Beekeepers from climates with cold winters have all sorts of tips and tricks they use to keep their bees warm, dry, and alive during the winter. Traditional wisdom says that the cold doesn’t kill bees; moisture kills bees. The solution seems simple, just make sure to waterproof the hive so rain and snow can’t get in, right?
It turns out that the moisture inside the hive comes from the bees themselves. Honey bees keep themselves warm in winter by decoupling their wings from their wing muscles, and twitching those muscles repeatedly, which generates heat. It’s similar to our human response to cold, which is to shiver. SHAKE, SHAKE, SHAKE IT LIKE A POLAROID PICTURE!
Anyhow, in order to generate the heat required to stay alive and raise new brood during winter, the bees must consume honey. It’s the metabolizing of this honey that generates the moisture that must be dealt with in order to keep the bees alive. If not allowed to escape, the moisture can condense on the ceiling of the hive and drip down on the bees. Wet bees will die. Some beekeepers, after losing their colony, open the hive to find water stains and mold growing on a cluster of dead bees. Deal with moisture if you want to keep your bees alive.
Some suggest propping the top cover open with popsicle sticks, using an open screened bottom board, and top entrances. All have pros and cons, but the moisture control that I think is best is the moisture quilt, or the quilt box.
Their construction is simple. It’s just like creating any feeder shim or eke, or whatever you want to call them, except that you attach a barrier on the bottom of the shim that keeps bees out but allows the warm, moist air to pass through. I use 1×4 inch boards.
Lots of beekeepers will use finger joints, dovetails, or otherwise, but I think this is more for their bravado than for any actual utility. As you can see in the image above, I use a butt joint with screws. They’re simple, fast, and they get the job done. Is it the most aesthetically pleasing option? No. You, do you.
So I screw the frame together and then drill two 3/4 inch holes in the sides (not the front or back). I also attach two struts along the bottom of the frame, but this is because the screen I use isn’t wide enough to span the entire frame. Anyhow, I use a hand stapler to attach the screen. I cut small pieces of screen to cover to 3/4 inch holes as well, in order to keep bugs out of the box.
If you look at the image above, you’ll notice that in the center I pull the screen above the struts and staple it in place. This is to allow the bees to access the top entrance that is visible in the picture below. Some people use fabric or other materials where I use window screen. I like the screen because you can look through it if you want to check the bees without opening the hive.
And that’s it. Paint them if you like, or don’t if you’re lazy. The bees don’t care; rest assured. Fill them with wood chips, and place them on your hive.
So how does it work? The premise is this: as the warm air rises, it condenses on inside of the outer cover above the wood chips. The condensation drips down onto the wood chips instead of the bees, which keeps them dry. As the wind blows, the side holes allow a cross-ventilation to remove moisture from the chips, drying them out. As a result, the top layer of wood chips gets wet, but the bottom layers always remain dry. It really is an excellent method and it works. In the image above, the chips in the lower left-hand corner are wet. It’s hard to see in the picture, but they’re slightly darker. Immediately below those wet chips? Dry as a bone. BOOM!