Winter Preparation, Guest Post from Kent Williams

Below is another guest post from Kent Williams, president of the Lake Barkley State Beekeepers Association in Western Kentucky, and of the Eastern Apiculture Society Master Beekeepers. A good beekeeper, all around nice guy, and good friend of mine. Kent always offers up good down to earth beekeeping advice. More posts by Kent.

Hello again, and welcome to the November edition of the LBBA newsletter. It does not seem possible that the holiday season is upon us, but it is. By now, the bees should be prepared for winter with ample food stores, majority of the bees (cluster) in the bottom box(es), supers of stored food above the cluster, and no supers full of empty comb above the cluster. For colonies that are low on food stores, the best option at this time of year is to feed solid feed, such as a patty or candy-board. If preparing solid feed for a colony, it is advisable to employ a philosophy of over-kill. Even for relatively small colonies, feed a patty or candy board the size of the top of the hive. It is also not a bad idea to add some protein to the mix when making the feed. This addition will make the mixture a more complete food for the colony, and could make a difference in the survival of the colony when compared to the use of sugar-only food.  By this time of year, with temperatures ranging from the thirties into the sixties, small hive beetles are no longer an issue when considering adding protein to the feed mix. When inspecting the winter cluster, it is likely there will be adult shb in the cluster of some larger colonies. This is normal, as a certain percentage of shb will winter within the cluster of larger hives. The adults are not reproductive during cool weather, but are an irritation to the beekeeper, at least, and possibly to the bees as well.

To insulate or not to insulate, that is the question. (with apologies to William Shakespeare) Whether a colony is insulated or not, the primary concern should be top-to-bottom ventilation. A hive that is not properly ventilated will have a much higher likelihood of condensation forming due to the respiration of the colony. Moisture will collect on the underside of the inner cover or hive-top, then drip back onto the cluster. The moisture will fall directly onto the cluster because the condensation will form directly above the source of respiration. The end result is that the bees will become damp – or worse – and will be unable to control the cluster’s temperature and will die. Adequate ventilation can be aided by making a small upper entrance for the hive; propping the outer cover on one end with a small stick or similar material; slightly off-setting the upper super from the next lower box, and probably a dozen different methods I have not thought of.

Some thoughts relevant to insulating a colony: In our area, there are temperature swings from single digits to the fifties within a 7 – 10 day span, so bees transition from being in a very dense cluster to flying freely and actually foraging. This is a definite departure from some parts of the country where colonies are routinely insulated. In these regions, the temperature does not swing as widely or as often during winter, so the insulating of a colony is actually for insulating – or for the purpose of helping the colony maintain a more constant temperature around the cluster. It is important for us (western Kentuckians) to remember that insulation works not only to keep in heat, but also to keep in cool. For the benefit of this writing, let us suppose a colony is insulated with four inches of Styrofoam on each side and on top; the outer temperature is 10 degrees F, while the inner temp is 45F (the cluster will be much warmer, but the ambient inner temp is usually much nearer the upper level of temperature that triggers cluster-forming); the cluster can move around inside the hive as a unit, and access food stores as a unit. Three days later, the mid-day outdoor temp is 50 with sunshine, and the inner temp is 45. The insulation works both ways. With an un-insulated hive, the temps would look more like 10/35, and 50/45 due to the heat transfer(and lack of)  through the side of the hive. Heavy insulation works well in areas that have long, extended periods of below freezing temperatures; while top insulation and heat-attracting, windbreak-type material works better in areas with large swings in temperatures. In other words, if considering colony insulation in western KY, a good choice would be to wrap the sides of the hive with black tar-paper or a similar material, and insulate the top of the hive with ½ to 1 inch of foam insulation, between the inner cover and the top, or directly on top of the hive with a brick or some type of weight to hold it in place. So, what do I do about this? I try to place hives where there is a natural windbreak to the north and west, then make a few extra nucs in the spring to make up for the hives that died from not being insulated. Another instance of weak genetics exiting the gene pool.
Kent Williams

Note that Kent discusses wrapping hives in Kentucky with black-tar paper, but that he does not do it himself. Neither do I. In fact, I do not know any beekeepers in Kentucky who do so. The bees will keep the cluster warm inside the hive even in locations far north of Kentucky.

About Kent Williams:
I first met Kent at a beekeeping meeting many years ago, shortly after taking the position of Kentucky State Apiarist, and did not realize at the time that it was the beginning of what was to develop into a long friendship. Kent was (and still is) an imposing figure, bespectacled with a dark, full beard. I recall my first conversation with Kent, though I cannot remember where that meeting occurred. We talked about various different subspecies of honey bees and the advantages of certain selected traits. Kent knew far more than I on the subject, and I was to learn that he knew more about many aspects of beekeeping. Kent presently runs several hundred hives of bees in Kentucky and Mississippi, rears and sells queens, is the longtime president of the Lake Barkley Beekeepers Association in Western Kentucky, past president of the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association and the Eastern Apiculture Society, and is a very popular speaker throughout the Eastern United States. He does get around. You can hear Kent at many of the Kentucky beekeeping schools being held this year.

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