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The Bee Killer - Condensation

Hello all you bee followers out there!  As we start trekking into the Winter season, We thought it might be good to talk about one of the hardest issues to tackle when it comes to keeping bees. When winter hits, the bees will start to cluster up in the hive.  They kick out the deadbeats who are only there for procreation, so all the males will get pushed out the front door. They stop going out to forage and start using up the stores of honey that have been left for them.  One of the things that the clustering allows them to do is regulate the temperature around the queen.  After all, the queen is the source of the hives prosperity, so it only makes sense that everything they do is to protect her from harm.  As they use their own bodies to cool or warm the queen, they exert energy which makes them breathe.  As we all know, our breath contains a certain amount of water.  Bees are exactly the same in that respect.  So, now we have warm wet air in the hive, which is continually being produced.  While a certain amount of humidity in the hive isn’t necessarily bad, a lot of it is bad.  It can promote the growth of mold and mildew, which can spread disease, and most importantly it can collect on the top (and walls) of the hive and drop water onto the cluster. The water drips down, the winter sets in and gets cold, the water could freeze and then the bees die off. 

Let’s explore condensation first, to see how it forms.

From the USGS website, we find the definition “Condensation is the process by which water vapor in the air is changed into liquid water.”  We already knew that, but what causes it to form inside the hives?  You might think that the condensation happens just because the moist air hits the walls of the hive, but you would be wrong.  In order for condensation to form, warm moist air must come into contact with cool air, which is how clouds and fog are formed, or a cool surface.  Now we can start to see why condensation happens in the hive.  As the warm moist air around the cluster rises toward the top of the hive, it gets cooler.  The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that, depending on the climate in the winter, the top of the hive may be covered in snow or at least very cold from the weather outside.  Because of this, that moisture filled air hits the cold top cover, condenses into drops, and drips right back onto the bees.  Now that we know where the condensation comes from and what causes it to form, we can explore strategies we implement to solve this deadly issue.

One of the ways that beekeepers use is to remove the inner cover and add a “quilt box” to the top of the hive.  The quilt box contains some kind of absorbent material (shredded newspaper, wood shavings, etc.) which is held up by a screen.  There is also a variation of the quilt box which contains screened holes in the sides above the absorbent material or popsicle sticks to create a gap between the quilt box and the outer cover.  This allows air to flow over the top of the material and carry away any moist air that didn’t get absorbed.  The moist air comes up, gets absorbed into the material or gets carried away, and prevents the condensation from forming on the top of the hive.  This is a good strategy; however, it doesn’t fully address the issue since the walls of the hive are still cold and will contribute to the rapid formation of condensation on the sides of the hive.  This will still promote an accumulation of water in the hive.

Another strategy that can be used to prevent condensation from forming is to prevent the sides (and top) of the hive from getting cold.  Many strategies include some kind of insulating material (Styrofoam, tar paper, etc.) lashed to the hive with tie down straps, rope, or twine.  Additionally, beekeepers may erect some kind of wind barrier (hay bales, fencing with plastic, etc.) to help reduce the chilling effects of wind in the winter.  This is also a good strategy, but again, it is incomplete as it provides no escape for the warm moist air building up inside the hive.

In reality, it is probably best to implement a strategy which addresses the moisture buildup inside the hive as well as insulating the top and sides. 

Our strategy is to use styrofoam insulated hives or hive boxes made of one inch wood (instead of the standard half inch) to create a natural weather barrier

Of course bees have survived for millions of years without our help. We try to let our bees take of care of themselves but if we can give any help we want to give them a bit of comfort during the long winter months.

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