Category Archives: winter

Moisture Quilt

Moisture quilt by Herb Lester
Moisture quilt by Herb Lester via the Honey Bee Suite . Photo: Herb Lester

I had read about moisture quilts before in a cursory manner and at first thought it slightly ridiculous. But then I read an article (and then a series of articles) on a blog I read and take seriously: Honey Bee Suite. I know it may seem slightly like a “argument from authority” fallacy. But Rusty from the Honey Bee Suit seems an experienced, quite well informed and down to earth apiarist, as well as an accomplished blogger. Rusty claims:

“Of all the changes I made to my hives over the years, nothing has helped more than the moisture quilts. I’ve used quilts for five years now, and on average, I went from overwintering 50-60 percent of my hives, to overwintering 80-100 percent.”

But what I would be more interested in is knowing what percentage of the bees themselves survive the winter with or without moisture quilts. Rusty seems to have quite a large number of hives, estimating from other blog posts I’ve read, I’d say well over 10. My own two hives can hardly provide enough data to get any significant results on hive level. Thats why I’m more concerned with how many of the bees in the hive survive winter, if more survive then the hive will start the season healthier and grow faster.

This doesn’t look like a swarm cell to me

Sif didn’t show signs of swarming so didn’t require the making of an artificial swarm this year and had seemed to start slow in spring. Which says to me that it was a weak hive/queen to begin with. I already had a feeling that the queen was slightly sluggish in spring. I was planing on replacing her later in the season but didn’t. I have the impression that there has been a silent supersedure at the end of summer (see picture on the right) when I had started my new job and didn’t check the bees as often as I should have. I wasn’t expecting swarms so late in the season, nor did I get one. Depending on the the performance of this new queen in Sif, I will replace her with one from Artemis next season. Artemis was already a strong hive this year and I expect it to start the next season strong, the young queen comes from a pure strain mother (I forget if the mother was a buckfast or carnica). Back on topic; I’m making (actually Pieter Knorr is making them as I’m feeling slightly under the weather) moisture quilts and will report on how they seemed to perform at the beginning of the bee season next spring (The Netherlands is a quite humid place so I guess that they should do what they are supposed to). Even though it will be hard to say if any observed effect is due to the quilts or some other unknown effect(s). I have yet to see any other beekeeper in my apiary use moisture quilts but that could also be because I haven’t been looking for them. But they were also not mentioned during the beekeeper course I followed. Perhaps I will also ask a local beekeeper on the topic, even though I have no idea what to they would call these constructions locally. Andrew

Winter preperation

sugar syrup feeder
Bees feeding on the sugar syrup. The number of dead bees in the feeder is a little disturbing

I’m preparing the colonies for winter; I’ve assessed the amount of honey in the hives and the size of the colonies. There are about 7 frames of caped of honey between the two hives, perhaps 14 kilograms total. Both Sif and Artemis seem large enough to survive winter on two brood boxes. The bees need about 15 kilograms of either honey or sugar to make it through winter. Which would mean that after I divide the honey evenly between the two colonies, they both need an additional amount of about 9 kilograms of sugar in about  11 liters of sugar syrup. Then I still need to place the caped honey on the outside of the hives because caped honey is very slow to go bad and the bees spend little time at the outside of the hive. Last thing I have to remember to do is reduce the hive opening, to prevent mice and robing by other bees and wasps.

I’ve placed the (2 liter) feeders in the hives yesterday and filled them with about 2 liters of sugar syrup. I forgot to take a picture, but will add one the next time I fill the feeder, which will be in a day or two. They empty the feeder within two days. Which is extraordinary when you think about it. A bee can carry about its own body weight in honey/syrup, 0.1 gram. Which would mean that if one bee were to empty a feeder it would have to make the journey from the feeder and store it in a cell 26 thousand times… I’ll go see the day after tomorrow how far they emptied the feeders and return if they emptied them.

There are mixed reports what to do with humidity and ventilation. I’ve seen stories about constructions on top of the hive filed with wood chips to deal with humidity. But I also read somewhere else about having a sheet of plastic beneath the hive cover to provide water for the bees in the form of condensation droplets. I do’t know what is supposed to be the better choice. Likely it is dependent on climate, and I don’t know aht whould be the best strategy for the Dutch klimat. There was some fungus growth after the last winter but I read somewhere else that this is normal and should be expected.

When these preparations are finished there will be nothing for me to do, until near the winter solstice, when the bees will get their oxalic acid treatment.

I always wonder what the girl behind the supermarket checkout thinks when I come to the checkout with 9 kilograms of sugar and nothing else…

bye bye, Andrew

Edit: The bees emptied the feeder within two days, as I thought. But many bees died in the process. Perhaps that is because the second cover of the feeder is missing and the bees will enter the feeder from behind the excluder and easily drop in the syrup. I’ll order a new cover for the feeders asap, and I hope that that will help.
I left the dead bees in the feeder because bees that drop in the syrup perhaps can use the dead bees as flotation devices and crawl to safety.

