More on Winter

By | March 26, 2011

This post will probably grow, morph, and be edited as time goes on, but in looking through some old texts on Google Books yesterday I ran across something that expanded my theory on wintering hives.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve heard so often that insulating hives doesn’t matter, closing them off doesn’t matter, cold doesn’t kill bees, and so on.  I clearly think this all matters, but I now have a theory on why this disregard is so prevelant throughout the beekeeping world.

We will arrive at my point after taking a long and winding path through observations of the state of life 100-120 years ago.  I apologize ahead of time if the path is too long.  It will be jumpy and disjointed, and is filled with “facts” as they are in my head, not necessarily as they really are.  Keep this in mind, and just stick with it, the path does lead somewhere.

If we go back 100-120 years, most of our society was agrarian.  In short, most were poor farmers.  Those that kept bees may have had a little additional money, and did so only for the purpose of furthuring the farm, either with honey, their own pollination, or both.  Assuming these previous points are correct, I’ve drawn a few of my own conclusions.

  • Beekeeping was not a hobby, no one of the “poor farmer” class had time or money for hobbies.
  • The lack of cars, television, the Internet, soccer practice, movie theaters, etc. along with the dispersed population meant that people were at home.  Home was the farm, the family business, and more time was spent working than is spent today.
  • Being poor, along with the laudation of hard work, meant that people gave little value to their own time.  If something needed to be done, no matter how cheaply the work could be done by someone else, the farmer was almost always inclined to do the work himself.  Doing work to prevent the need to spend money, no matter how small a sum of money or great a sum of work, was an almost universally-accepted practice.
  • The lack of cars meant that hives were located on the owner’s farm, not spread throught the county, or even across multiple counties.

Why are these conclusions important?  These attitudes and environmental facts mean that farmers of that period would spend incredible amounts of time and energy preparing their hives for winter so as to not lose them to a season that could be particularly and unpredictably severe.  Here is the image that brought this home for me.

Look at the preparation and imagine the amount of work that went into this.  Why would the owner make such effort if this type of work “didn’t really matter.”  Did he simply not know any better?  That’s possible, but I believe it goes back to the idea that the work and time involved were valued less than the money that would have been spent replacing winter losses, even if the losses were only 5-10%.

The 5-10% number just mentioned is my own, no factual data to back that up, but it seems reasonable.  Assuming this number is somewhere near correct, let’s fast-forward say 30 years.  This I feel is about the time that the northern cold-weather states began to see their first truly commercial beekeeping operations (ok, not counting Moses Quinby), wherein these farmers were no longer farming, but making a living purely off beekeeping.  This is also the time where even the smallest of these operations took on the realization that preparing hives for winter in this elaborate fashion took time, and that time was more valuable than the time or money spent in replacing the 5-10% loss with new bees the following spring.  Bees were plentiful and cheap, and return on the effort just wasn’t there.  This lead to the idea that winter prep wasn’t worth the time, it didn’t really matter, and didn’t really help.  Realizing the year, probably around 1930, these local commercial beekeepers were the passers of knowledge to the generation that is now teaching new beekeepers.  This generation passed that knowledge on to us, and so the idea is now pervasive and accepted as fact without question.

Now let’s fastforward to today.  We now have nosema, varroa, and tracheal mites, all things that make it more difficult for us to keep bees because they simply make survival for the bees more difficult.  I truly wish research from the early part of the 20th century existed which gave measurements on the average size of winter clusters.  I believe that winter clusters today are probably 20-30% smaller than they were at the turn of the last century, and maybe even moreso for those beekeepers who are not chemically treating.

If you haven’t read my original post on bees in cold winters, it’s here: Bees in Winter. This is my own theory, nothing scientific on which to base it, but it basically says that if the outer bees in a cluster get cold, as is more probable in an uninsulated hive, they will fall off the cluster, making the cluster smaller, requiring more internal heating.  This is a continuing pattern.  If the cluster is large enough to absorb the loss, or if the number of cold days is small, everything is fine.  Long lengths of cold days and small clusters though make for bad juju.

You’ve probably combined these thoughts by now.  We now have smaller clusters thanks in most part to introduced pests, and we have a pervasive idea that insulating is not worth the effort.  Commercial operations must take winter prep time into consideration, and most commercial operations are wintering hives in warmer climates anyway.  For all of us hobbyists out there who thoroughly enjoy spending time on bee related work, no matter what it might be, I hope we will take the time to revisit extensive winter preparation, and maybe we’ll be pleased to find our losses far less and our successes far more numerous.

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