By Blake Shook
For commercial beekeepers, overwintering indoors has become increasingly popular over the past 5 years. While a method for small scale beekeepers to do the same hasn't been developed yet, I'm sure it's only a matter of time until someone devises a method!
Storing bees indoors has been around for a long time. Traditionally, bees were stored in northern states in potato cellars, which were not being used for potato storage during the winter. So, beekeepers would wait until early November when outdoor temperatures typically stayed in the 30s and 40s, load up all their hives & stack them indoors. This came with some concerning issues. One, there was not always good ventilation, and CO2 control. Plus, if you had a sudden warm day or two, and the bees began to fly or crawl out of the hives, it could cause a huge mess.
I began storing my bees in sheds right after some critical changes began about 5 years ago. Buildings were built just for bees with computer systems controlling and monitoring oxygen, CO2, ventilation & temperature. The buildings are refrigerated, thus ensuring a perfect 40 degree hibernation temperature.
This allows us to place our bees indoors even earlier, starting October 1st. They remain indoors, lightly clustered, until we pull them out in late January to ship them to almond pollination in California.
So, why go to the trouble? What's better about this method as opposed to letting the bees overwinter outdoors? There are a few key factors. Personally, I've seen our operation go from often struggling to maintaining an 8 frame average of bees through the winter with outdoor overwintering, to often far exceeding that.
-Hives tend to maintain more bees per box. Since they aren't out flying every warm day, and thus wearing themselves out and dying, we tend to have a greater population per hive coming out of the winter.
-Less food consumed. In Texas, it's not uncommon for a strong hive to consume 20-40 lbs of stored honey. In sheds, each hive consumes more like 10-15 lbs per hive. This is due to them not flying and burning energy, and having a more consistent temperature.
-Protecting woodenware. Since the bees, and thus all the woodenware is stored indoors for almost 4 months out of the year, it greatly extends the life of our woodenware!
-Labor savings. Rather than working bees all winter long, our bees stay parked in one place doing nothing all winter, and requiring no labor on our part.
Unloading & stacking hives. You can see on the back wall the vertical openings in the wall, which allow cold air to circulate between the rows of stacked hives. There are currently experiments being conducted regarding controlling varroa mites in sheds. Bees can withstand higher CO2 levels than mites can. So, trials are being conducted to see if we can raise the CO2 levels just high enough to kill mites but not high enough to kill bees. If it works, this could be an organic way to kill, in mass, all the varroa from thousands of hives at a time!
Stacking more hives! The shed in this picture can hold up to 80,000 beehives at a time!
Dead bees on the floor of the shed. At 40 degrees bees only form a "light" cluster. They are still able to move around inside the hive, and throw any bees out that die. So, every few weeks, the floors are swept and cleaned to remove any bees which hive died and been removed by the workers.