Here at Lloyd St Bees we like to think we started the trend of packing bees for the WI winter, but the tradition actually dates back over 100 years here in WI .
If you have taken our overwintering class here at Lloyd St Bees, then you already know how much we stress the necessity for beekeepers in WI to pack their colonies for winter. If you're not familiar with the term "packing bees", it's the process of pushing colonies together so that at least one colony side is touching another. Packing colonies allows bees to share heat, block wind and creates a larger thermal mass. Simply put, if your colonies aren’t touching, you’re doing it all wrong. We are getting a little ahead of ourselves here, so let’s take a moment to look back on the past of wintering bees in WI.
As far as published data goes, we know that the idea of packing bees together in WI predates 1922 (Wilson, 1922). Wilson’s publishing “Winter Care of Bees in Wisconsin” emphasized the idea that if bees are packed properly, they can survive anywhere in the state. Wilson’s methods included the use of what is now called “Western Four-Colony Style”. Colonies were placed on a pallet with their entrances all facing different directions, but in contact with each other on two sides. A box was placed over the mass and the dead space was filled with newspaper and or pine shavings. According to Wilson, beekeepers who failed to feed and pack their bees would commonly lose 25-100% while attempting to overwinter outdoors in WI. Compare this to the 15-30% overwinter overall loss in the state during the time of publishing. A big takeaway in reading this publication is that colonies did perish in WI before varroa showed up on the scene.
A big takeaway in reading this publication is that colonies did perish in WI before varroa showed up on the scene.
As new building materials became more commonly available in the 1960s, specifically polystyrene insulation, packing colonies became easier and new methods could be used. V.R. Vickery exploited this with his research on overwintering bees. Vickery was a beekeeper and researcher located to the north of us in Canada. Using new materials, he experimented with row packing, block packing and multi-colony blocks. He was able to showcase the ease and success of using these methods that are documented in his research and book publishing in 1985 titled “The Honey Bee”. His book and additional research were the genesis of our overwintering format that we use today here at Lloyd St Bees, for that we are extremely grateful.
Even though the two previously mentioned publications predate the onset of varroa mites in most of North America, packing bees is one of the things that has stayed in style even after the onset of varroa. New versions of the method can be seen with the introduction of overwintering nucs in Wisconsin. This is something we have been doing for years here at Lloyd St Bees. The success of this method is well documented in “The Cavity Compromise” by Adrian Quiney. Adrian provides a contemporary look at the packing style suited for WI overwintering of nucleus colonies in an age where the varroa mite has reared its ugly head. This style of overwintering splits the beekeeper’s investment into multiple smaller colonies instead of the larger units used by Wilson and Vickery.
Packing bees is one of the things that has stayed in style even after the onset of varroa.
Now that we are up to date on the history and evolution of packing bees in the North, we can begin to take a deeper dive into how packing colonies work. In part two of our series, we will discuss the benefits of thermal mass, windbreaks and sharing heat in what we call “warm walls”. We will also share an experiment that you can do in your own bee yard to showcase the effect of packing your bees. Keep your eyes out for “Packing Colonies in WI Part 2: United We Stand, Divided We Fall”.
Thanks for supporting local beekeeping,
Lloyd St. Bees
Quiney, A. (2023). Cavity compromise: A sustainable system. NORTHERN BEE BOOKS.
Vickery, V. R. (1991). The honey bee: A guide for beekeepers. Particle Press.
Wilson, H. F. (1922). Winter care of bees in Wisconsin. Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Wisconsin.