Packing colonies for winter in Wisconsin is like an ugly Christmas sweater for all your bees!
Here at Lloyd St Bees, packing colonies for winter is a sign that the season has finally come to an end. Once the leaves have fallen, the bee yards have been cleaned up and the equipment stored away, it’s time for the process to start. Unfortunately, it seems that the art of packing colonies here in WI has gone away with the increase of the commercial practices of moving colonies to southern or western states to overwinter. Our colonies stay here all winter, just something that separates us from the rest of the pack (pun intended).
The ancient Greeks coined the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall” as a parable to the strength of coming together. In our operation, this is proven in the row packing of our nucs. This method takes advantage of the minimal effort it takes to push the colonies together in the winter and separate them in the spring. This makes a big difference with the number of people it takes to work a yard and the footprint required for the bee yard.
Bigger Is Better
This packing method creates a larger thermal mass sharing heat. The mass helps to reduce large temperature swings that occur between the daytime highs and nighttime lows. As the inside temperature of the nuc remains more static with the additional mass, the bees aren’t subjected to rapid expansion and contraction of the cluster. A rapid temperature increase and decline can leave bees left out in the cold resulting in cold torpor and eventually death.
Mass helps to reduce large temperature swings that occur between the daytime highs and nighttime lows.
Fighting the Wind
Packing also creates a windbreak for each nuc. Wind cannot pass in between or around the nucs since they are packed together so tightly. This is critical since wind chill will strip the heat that is radiating off the surface of the nuc. When it comes to nucs, we are most concerned about the sides that have the largest surface area on the box.
A rapid temperature increase and decline can leave bees left out in the cold resulting in cold torpor and eventually death.
Sharing is Caring
Heat is shared between the nucs through a common wall that we like to call a “warm wall”. This heat sharing is important for the cluster to remain warm while expelling less energy. This also allows the cluster to move more nimbly and reach other resources stashed away in the colony during temperatures that unpacked colonies would struggle in. I’m sure many of us have opened a colony in the spring only to find that the cluster had died just an inch away from resources. This is less likely to occur in a properly packed colony that is staffed with a good population.
This also allows the cluster to move more nimbly and reach other resources stashed away in the colony during temperatures that unpacked colonies would struggle in.
Recently in a debate with other local beekeepers, a question was raised. We were asked “Can you provide any evidence that colonies actually share any heat between each other?”. We designed a simple experiment to test our hypothesis that the bees in neighboring colonies do in fact share heat. The test is so simple that you can use this test at home if you pack your colonies too. We took a digital meat thermometer and left it outside until it reached the ambient air temperature, 4.9 F on the day of the test. We then placed the probe end in-between two warm walls of a pack of nucs and waited. Within minutes, the probe registered almost a 50 F degree difference from the ambient air
temperature! We hope that this experiment helps show you the importance of packing your colonies just like Harley Wilson told Wisconsin beekeepers back in 1922. It’s easy if you just try it!
Thanks for supporting local beekeeping!
Lloyd St. Bees