To get a top bar hive ready for winter is fairly straight forward, well as straight forward as anything can be when dealing with multiple thousands of bees! There are four main things to look at:
1. assessing the amount of honey available to the hive and installing a feeder if necessary
2. reducing the hive entrance
3. limiting the space the colony has
4. insulating the hive.
The timing of these steps will vary depending on your climate. Here in the Digby area, I will generally have my "winterization" completed by Halloween. When I opened my hive on the weekend I was surprised to see how much comb the bees had built in the last three weeks, they were only a few bars from the end of the hive. We lifted these bars and were able to put the second follower board in leaving an empty space between the comb and the end of the hive. In our climate, if it is at all possible try to keep the bees from building comb to the end of the hive. By installing a follower board at each end of comb filled bars you limit the area the bees have to heat. You are also creating an empty space that can then be insulated making the temperature in the hive that much easier to regulate.
There are many options when it comes to insulating material, please try to choose a natural material. Wool is great, so if you have sheep, or know someone with sheep, a fleece makes great insulation. Hay or straw lightly packed, with plenty of air spaces is acceptable. If all else fails and an old blanket or clean rags will suffice.
Deciding whether or not to insulate the outside of the hive will depend on your site and what your hive is made from. Generally, in Nova Scotia, if your hive is somewhat sheltered and the sides are made of 2" lumber and you were able to insulate the ends you shouldn't need to insulate the outside. Remember we are not trying to make the hive even close to airtight. Hives need to breathe and give the bees a shot at controlling moisture in the hive. A really tightly closed up hive will end up with high humidity; the moisture will cause condensation, usually on top of the hive. This condensation will drip on the bees and they will no longer be able to stay warm.
If you built a showy top bar hive, with a beautiful peaked roof, put some insulation in there too. The roof of my hive is really going to hold in the heat. Gary made sure the roof was not going to blow off, nor was it going to leak!
When installing the feeder place it beneath two or three combs which contain the most honey. When bees are trying to get through winter they go into group think. ( my term, there probably is a name for it). The bees cluster together to form a large mass of bees. Within the mass individual bees are continually moving from the center of the mass to the edges and then back again. This helps to conserve heat and regulate the temperature of the entire hive.
Insulating the outside of the hive comes down to climate and the
Unfortunately, this is a somewhat unwieldy beast. It cannot travel any great distance and in the middle of a cold snap a great distance can be six inches. Colonies have been known to starve to death with combs of honey inches away. By placing the feeder at the bottom of two or three filled combs you limit the distance the bees have to go to find food in the hive. Remember to put a few twigs in the feeder so the bees have access without too much possibility of drowning.
Once the feeder is installed be sure you can access it quickly during the winter. Any time you have to lift the lid on a hive in winter it is a perilous time. If it is too cold, you run the risk of allowing too much heat to escape and the bees not being able to reheat the hive. By marking the bars over the feeder you eliminate having to search. You can just open the lid and using a turkey baster, add more honey if needed. If you are worried about your bees, and absolutely need to check, try to get a sunny day where the temperature is close to freezing.
When we were deciding how we wanted our hive, I chose to have an open mesh floor. Everything I have read agrees that having a mesh floor helps to decrease the mite population within the hive. As I have this mesh floor I now have to decide if I want to cover it for winter. If my hive was in town or in a more sheltered location I might not, but my hive is fairly exposed and the winds here can really swirl around due to the large trees along the property lines. So we need to put a board over that floor. Fortunately I knew when Gary was building the hive that we would be covering the floor, so Gary cut a board to fit and pre-drilled the holes for the screws. So getting under the hive and attaching the board should only take a few minutes.
Deciding when to winterize the hive can be tricky. I say I want to have it done by Halloween, but this really does depend on the weather and the bees. Bees should begin telling you it is time to winterize the hive by limiting the entrance holes to the hive with propolis. I say should because not all bees will do this. Many commercial bees have almost had this "genetic memory" bred out. If you see your bees doing this great. You know they are telling you to get on with it and give them a hand.
If you are getting days with temperature only reaching 5-7° C, and your bees haven't limited the entrance then you need to say OK they haven't got a clue, and winterize their hive. To limit the entrances yourself make a LOOSE ball of hay or grass and gently place in the holes. Think tumbleweeds! It needs to be loose so the bees can open and close it as needed.
Preparing your hive for cold weather isn't difficult. Timing it can be tricky, especially if you live In a climate where huge temperature swings are commonplace.
There comes a point when you just have to sit back and know you have done all you can and it is up to the bees and nature. Most hives survive, a few don't. You can't obsess. It is all a part of this dance we do with Mother Nature, and if there is one thing you learn when living this lifestyle:
Mother Nature ALWAYS leads!
Have a great day everyone..