Edit2: I just gave them their third serving of sugar syrup (6 liters total) and placed the second cover on the feeders so the bees couldn’t access the syrup directly and consequently fall in and drown. I talked to a fellow beekeeper visiting the apiary and he told me that he just used a tub with room for about 8 liters of syrup in which he put straw to prevent the bees from drowning. Hay would grow fungus pretty quickly (something I have already experienced) but straw wouldn’t and the bees would clean any trace of syrup from the straw. I’ll see if I can get my hands on some straw (from a local pet store or something) without turning my home into a barn, perhaps keeping the straw at the apiary would be the ticket.

One dead hive after all

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Apparently I was too soon with my celebration that both my hives survived winter. As it would seem that my second colony, which was the weakest by far, didn’t make it after all. There were apparently too few bees to make it through the colder nights since the last time I checked. Beside that the frames on the outside of the hive were filed with mold, quite badly (the first picture above). My parents made the discovery of the passing of the colony today. They also made the pictures. If I have to make an artificial swarm this year I’ll make sure to keep it at my local apiary so I don’t have to make the thirty minute drive to check on my bees in my parents garden. I also wasn’t taught that you could keep an artificial swarm next to the original colony, but you can (when taking the right precautions).

Looking at the top-bars  it doesn’t look good but reading this article (as well as this article from the same source) I gather that mold in a hive in/after winter is not so strange. This second colony had the old queen (from 2010) that I was going to replace this year anyway but loosing the entire colony was not part of the plan. I guess I’ll have to see it as a learning experience, that what I actually should have done is combine the colonies at the end of summer to create one strong one. But I reasoned that if I were to do that I would be left with one colony anyway because my first colony looked to be strong enough to survive winter I was in no real danger of losing that colony. So I gambled the second colony and I lost.

Now the time for questioning my decisions has arrived. What could I have done better? What could I have done to ensure the survival of the second colony. I think the answer to that is most likely that I shouldn’t have placed the hive in a food desert, which my parents home apparently is. There are some gardens in the vicinity, my mothers being one, but I guess they weren’t enough to support a viable colony, most is farmland. The smaller town at bout 3-4 kilometres (2-2,5 miles) apparently was slightly too far and/or didn’t have enough flowers for the bees.

To end on a more positive note; my wife took these pictures bellow in the city where we live. Crocuses are literally all over the place, especially in the parks but also by the roadside. I will visit my city bees in my first hive (to which I should simply refer to as “my hive”, as it now is my only hive) this weekend to do some housekeeping. Select which frames I will scrap this year and which will last for another year, reduce the size of the hive from two to one brood box and see if they need some additional feeding. Then I will leave them to their own devises for about two weeks?

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They survived winter!

Crocus, early pollen source

I went to visit my bees today and both colonies have made it through the winter! As you may remember from this post, I was unsure about the chances of my secondary colony. As long as the end of the winter keeps on being as warm as the first part was all will be well. I expected my primary colony to survive but I actually was expecting the secondary colony to have died, but they didn’t. Admittedly the secondary colony at my parents house are a pity full lot, they seemed to be happy with the sugar syrup I made for them. I’ll take a picture of the simple syrup setup (unintentional alliteration there) if I remember to do so. It’s a very simple setup, just a jar with syrup (1:1, sugar:water) with small holes in the lid placed on top of the  frames in a hole in the top cover (the holes are so small that the surface tension and the low pressure above the syrup keeps it from dripping out). I’m unsure as to what is the best method to provide the bees with extra food, at this time of year with this weather, the sugar syrup was my first inclination but perhaps bee candy/sugar candy/fondant would have been a better choice considering the possibility of fermenting, I’m not completely sure.

Winter has been extremely mild and so far. Last year the weather was lagging two weeks behind in spring now it seems that it will be two weeks early. This winter here in the Netherlands is going into the books as either the third or second warmest winter since they started recording the weather (for meteorologists the winter ends at the end of February). If it hadn’t been so warm I am quite sure my secondary colony would have perished.

I’d say there were between five hundred and a  thousand bees, occupying just one space between the frames in my secondary hive. I can’t wait till the weather warms a little more so I can do some spring cleaning in both hives, they are a mess. The hive at my parents house, what I call my secondary hive, is full of mold and dead bees. From the primary hive I took a frame out, away from where the bees were,  a frame almost directly against the outside of the hive. The outside of that frame had mold on it. So perhaps the honey/syrup inside wasn’t ready yet when the cold weather started or this is just something that can happen.

