How to wrap a bee hive for cold winters
Editor’s Note: Today’s post on how to wrap a bee hive is written by Jim Withers, a six-year beekeeper who keeps 140 colonies in and around Genesee County, Michigan.
When I began blogging in January 2010, I averaged five readers per day but soon dropped to one per day in February. Still, I kept at it until one day someone named Jim Withers commented on a post I had written. I was elated! A live beekeeper with a real comment! Awesome!
But much to my horror, my husband—head of both the legal and engineering departments here at Honey Bee Suite—disagreed with Jim on some esoteric point of heat transfer and shot back a comment of his own. I was mortified: I had finally obtained a reader and now my husband was going to lose him for me!
But Jim turned out to be a worthy opponent who, with grace and intellect, defended his position and seemed not a bit offended. Best of all, he continued to follow my blog. He has been with me for four years now, and I think of him as a friend. Those who know Jim report he is just as he seems—kind, gentle, intelligent, generous, and absolutely passionate about his bees.
Btw, yesterday I asked Jim to send me a short bio; instead, he sent me a treatise. So, if you want to know more about The Life and Times of Jim Withers, just click.
How to wrap a bee hive
Is wrapping hives really necessary? I think not. Is wrapping hives helpful? I think so. A strong healthy colony with enough stores, and a home decently constructed, can survive most of the winters we have here in mid Michigan without the added protection. Then again, I’m certain that we could leave a few windows open in our home and survive the winter too. Not very energy efficient, but do-able. Shouldn’t we apply this same reasoning to our bee hives? I think adding a little protection to make the bees’ job of maintaining the cluster warmth a little easier makes sense.
Some beekeepers believe that insulation or wrapping (two different things) are bad ideas. Their position is that insulation will make it too warm in the hive causing the bees to be more active and, therefore, use up their stores more quickly. Also, because they consume more, they build up more fecal material, which may cause them to defecate in the hive. You can find much on that debate in magazine articles and books. In our mid-Michigan climate, I believe, insulation/wrapping allows them to burn less fuel (honey) to maintain cluster temperature. Additionally, it is typical to have a warm enough day every few weeks that allows for some cleansing flights. I will leave it to you to decide where you come down on that debate.
Wrapped or insulated?
A wrapped hive has a layer of black roofing felt around it which takes advantage of solar gain on sunny days.Let me clarify, first, a wrapped hive versus an insulated hive. A wrapped hive (which is what I do with full-size colonies) has a layer of black roofing felt around it which takes advantage of solar gain on sunny days. It doesn’t do much to prevent heat loss like insulation does. On a sunny day, however, it can raise the temperature inside the hive a few degrees. This could make enough difference to allow the cluster to move closer to honey stores. I have seen plenty of dead-outs with small clusters that, apparently, starved with honey in the hive, but just out of reach. Wrapping also helps seal out harsh winds. Although the bees seal up the joints between boxes with propolis, beekeepers usually mess up their nice mortar job when we inspect.
Insulation, measured in R-value, works by slowing heat transfer. I provide insulation for my overwintering nucs. In this case, the beekeeper adds some material around the hive, typically foam-board these days, to make it easier to keep the heat generated by the cluster in the hive. To be clear, the bees in cluster are not attempting to heat the entire hive, only the cluster itself. When there is no brood in the cluster, they maintain the center at around 70 degrees. When there is brood in the cluster, the temperature is kept around 90 to 95 degrees. The outside edges of the cluster are kept around 41 degrees. Below this, the bees would go into torpor and be unable to move. Even though the bees are not trying to heat the entire hive, the colder the ambient temperature, the more it will wick away the warmth generated by the cluster. Insulation will help to slow this.
Ventilation and overhead insulation
A list of steps
Here is my simple technique for wrapping. I will add pictures to clear up the confusion my description is sure to cause.
- Cut a piece of 15# roofing felt into a piece about 80″ long (I am assuming a standard Langstroth hive). Its height should match whatever number of boxes you have between your bottom board and telescoping cover. I leave the option available to pop open the top of my hives to peek in on the girls during the winter. I use candy plates as an emergency feed measure and want to be able to add more if need be.
- You will need a 1/2″ pan-head screw, or some other short screw with a washer, and a 3/4″ X 3/4″ piece of wood nearly the same length as the height of your roofing felt. I start a few 1-1/4″ drywall screws into this piece of wood to make the job easier. It’s also a good idea to drill holes where these screws are going to go to prevent splitting the wood.
- I start by screwing the pan head screw through one end of the felt near the top and side of the hive to hold it in position while I wrap the felt around.
- Once wrapped around, the felt should overlap a few inches. I then place the 3/4″ piece of wood along this overlap and screw it into position.
- That’s it! It takes only a minute or two. The nice thing about this technique vs stapling is the ability to recover your wrapping to use again next year. It’s also much quicker and easier than tearing the felt off in pieces the following spring. Trust me on this one. I learned it the hard way.
- I have included a couple of pictures of my hive top set-up, which is a candy board with solid top, a piece of 3/4″ styrofoam, my inner cover on top just for a spacer, and the telescoping cover. Note the upper entrance is part of the candy board. This gets a lot of use throughout the winter. It is also a good idea to place a nice rock or something heavy on your lid to prevent it from blowing off—another unfortunate incident my bees have endured.
Good luck to all this winter.
Withers Mountain Honey Farm