Winter Insulation for Bee Hives

It is now cold and wet in Maple Falls (northwest Washington state): and the hives at Brookfield Farm are shut for the winter.  They are wrapped up in tarpaper.

Hives in tarpaper & roofing "hats"

Hives ready for winter

Each has roofing asphalt “hat” in place and tied down.  The feeders have been removed from the top bars.  In their place, a piece of burlap has been placed over the top bars, and a piece of insulation has been laid on top of that.

Beehive topbars covered with burlap

Burlap over topbars

Does the insulation help keep the hives warm?  I think so, but I’ve no proof.  Years ago I read about someone doing this in a Bee Culture magazine article, and it sounded like a good idea.

Insulation covers the top bars of a bee hive

Insulation over hive's top bars

I use what I call “bead board” insulation: the white stuff that breaks easily if you score it.  The insulation does not fit tight.  There’s about ¼ to ½ inch space at the front of the hive.  This leaves space for the bees to reach their upper entrance.   On each side, there’s usually about 1/8 inch space on each side.  The insulation is a bit thinner than the “collar” which holds the insulation (and feeders in the spring & fall), leaving a gap between the top of the insulation and the hive cover. The gaps provide ventilation, but they also mean that the hive top is not fully insulated.  Airflow is better than warmth.  Cold doesn’t kill bees; wet kills bees.

So why do it?  I worry about the bees, and I figure it doesn’t hurt them.

The burlap below the bead board serves two purposes.  It separates the bees from the insulation, and it breathes.  This seems to allow the water generated by the bees’ metabolisms to pass into the insulation area and not collect over the bees’ cluster.  The airflow in the hive as well as around and above the insulation keeps the hives pretty dry even in the wettest winter. What water does collect on the underside of the hive cover never reaches the bees, as it would have to pass through both the insulation and the burlap.

Usually the burlap I use is the same burlap that was in the hives all summer.  In the summer the burlap keeps the bees from building wax in the “collar” that sits on top of the top box.  The “collar” has the upper entrance, and is part of the ventilation system.  However, some hives have reworked their burlap

Bee "adapted" burlap that had been on the hive's top bars

Bee Redesigned Summer Burlap

by fall and require a new piece.

If one wanted to avoid all this, one solution is to either have the bee hives set where they have a good wind break in the winter, so driving rains wouldn’t penetrate the hives, or move them so such a location in the fall.  Sheltered locations in my area would not work for the hives in the spring and summer, and I don’t have the equipment to move hives twice a year.  So my bees get wrapped and lightly insulated.  Seems to work for me.

Oh, what happens to the feeders?  They get cleaned.  Here’s a few of them:

Bee feeders drying after being cleaned at Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, WA

Cleaned feeders drying

About brookfieldfarmhoney

Brookfield Farm, a small off-grid apiary in Maple Falls, WA focuses on the beauty and bounties of Washington’s wilderness. I sell honey from our bees, whose naturally-treated, antibiotic-free hives are home to bees who fly Washington’s mountains and farmlands. Herbal salves and lip balms from Brookfield beeswax. Delicately infused honeys and vinegars. Varietal honeys from independent Washington beekeepers. Karen Edmundson Bean: beekeeper, photographer. Her love of the wilderness inspires her to discover new ways of bringing the wonders of nature to others. Brookfield Farm : the tastes, textures, sounds, and images of nature.
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8 Responses to Winter Insulation for Bee Hives

  1. This is a great tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate information… Appreciate your sharing this one. A must read post!

    • thank you for your kind words. we can all learn from each other, no matter how long we’ve been beekeeping. A novice can come up with a new idea and/or new observation that has been forgotten or overlooked by more “experienced” beekeepers.

  2. Jim Crampton says:

    I want to install a piece of 3/4″ ridged foam insulation board inside the top cover. I hope it will not create a chemical reaction & kill the bees. Any thoughts ? I have put a piece under the bottom board. that is outside the hive & should be OK

    • I too worry about what the insulation is made of…but I figure that unless I’m going to use wool I’m stuck with man-made products (Wool works really well, but here, the mice would love it way too much and I think wool would absorb a lot of water and create its own problems). I think as long as there is air flow around the insulation the worst of whatever insulation vents should not hurt the bees. After all bees have been known to live for years inside the walls of houses – lots of insulation there. I don’t put anything under the hive. In fact, all my hives are on open screens all year. But mine sit about 6-8 inches off the ground. There’s not a lot of air flow down there, especially when the snow covers the hives – the snows a good insulation in itself. How does your below the bottom board insulation hold up to the weather?

      • Jim Crampton says:

        Makes good sense. I’m going to try it The insulation I put in is on the underside of the bottom board. Still hive has circulation on upper side of the bottom board Thanks so much

        Jim Crampton

      • Jim Crampton says:

        Does a hive need a top Exit & why ? & where ? & how big ?
        I’m a retired woodshop owner & my son asked me if I could build bee hives. I find there’s more to it than white boxes in middle of the field. I have a lot of questions. I am able to find a lot of answers on line ,but some are confusing and stop short of the complete answer I need help
        Jim Crampton

        • Jim-Hope this gets to you, my computers being odd.  When it goes right I might try again.  If you ask 5 different beekeepers how to do something you’ll come up with at least 7 different answers. So this is just my humble opinion: All hives should have an upper entrance.  This should be on the same side as the main entrance.  Why: The bees seem to like it.  Some hives will use it, others will ignore it.  If you get snow in the winter, it may be the only entrance they have on sunny days.  It helps ventilation (that’s why on the same side as the entrance, you don’t want to make a cross draft though the hive).  Everyone seem to have a different size.  I think mine are 1/4″ (or is it 7/32 – huge difference, eh?)  I used to make mine the size of a wine cork.  I then found that mice can get though that size real easy.  So I do 2 holes 1/4″ish holes side by side.  Big enough for bees.  To small for Mice.  Easy to guard againse wasps.  As I said, others make them larger.  One note: the tops really do need some ventilation.  I use popsicle sticks glued to the underside of the top to give a 1/8″ opening to let the hive vent humid air.  1/8″ is considered too small for a bee to go though. Hope that helps.

          On Thu, 14 Nov 2013 15:39:18 +0000, “Brookfield Farm Bees & Honey Blog”

  3. Pingback: Winter Bee Hives Losses and Lessons | Brookfield Farm Bees & Honey Blog

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