Mold frame
You can’t really see but this frame is full of mold, when zoomed in you can kind of see it as white and green spots (unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to take this picture myself)

I didn’t want to bother the bees to much so I left the inspection at that. The bees were already going out to forage, so were bees from other hives in the apiary. I didn’t spend much time checking if the bees were returning with pollen, as the crocus is in bloom here as well as the snowdrop. In the short time I did look I couldn’t see any bees returning with pollen. Shortly after the winter solstice the queen will start laying eggs again. Pollen is the most important resource right now because it is needed to feed the new larva, it is the bees only real source of protein. The larva are fed a mix of pollen and nectar called beebread.

Another thing the bees are able to do in this weather, and have most likely already done a number of days ago, is relieve themselves the so called “cleansing flights”. The worker bees don’t defecate inside the hive, so all through the cold weather they will be storing faeces in there intestine waiting for a spot of mild weather, with mild I mean a temperature above 8 degrees (47 Fahrenheit ). When the weather is milder the colony will “en mass” go for a flight outside the hive to take a “cleansing flight”. Imagine how you would feel after not taking a shit for a month or two. As the queen only eats royal jelly which hardly contains any indigestible components she doesn’t have to relieve herself nearly as often and if she does she will do this inside the hive and the worker bees will clean up the mess. Obviously royalty doesn’t have to concern itself with excrement.


PS, in doing some research on beebread I found this article about the possible  influence of bee pollen on osteoporosis and the possible influence of bee pollen on allergies do with it what you will.

Oxalic acid treatment

oxalic acid
Oxalic acid winter treatment

I treated the colony in the city against Varroa the Saturday before last by what here is called the dripping method. In this way you can start the season with a colony relatively free of Varroa. This treatment is meant to be performed in the middle of winter December till January. Even though here the winter has hardly shown its face, with temperatures as high as 10°C (50°F). The day I performed the procedure it was around -1°C  (30°F) but felt like -5°C (23°F).

The bees were relatively calm, a few flew up, no more than about 15, one landed on my sock on the edge with my shoe and stung me when I started walking because it got stuck between my ankle and my shoe. The procedure took no time at all. I filled a 60 ml syringe with the oxalic acid mixture (9 grams oxalic acid, 150 grams  sugar, and 150 ml water) and dripped about 5 ml per “lane” (room between the frames) that was occupied by the bees.

This method needs to be done in the winter time, which feels all wrong because at the beekeeping course I followed I was taught that you do not bother your colony when the temperature drops bellow 14°C (57°F). You perform this method in winter because in this season there should be no brood, any mites present will be on the bees. According to the organization that does research in the Netherlands on Varroa treatments (and on bees in general) there are no detrimental consequences for the colony by opening the hive in winter. I guess I’ll trust their judgment/research. What I think happens is that when the bees clean each other of the sticky sugary liquid they also ingest the oxalic acid. The oxalic acid enters their hemolymph on which the Varroa feed and this will then kill the mites.

After the oxalic acid treatment I placed a styrofoam sheet on top of the top cover (supposedly against the cold somehow) and replaced the lid. I can now only hope that the colony will be able to survive the rest of the winter. The colony was no longer as large as I would have liked. In a few months I will reduce the size of the hive and place the honey super back on top of the hive (I trust that they will start to use it in stead of using the second brood box as honey super).

I found a video of the kind of treatment I performed, it’s a video of Dutch origin so don’t expect English commentary.


Winter ready

Feeding tray

Giving back to your bees something like what you’ve been stealing from them throughout the season. That is what you need to do at the end of august, after you are finished treating them against Varroa. Even though I didn’t see a drop of honey from them this year it doesn’t mean I don’t have to help them prepare for the coming winter. They need to have enough food stocked to be able to keep themselves warm throughout the cold period. You do this by feeding your bees with sugar syrup in a ratio of 3 to 2 sugar to water. A colony of bees will need about 15 kilo’s of food storage. Depending on how much honey your colony has left you will need to feed them  up to 15 kilograms of sugar or 20 liters of sugar syrup. You can present you bees this syrup in a few ways. Most often you will use a feeder like shown here on the left (2 liters). The bees will be able to empty a feeder like this in about a day. And they will store the syrup in the frames like they would do the honey. A kilogram of sugar is about the equivalent of a kilogram of honey for the bees and a full brood box comb of honey weighs about 2,5 kg.

But preparing your bees for winter isn’t all about food. You need to make sure your bees have the right amount of room, too much and they will have to use up too much energy to keep warm, too little and they will not have enough room to store all the food they will need during winter.


You can limit the room in the hive by replacing the outside frames with side frames in the hive as shown here on the right. You will also need to limit the opening to the hive to deter mice, move sealed frames to the outside of the hive so frames with winter store that is not jet sealed doesn’t mold, make sure there is enough ventilation so there will be as little condensation as possible.

Making the right decisions when preparing your colony for winter can mean the difference between life and death for an colony and for an inexperienced beekeeper this can bee a stressful time.