Effects of hive wrapping strategies on honey bee survival in western Massachusetts

2006 Annual Report for FNE05-560

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2005: $4,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:

Effects of hive wrapping strategies on honey bee survival in western Massachusetts


Project Title: Effects of Hive Wrapping Strategies on Honey Bee Colony Weight Loss in Western Massachusetts

Grant Number FNE05-560

Project Leader: Jonathan Parrott
9 Broadway, Lake Pleasant Massachusetts 01347

Telephone: (413) 367-7592

Email Address: [email protected]
The practice of wrapping bee hives for the winter was once widespread throughout the Northeastern United States. However, since the mid 1970’s this practice has become relatively uncommon for both hobbyist and sideliner (< 100 colonies) beekeepers throughout Western Massachusetts. Although it is not well understood why Massachusetts beekeepers abandoned this practice, the ever-present threat of catastrophic colony loss from varroa mite (Varroa destructor) infestations have once again, made over-wintering success critical for sustainable beekeeping.

It is believed that wrapping beehives with an insulating material in the late fall will result in both fewer dead-outs (colony loss from starvation or pathogenic attack) and larger surviving worker bee populations. However, this effect has yet to be scientifically investigated in New England. To avoid simply testing the effectiveness of a once common practice, this investigation will also involve the comparison of traditional wrappings with the latest wintering products available to the beekeeping industry.

I believe that it is essential that scientific findings be shared with the farming community. Such cooperation is mutually beneficial. Consequently, findings from this study will be presented to both the Franklin County and the Massachusetts Beekeeping Association (spring 2006). Results will also be described in fliers and a manuscript suitable for publication in a national apicultural journal.

Beekeepers throughout the region will benefit from this study by having a better understanding of the effects of wrapping their hives and therefore, will be a more successful element in the farming industry.

2. Restate the goals of your project.

As many in the farming community well know, the beekeeping industry has been greatly affected by the injurious varroa mite (Varroa destructor A.). This pathogen which originally parasitized the Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana F.) in Asia has become the bane of apiculture nationwide. No one is sure how it came into the United States but it is most likely that they arrived with queen bees that crossed our boarders illegally. Varroa mites were first found in Massachusetts in 1988, and by the early 1990’s the pathogen had spread to all 14 Massachusetts counties. As a result of this pathogen, many beekeepers have gone out of business or been forced to greatly reduce the size of their operations.

As is the case with many parasites, varroa mite populations are cyclical, generally following the availability of the host animal. Current research suggests that varroa mite populations follow a 14 month pattern with most colony failures occurring during the winter months. Throughout this time honey bees (Apis mellifera L.) are largely dormant, forming clusters around a queen and a small patch of brood. This is a period of increased stress on a colony as freezing temperatures have ended the nectar flow and greatly limited the ability of the bees to perform their hygienic tasks. Consequently, successful wintering has become a critical element of modern beekeeping.

The practice of wrapping bee hives for the winter was once widespread throughout the Northeastern United States. However, since the mid 1970’s this practice has become less common. Although it is not well understood why beekeepers abandoned this practice, is appears to be a help in dealing with varroa infestations by lowering winter stresses. However, over-insulating may be equally detrimental to a colony. Should a hive be insulated too well, keeping the bees too warm, they will be more active with fewer freezing deaths and consume more stores of honey. Such a situation may lessen the chance of colony death from mite parasitism but at the cost of increasing the chance of starvation.

This experiment seeks to investigate the effects of wrapping bee hives with either traditional (tar paper) or modern (closed cell foam with a blackened corrugated plastic jacket) methods. We will compare these methods against a control (unwrapped) hive. Weighing the hives in late fall and again in early spring will determine honey store consumption and will seek to determine if wrapping with modern materials actually keeps a colony too warm.

3. Update the information on your farm since your project started. Include acres farmed, your current crops or live stock, and other key background on your operation.

Being winter, my apiary is quiet. I have not made any significant changes since the beginning of this experiment.

4. Describe the cooperators and their roles in the project.

This project relies heavily on the participation of local beekeepers. I believe that this cooperation is key for two reasons. The first of which is to foster a climate for sharing ideas and the dissemination of research findings. Secondly, having multiple apiaries involved will allow greater inference from the resulting data.

5. Tell us what you actually did on your project and what remains to be done.

Thus far my experiment is well underway. This fall I purchased all the necessary supplies, constructed a weighing sling and weighed all treatment hives before applying the designated wrapping strategies. All hives will be weighed again in the spring and honey store consumption will be determined by subtracting the spring weight from the fall weight.

6. Describe your results and accomplishments to date.

All experimental hives were weighed and wrapped once temperatures consistently prohibited daytime bee flights (premature wrapping can have deleterious effects on the colony survival). Although hives were randomly assigned a treatment, there appears to be evidence that on average the heavily wrapped hives weighed more than control hives. However, this relationship was not found to be significant (p = 0.001). Because of pretreatment skew it may be necessary to evaluate honey store consumption as a function of individual weight.

7. Describe any site conditions or conditions specific to your farm and this growing season that may be affecting your results.

This winter is a typical New England winter in that it is far from average. Thus far we experienced a cool November but much warmer than average December and January (as I write, outside temps are climbing into the mid 40’s). It is not clear how this abnormality will affect my experiment. There is the potential for weak but thrifty hives to avoid freezing. However, we may also find that strong hives remained too active and exhausted their winter stores bringing starvation.

8. Describe your economic findings, if any. This would include changes or expenses or net farm income triggered by the project.

At present, I have not evaluated the economic effects of this project on my farm.

9. Say whether the results from your project generated new ideas about what is needed to solve the problem you were working on. Once this project is complete, what do you think is the next step?

Being academically minded I am very intrigued by the work thus far on this project. However, I believe that our eventual findings will only be a part of a greater picture. Honeybee wintering survival is effected both by the temperature and humidity (we all can attest to the chilling effects of being damp). Consequently, I have proposed to continue working on honeybee wintering survival by installing data loggers within treatment hives to measure both temperature and relative humidity (please see my 2005 SARE proposal for more details). I believe that such data would answer any questions about the influence of fluctuant temperatures during dormancy. At present, such information is unavailable to beekeepers, regardless of region.