Beekeepers employ a variety of strategies in winter

Patrick Varine
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
David Perry of Murrysville checks quickly on a beehive in his front yard on Jan. 18, 2018. Perry insulates about half of his dozen hives each winter, but largely adopts a ‘live-and-let-die’ approach.

MURRYSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — The bees' knees stay warm inside trees.

In nature, honeybees survive the winter by retreating inside their hives — often built in a tree cavity — and clustering together to stay warm.

For local beekeepers, whose hives are often exposed to the elements, that means any number of measures to ensure that a colony survives the cold. With early-winter temperatures in Southwestern Pennsylvania dipping lower than usual, apiaries throughout the region are using a variety of strategies to keep their colonies in good health.

In Burgettstown, Mark and Sara Bedillion of Bedillion Honey Farm first make sure that their bees have enough honey to make it through the winter.

"If there's good nectar flow, and the bees have a lot of honey stored, we don't take it all," Mark Bedillion said. "We leave it on the hive so they can feed on it through the winter. And if the honey fails and there's none coming in during the fall, of course we have to feed the bees to get them up to weight."

Bedillion said his goal is for each of their hundreds of hives to have 50 to 60 pounds of honey, syrup or whatever the bees are being fed.

"The winter brood is fed more fats and amino acids, and more overall nutrition, than summer bees because they have to last six months," Bedillion said. "A summer bee lasts only about six weeks."

The Bedillions regularly check their hives for mites, and if necessary apply pest control measures to keep mite populations in check.

In sharp contrast, David Perry of Murrysville adopts a live-and-let-die philosophy with the dozen hives his family tends.

"We run our hives probably very atypical from most beekeepers," Perry said. "The only thing I do for the winter is wrap half my hives in insulation. We don't do essential oils or chemicals. If the bees can't make it, they die."

Both Perry and Bedillion make sure to vent the tops of their hives to make sure moisture doesn't collect on the roofs.

"Moisture is bad, and that's what you don't want," Bedillion said. "The bees are moving their wing muscles to keep warm, and they're working, and that creates condensation."

If condensation freezes on the lid, it can thaw later on and drip onto the colony.

"If it freezes again after that, that's when you start getting dead bees," Bedillion said.
On a chilly January afternoon, Perry pulled a flap of insulation away from one of his hives and swept off a few dead bees.

"The bees toss out their dead," he said. "We put the insulation on, and all beekeepers put entrance reducers on, to keep out the wind and also to keep out pests like mice."
The cold itself is not typically what kills bees.

"They create these clusters," Perry said. "They start off about the size of a softball, and the colder it gets, the tighter they pack."

Bees on the outside of the "ball" act as insulation, nearly freezing to death before rotating inside to warm up.

Bedillion said he worries more about pests than temperatures.

"We'll put in mouse-guards," he said. "You want the bees to be able to fly out, but not allow pests in."

Perry said he has lost hives in past winters, but overall his bees have stayed healthy.
As he put an ear to the hive in his front yard on Thursday, a big smile crossed his face.

"Oh yeah, they're doing just fine," he said.