Wrapping Things Up for Winter!
Author: Heather Broccard-Bell, Ph.D., Honey Bee Health Researcher
It’s that time of year again. In many areas, temperatures have started to dip below freezing at night, and the first snowflakes have begun to fall. If you’re in the prairies, you’re almost certainly well past these preliminary stages of winter. But before you hunker down with a book in front of your fireplace, you need to ensure that your bees are ready for the season!
As we all know, honey bees are amazing in many ways. Having originally evolved in the tropics (or at least the sub-tropics), Apis mellifera has now been successfully introduced to almost every region of the world. Why this fact is particularly interesting is that they now survive in temperatures far outside those they are adapted to—and they are capable to doing so without any additional input from beekeepers. Such adaptability is rather rare among animals, especially small, ectothermic (cold-blooded)[i] ones like bees.
The Secrets to Winter Success
The twin pillars of the honey bee’s success are numbers and co-operation. Whereas many other animals live solitary lives, honey bees live in large groups that are so closely-knit, many researchers consider colonies to be “superorganisms.” Members of colonies work together using sophisticated signals to regulate many important aspects of their lives, including food stores, carbon dioxide, humidity, and temperature within the hive. By co-ordinating their behaviour, honey bees can maintain temperatures in the brood-rearing zone around 33-36°C (91-97°F)—even when the outside temperature is well below freezing. This ability is known as “thermoregulation.”
When it’s cold, bees thermoregulate by forming a tight cluster within the colony, and vibrating their flight muscles (shivering) to generate heat. The bees on the outside of the cluster form an insulating layer. As these outside bees cool off, they rotate back toward the centre to be heated up, thus creating a continual “convection current” of bees. All the while, the queen is kept warm and toasty, somewhere toward the centre of the cluster.
When it is extremely cold, the cluster remains stationary within the colony. This means that during an extended period of cold, the cluster runs the risk of starving to death, since they may exhaust the honey supply in that area of comb. During warmer days—and especially when the sun is shining—the cluster can generate enough heat to move to another region within the colony. However, if the colony is small and weak, it may never warm up sufficiently to re-locate.
Why Wrap Your Hives?
Contrary to a commonly-held belief, the purpose of insulation is not to generate heat, but rather to maintain a consistent temperature. Thus, when an insulated cavity is heated above the outside temperature, it will cool down more slowly than one lacking insulation. Similarly, if an insulated cavity is cooled below outside temperature, it stays cool longer than an uninsulated cavity. In a honey bee colony, insulation during the winter means that, in addition to internal temperatures remaining more stable, condensation also forms less easily on the inside surfaces of the colony. Water droplets from condensation raining down on bees already stressed by low temperatures is an especially deadly combination.
A Cozy Design for Honey Bee Health
To help provide honey bees a leg-up during the colder seasons, NOD created the Bee Cozy Winter Hive Wrap. This waterproof, insulated wrap is designed to assist your bees in protecting the colony from temperature fluctuations and condensation. Made with an outer shell of UV treated polypropylene, each wrap contains environmentally friendly R8 fiberglass to offer puffy protection.
On top of the beneficial insulation effects, the Bee Cozy’s outer waterproof shell also effectively minimizes drafts within the colony. Finally, the black colour of our Bee Cozy Winter Hive Wrap is no accident. The dark surface absorbs energy from the sunlight, which can raise the temperature enough inside the colony during sunny days to allow the cluster move around, even if the air temperature is very cold.
Most Canadian beekeepers start to wrap their colonies around November – but, as with everything else bee-related, this activity will be local-condition-dependent.
The Smart Choice to Get Winter-Ready
Once temperatures begin to drop, properly protecting your hives can make all the difference in how your colonies overwinter—for large commercial operations and backyard beekeepers, alike. Wrapping your bees can help you can head into spring with stronger and healthier colonies.
The Bee Cozy’s ready-to-use design makes preparing your hives for winter easy and efficient. Simply slip it on your bee hives in late fall, once temperatures are consistently below cluster point of 10°C (50°F). Slip off when temperatures are consistently above cluster point again, and possible snap freezes have passed. Plus, the Bee Cozy is reusable, so you can roll and store for next year—reducing your annual wintering costs.
Prepare for Next Year’s Success
While it’s not 100% necessary to wrap your colonies for winter survival, it sure does help them out! Strong colonies in sunny, sheltered locations with a lot of food stores can make it through even harsh prairie winters. However, unwrapped colonies will require more energy to thermoregulate. On top of increasing the risk of starvation, this means that less energy will be available to begin brood production in the spring. These factors add up to unwrapped colonies being potentially less productive, even if they do manage to survive. Think of it this way: you could survive in 5°C (41°F) weather wearing a t-shirt and shorts, but would you be happy and productive living like that?
About Heather Broccard-Bell, Ph.D.
Dr. Heather Broccard-Bell is the Honey Bee Health Researcher at NOD Apiary Products. She is a scientist and educator with over 15 years research and teaching experience. Heather has been focused on investigating issues surrounding honey bee health and communication since 2014. When Heather’s not in the lab, you can usually find her in the bee yard or on a trail hiking with her many pawed pals.
Want to hear more about Honey Bee Health?
We’re getting ready to launch our brand new Honey Bee Health & Education Centre in Trenton, Ontario. Join our email newsletter to get the latest updates right to your inbox.
[i] Ectothermic or cold-blooded animals are animals that lack the ability to regulate their body temperature physiologically. All living cells function only within certain temperature ranges. Endothermic animals, like humans, have internal processes to ensure a consistent body temperature. Unless we have a fever or hypothermia, we are rarely even aware of our core body temperature. On the other hand, ectothermic animals need to constantly monitor their internal temperature, and can only regulate it by changing their behaviour. For example, ectothermic animals, such as reptiles, amphibians, and insects, commonly bask in the sun or contract their muscles (shiver) to raise their body temperature.