ve said in previous posts, every beekeeper is also a mitekeeper, and the second most important thing a beekeeper can learn after honey bee biology is Varroa destructor biology. Once you understand those two things, you are ready to become a successful keeper of the bees.

At that point, you will also be ready to decide how to handle the mites—whether you will use commercial methods, so-called natural treatments, or start your own breeding program. Those personal decisions are up the individual beekeeper, but they can’t be made wisely without an understanding of both honey bees and Varroa mites and how they interact.

Your opinion, please

In case I’m missing the point, I would like to hear your opinion:

  • Do beekeepers obsess needlessly about Varroa mites?
  • Does the average beekeeper know enough about mites to make good management decisions?
  • If Varroa mites are not the major problem, what is?
  • If discussions of Varroa are drowning out “other conversations,” what conversations are missing?
  • Do you want to see more or less about mites here on this site?

Thanks for anything you can share, and a special thanks to Bryan for his thoughts.

Honey Bee Suite

By Gilles San Martin from Namur, Belgium [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Varroa destructor, adult male. By Gilles San Martin from Namur, Belgium [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons