I just read this comment on Twitter. It’s such a charming image: all those little bees with their own individual quilts pulled up under their chins. So warm, so cozy. Thanks to @distracteddan for warm humor on a cold day.
Well . . . not exactly. But mention moisture quilts to a beekeeper and his creativity takes flight. Although our “quilt show” wouldn’t feature bright cotton fabrics meticulously cut and sewn, I’m sure it would be equally inspiring.
The post I wrote last year about making moisture quilts for a Langstroth hive garnered more comments than any other, and my recent post about creating a quilt for a top-bar hive re-energized the conversation.
I still haven’t made my top-bar quilt because I’ve been toying with the idea of using hardware cloth instead of canvas. The switch, I hoped, would lessen the sag that would necessarily occur in such a large expanse of fabric. On the other hand, I’m still wondering how much condensation would form on the hardware cloth itself and whether it would get absorbed by the wood chips or drip back onto the bees. In any case, I decided to support the fabric with two crossbars regardless of whether it’s cotton or metal. But in the meantime, quilt-related ideas have been pouring in.
Alternative uses for moisture quilts
One reader wrote early last year saying he used moisture quilts during the summer as ventilation ekes. He just dumps out the wood chips in spring and puts the eke upside down over the inner cover to increase ventilation. The fabric rests against the telescoping cover, but no harm done. I have tried this and it works well.
Mountain camp or else
I used mountain camp rims available from Kelley Bees for my quilt boxes, but others suggested using baggy feeders, shallow supers, or even medium supers. All these would work and I think those in colder climates might find the deeper boxes beneficial. If I were making mine over again, I would use 3-inch baggy feeder rims instead of the 2-inch mountain camp rims–or just cut them from 1″ x 3″ lumber.
The sagging saga
A number of people have been concerned that the quilt will sag in the center and press against the top bars, preventing free movement of the bees. I never experienced this problem myself because I always keep either a baggy feeder rim or Imirie shim between the brood box and the quilt. I use this space for pollen patties, grease patties, sugar cakes or whatever I need to give the bees, but it easily takes up the sag. Plus winter bees are not that into bridge comb, so it works well.
I stretched the canvas fabric as tightly as I could before stapling it in place. I found that, once it gets damp and then dries, it shrinks till it’s as tight as a tambourine. Seriously. Other readers have suggested preventing sag with wooden cross bars or foundation wire. I will probably try each of these ideas over the coming winter.
Canvassing for fabric
Beekeepers report using canvas, jute, burlap, duck, terry cloth, and denim. It sounds like you can use pretty much whatever you can find. I’m told treating the fabric with starch keeps the bees from chewing it, and I know that’s what Warré beekeepers have been doing for years. Last year I had two quilts that showed chew holes by spring. I just ripped out the fabric and stapled in a new piece . . . but you may want to try starch.
Two of the most creative ideas take quilt-making to all new levels. Bruce (or is it Dan?) of Strathcona Beekeepers designed a quilt from a homemade eke, a piece of landscape cloth, and a couple inches of wood chips. On top of that he has a wooden separator (with convenient handles) topped with Styrofoam insulation. Well, you kind of have to see it to believe it. According to the inventor, this creation is patented by the C.H.P.—Canadian Honey Police. Po . . . lice get this guy outta here.
And winning my blue ribbon for creativity beyond all reason is Navi who enlarged and screened the hole in an inner cover and put it above the brood box. On top the inner cover he put a medium super in which he inserted a polyester pillow case filled with pine needles. Then he added a ventilation eke on top of that and covered the entire thing with a telescoping cover.
And you all thought I was crazy . . .
In spite of all the winter alterations I’ve made to my Langstroth hives, I’ve never done anything to my top-bar hive. Previously, when the temperature dipped into the 20s for more than a day or two, I’ve moved it into the garden shed, a space I keep in the 40s so things don’t freeze. I don’t like this method, mostly because I need help moving the hive, but also because I have to keep monitoring the outside temperature and deciding when to move it. And when the hive is in there, I have no room.
This year I’m going to do three things to the top-bar hive to make it similar to the overwintering Langstroths:
- Add a feeder eke above the top bars
- Add a woodchip-filled quilt box above the feeder
- Add ventilation holes to the gable ends of the roof
I’ve never needed a feeder eke before because the gabled roof is hollow, which provides plenty of space above the top bars for syrup-filled baggies, sugar cakes, and pollen patties. But adding a quilt box will close access to the “attic” space, so a feeder eke below the quilt box will be necessary if I want to feed.
Since the hive is large (approximately 36 inches by 20 inches) I am going to add two cross pieces on the inside of both the eke and the moisture quilt so they don’t fold into parallelograms.
The thing I haven’t figured out is how to keep the hive aligned when the finished parts are stacked in place. The roof is telescoping, but when you put a telescoping roof over a shallow eke, it gets kind of squirrelly and slides out of place easily. With two shallow ekes below it, it will be even worse.
I’ve thought of using a hook and eye on each end of the roof, but I don’t know if they come long enough to reach from the roof to the hive body. I’ve also thought of using a tie-down. It’s the raccoons and possums that are most likely to knock the roof off—and there are plenty of them around. So until the hive is propolized into a unit, I will need to hold it together somehow.
So I’ve measure the hive, drawn a sketch, and now I’m off to buy 1 x 3-inch boards. I already have a hole saw*, hardware cloth to cover the vents, and all the necessary fasteners, such as screws, nails, and staples.
This doesn’t seem like a difficult project. Besides deciding how to critter-proof the roof, the hardest part will be finding 1 x 3-inch lumber, which my local Home Depot doesn’t always keep in stock.
*Please note: Microsoft Word keeps trying to make this read “whole saw.” I actually have a whole saw—a whole hole saw—but try convincing Microsoft of that.
Whenever I think of summer ventilation, I think of the White House beehive. Beekeeper Charlie Brandt uses a large eke with a hole cut in each side. The eke is mounted above the stack of honey supers, just below the telescoping cover. The holes are large—I estimate about three inches in diameter—and are screened on the inside. On the outside, the holes are protected from lawn sprinklers by clear plastic splash guards. The splash guards are mounted several inches from each opening to minimize interference with the air flow.
My preference for top ventilation in summer is a screened inner cover with shims on each end. The shims keep the telescoping cover elevated so the air flow is not blocked. The screened inner covers keep even my busiest hives dry during the summer and they keep out insect predators as well. Since the bees have an easier time dehydrating their nectar, a well-ventilated colony can cure more honey faster.
I don’t have enough screens for all my hives, but a reader gave me the idea of turning a moisture quilt upside down and using it in place of an inner cover. My moisture quilts have holes on only two sides, but this system works fairly well. It’s not quite as good as the screened inner cover, but it is certainly better than nothing.
Before I had either screens or quilt boxes, I shimmed the outer covers on the front side of the hive with two pieces of wood about a half-inch high–another technique that keeps the hive well-ventilated. In addition, the bees use it as an upper entrance which lowers congestion at the main entrance. The downside of shims is that both robbers and yellow jackets can also use the opening. So while shims work fine during a nectar flow, they must be removed during a dearth when robbers and wasps are more of a problem.
An enormous amount of bee energy is wasted when bees fan moist air that can’t go anywhere. If the hive is closed at the top, moisture from the nectar condenses under the cover and the relative humidity in the hive stays so high that further drying of nectar is almost impossible. You can help your bees cure more honey by providing adequate through-the-hive ventilation.
For years I’ve been trying to reduce moisture accumulation in my wintering hives. Then last summer, after much reading about Warré hives, I decided to modify a Warré-style quilt box into something that might work on my Langstroths here in the Pacific Northwest.
I spent quite a while thinking about this and a long time building the quilts, but at this point I am ecstatic about the results. They are really working—no moisture at all is dripping down on my bees. The funny thing is this: the quilts are working in a way that is different from what I predicted—but more on that in a bit.
Here is what I did:
- I bought a bunch of two-inch supers that were designed to be used as mountain camp rims.
- Using a one-inch hole saw, I drilled four holes in each frame for ventilation.
- After I painted the frames, I stapled a piece of #10 hardware cloth over each hole to keep out critters.
- I bought canvas by the yard, cut pieces to fit the frames, and finished the edges so they wouldn’t fray.
- I stapled one piece of canvas onto each rim, stretching it as tightly as I could.
- I filled each “quilt” with wood chips leftover from brood rearing (chicken brood rearing, that is.)
- I put one quilt frame on each hive. In most cases I placed it above the top brood box and below the telescoping cover. In some of the hives it is above a mountain camp rim and below the telescoping cover.
For some reason my brain was muddled on the next point. I thought the moisture would wet the quilt from the bottom up. In other words, I thought the warm moist air would rise and condense on the canvas and wood chips nearest the brood nest. So I was surprised and confused the first time I opened the hives and discovered that just the top layer of wood chips was wet and the rest of the quilt was dry.
Now that I have de-muddled, it all makes sense. The wood chips are light, fluffy, and basically the same temperature as the air above the brood nest, so the moist air does not condense on the wood chips at all. Instead, the humid air rises and goes right through the canvas and the two inches of wood chips until it hits the cold inner surface of the telescoping cover. Once it hits that cold surface, the moisture condenses (just like in a regular hive) and then rains back down. But instead of the drops falling on the brood nest, they land on the wood chips and are absorbed. It is just so cool!
I’ve opened all my hives several times since I installed the quilts and in each case the inside of the telescoping cover and the top layer of wood chips have been wet. When I stir the chips, it is easy to see that only the surface layer is wet because the wet chips are a yellowish-brown color compared to the dry ones which are almost white.
My original plan was to change the wood chips whenever the quilt became saturated, but so far I haven’t had to. It seems the ventilation holes are allowing the chips to dry in spite of all the rain. The moisture hasn’t seeped down more than one-quarter inch.
While building the quilts I was worried that the 2-inch super would be too shallow, but it seems to be about right for this climate. I think that a very cold climate would warrant a thicker layer—perhaps a three-inch rim like those used for baggie feeders.
I should also mention that the four ventilation holes are providing the sole top-of-the-hive ventilation for each hive. Four holes may seem like a lot, but the canvas and the wood chips prevent a cold draft from flowing across the bees—the air movement is more diffuse because of the quilt. I keep a very small entrance in winter, but I have the Varroa drawers removed so air flows in through the bottom of the hive and out through the ventilation holes.