Wrapping a feral colony for winter

This past spring, in a remote little outpost in the high desert of Oregon, a feral swarm of honey bees decided to nest. They chose a massive cottonwood adjacent to a popular campground and hung their combs from its aging limbs. With no protection other than a nearby garage and a canopy of leaves, the bees spent the summer raising brood, expanding their nest, and ignoring the flux of campers playing on the Deschutes River.

But as fall approached, the property owner began to wonder about the coming winter. Would the colony be able to survive a central Oregon winter with no protection from the elements? It didn’t seem likely.

In mid-September, the homeowner asked his friends, Rob Deez and Alicia Taylor of Smudgie Goose Farm, to look at the colony. Can it survive? Enthralled by its beauty but unable to say, they in turn contacted beekeepers Larry and Naomi Price and asked them to have a look.

A few days later, Naomi and Larry arrived at the scene with a truckload of tools ready to remove the bees. But after one glance at the fully-exposed colony, they scrapped their initial plan and several alternatives as well. In the end, they covered the colony with a tarp to protect it from the expected rain.

Back home, Naomi contacted Dewey Caron (author of the popular textbook Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping) and asked for advice. Dr. Caron came up with several suggestions:

  • Cut the combs from the tree and tie them into frames
  • Cut out the piece of tree they are clinging to and put the whole thing in a box
  • Leave them alone, but improve their chances by providing some rain and wind protection

After hours of discussion during the next three days, the four of them—Alicia, Rob, Larry, and Naomi—came up with an ingenious plan. They agreed it was too late in the year to cut the combs and expect the bees to patch things together. So instead, they elected to provide a temporarily shelter to help the colony survive the winter.

Using electric-fence wire, they planned to construct a framework that would support a multilayered canopy of canvas, insulation, and waterproofing. Once the colony was covered, it would be on its own till spring.

The plan proceeded without a hitch, and the Maupin, Oregon colony is now tucked in for winter. In the following series of photographs, taken by Naomi Price and Shannon Taylor, you can see the story unfold. If the colony survives the winter, it will be removed to Smudgie Goose Farm in Prineville to be used as an educational tool. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for the bees.


Click on any photo for slides and captions.

How do honey bees keep their hive warm?

Honey bees do not heat their hives the way we heat our homes. Instead, they concentrate on keeping the cluster warm by vibrating their flight muscles. The center of the cluster is the warmest part of the hive, and the temperature drops as you move out from the center.

The interior of the hive is warmer than the outside air because heat escapes from the cluster and the hive itself offers a small amount of insulation. But the bees do not attempt to keep the entire space warm. In fact, the air inside the hive can be quite cold.

Because hot air rises, the warmest place outside of the cluster is right above the cluster. A beekeeper can help keep the hive slightly warmer by placing insulation above the cluster to capture some of this escaping heat.

Bill’s hive temperature experiment

In order to help explain this phenomenon to new beekeepers, Bill Reynolds of Minnesota decided to monitor the temperature inside his hives as the colonies plunged into winter. According to Bill, he purchased an inexpensive desktop weather forecasting station with three remote wireless sensors for his project. He used a fourth sensor to monitor the ambient outside air.

The weather cooperated for his experiment. Bill says, “Here in Minnesota we are experiencing bone-chilling temps around zero each morning and mid-twenties, if we are lucky, by noon.”

Bill set up three hives, each with three deeps topped with a quilt box. One hive contained a colony of Carniolans, one a colony of mutts, and one was empty. In each hive he centered the sensor over the third deep but under the quilt box. He did not attempt to place the sensors at the core of the clusters. During the measurement period, the clusters were two deep hive bodies below the sensors.

The hives were not wrapped. All three setups were on the south side of a house with a straw-bale wall blocking northwest winds. According to Bill, “Other than the sensors, there is nothing different between these hives and any other hive one would find in a backyard.”

Partway through the experiment, Bill began recording separate readings for the outside air and empty hive. He made this change because he noticed that the temperatures increased and decreased at different rates inside the empty hive and outside of it. It became apparent that the wooden boxes themselves influenced temperature fluctuations.

Warmer inside, but only slightly

The graph below shows temperature readings for each sensor. It is quite clear from this simple experiment that temperatures inside the active hives rose and fell with the outside temperature, but overall the inside remained warmer than the outside. But far from being cozy, the inside temperatures dropped down into the 30s on the coldest days. It is interesting to see that the two colonies were very consistent with each other, rising and falling in tandem.

It also became clear that the interior of the empty hive box was somwhat warmer than the outside air. I suspect a combination of sun and minimum air movement through the boxes increased the temperature slightly.

Thank you, Bill, for your experiment and awesome graph. Nicely done!


Graph showing the temperatures inside the three hives, and beginning November 15, outside the hives.
Graph showing the temperatures inside the three hives, and beginning November 15, outside the hives. © Bill Reynolds.

The two populated hives in a warmer time. © Bill Reynolds.
The two populated hives in a warmer time. © Bill Reynolds.

It’s what’s for dinner

When we think of honey bee mortality, we tend to think of pesticides, mites, Nosema, viruses, lack of forage, poor nutrition, and migratory stress. Indeed, these are serious factors, each capable of taking out an individual bee, a whole colony, or an entire apiary.

Hives may be ravaged by bears, raccoons, and skunks. Even lizards, frogs, and snakes have been known to stalk a hive in hopes of a meal.

For the individual bee, the list of perils is endless. A bee on a foraging trip can be hit by a car, eaten by a bird, ground up by a lawn mower, macerated with a pressure washer, or swallowed by a dog. If the bee is lucky enough to make it to a flower, she has to contend with predators such as yellowjackets and beewolves, which will sting a victim and carry it home to feed its young. Praying mantids and dragonflies love bee tenders and will have some for dinner and more for dessert.

Also out there are ambush bugs and assassin bugs many of which inject their prey with digestive juices before they suck out the innards. And don’t forget the robber flies that attack, subdue, and eat their prey in a similar way.

Spiders also cause their share of damage. The orb weavers build large and intricate webs to entangle the hapless bees, and the so-called ambush spiders wait motionless and camouflaged for the next meal to wander by. Ambush spiders like the “flower spiders” or “crab spiders” often take a bite of the soft tissue between head and thorax to subdue their victims.

Of course, just like lawn mowers, cars, and pressure washers, most of these predators are not too picky. They will often eat anything they can catch, so bees make up only a small part of their diet. Still, if you are the bee that gets snatched up, it’s a big deal to you.

I’ve sorted through some of my photos and made a little gallery of crab spiders. If you are interested in taking a peek, the page is called “Bee fwellington.”


A taylor-made feeder

Beekeepers are creative folks and I always learn something from their ingenious inventions. The feeder below came from Roger Taylor in Gallatin, Tennessee. This feeder is designed to be used with either pollen patties or sugar patties. The bees have the option of climbing through the hardware cloth or crawling over the ends, which means large patties or sheets of fondant won’t block their passage. I asked Roger for details, and this is what he wrote:

The feeder is 16 ¼ inches wide by 19 78 inches long by 3 ½ inches high, and cut from ¾-inch pine. The screen is 19 gauge by ½-inch. The wood cross braces are ¾ inch by 1 inch by 14 ¾ inches long and are placed 3 ½ inches from the outside edge of the box and 18 inch up from the bottom of the box.

The screen is a 12-by-16 inch piece with the ends bent up and stapled to the side of the box, and the screen sides are stapled to the bottom of the cross braces. The top of the box has a ½-inch deep by 1-inch wide entrance for the bees to go in and out.

Six 18-inch by 2-inch trim nails placed ¾ inch from the top of the box support a piece of 58-inch fiber board for moisture control. Fiber board can be purchased at Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can use the box to feed pollen patties or sugar patties or use a pan or tray of various sizes to feed syrup.

Thanks Roger! Very nice.

A pollen patty feast in a homemade feeder. The feeder can also be used for sugar cakes or fondant. © Roger Taylor.
Roger is using a division board feeder for syrup (L) and the hive-top feeder for pollen. You can also see the upper entrance at the front of the hive. © Roger Taylor.
The nails in the sides support a piece of moisture board to control condensation. © Roger Taylor.
Roger with his bees.
From the front (L) and side (R) the feeder looks like any small super or eke. © Roger Taylor.

Bee size, mites, and pesticides

Many beekeepers are convinced that raising smaller, natural-sized bees is the answer to controlling Varroa mites. According to one theory, smaller bees mature faster—in about 19 days instead of 21. This shorter cycle means there is less time for the offspring of a Varroa mite to mature and mate before the adult honey bee emerges from the capped cell. Since a female mite lays one egg every 30 hours, that would mean mites in small cells produce approximately one less mite per brood cycle.

Let’s assume small cell works

That is still a lot of mites. However, today I want to assume that small bees are so successful at controlling Varroa mites that they can be successfully-raised treatment free. If that is true, why are some beekeepers so much more successful at it than others?

I had been pondering this while reading Pollinator Protection: A Bee & Pesticide Handbook (Johansen & Mayer). The text explains that most bee poisoning results from the chance adherence of insecticide residues onto the bee’s body. Then the authors state, “Body size appears to have a direct effect on the susceptibility of bees to insecticides. As a general rule, larger bees are more tolerant of insecticides than are smaller bees. Smaller bees have a higher surface-to-volume ratio and are more susceptible.”

Surface area-to-volume ratio

The surface area-to-volume ratio of similar-shaped objects changes with the overall size. Given a constant shape, the surface area-to-volume ratio will decrease as the shape gets bigger, and increase as the shape gets smaller. That means that a smaller bee has a lot more surface area to pick up a poison compared to its overall body size.

In this case, the authors compared leafcutting bees, alkali bees, honey bees, and bumble bees and they actually measured the surface area-to-volume ratios. Sure enough, leafcutting bees are more susceptible than alkali bees which are more susceptible than honey bees which are more susceptible than bumble bees in a field of treated blooms. As the authors say, “Smaller insects require less chemical to kill them.”

Are small honey bees more susceptible?

This study did not compare small honey bees with large ones, but it begs the question: Are small honey bees more susceptible to insecticides than larger ones? If so, then perhaps small cell bees living in areas with few pesticides do better than small cell bees in areas with lots of pesticides. Maybe it answers the question of why some beekeepers are more successful with small cell than others. Factors other than Varroa mites need to be considered.

I am not drawing any conclusions here—not a single one—I’m only posing some questions. But you can’t take one factor, for example small cell size, and say it is better or worse for bees without examining all possible ramifications. Surely you can argue that bees evolved over millions of years with a smaller cell size, but you could also argue that bees did not evolve along with commercial pesticides. So maybe the larger size helps?

So with no other agenda, I simply pass this query on to you, so that in the wee hours of a cold winter’s night, you have something to ponder.