Proposal to study the influence of winter hive humidity on honey bee survival in western Massachusetts

2006 Annual Report for FNE06-585

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2006: $8,455.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:

Proposal to study the influence of winter hive humidity on honey bee survival in western Massachusetts



Although the practice of insulating bee hives for the winter was once widespread throughout the Northeastern United States; since the mid 1970’s New England apiculture was deteriorated dramatically (due largely to the introduction of the varroa mite, Varroa destructor A). As a result many traditional practices that one served beekeepers have been forgotten. For instance, it has become relatively uncommon for either hobbyist or sideliner (5-100 colonies) beekeepers throughout Western Massachusetts to apply thermal barriers to their hives. Although not well understood, many believed that such insulation many produce negative effects. The most notable of which, increased hive moisture as a result of insulation-induced bee activity is suspected to contribute significantly to colony loss/mortality.

This experiment seeks to determine if insulating colonies will lead to increased hive moisture and potential colony mortality. Should these concerns be proved groundless, Massachusetts beekeepers can one again employ this age-old practice, in efforts of rebuild their stocks in our continued climate where mite parasitism presents an ever-present threat of catastrophic winter colony loss. Should over-wintering success fail to improve, future sustainable beekeeping in New England may be become even more limited.

To avoid simply testing the effectiveness of a once common practice, this investigation will also involve the comparison of traditional wrappings with both the status quos (not wrapping) and 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 at both the Franklin County (FCBA) and the Massachusetts Beekeeping Association (MassBee) Spring/April meetings. Results will also be described in fliers and a manuscript suitable for publication in a national agricultural journal.

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

Objectives/Performance Targets

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), an Asian species, has become the bane of apiculture nationwide. No one is exactly sure how this parasite arrived in the United States but it has been hypothesized that they arrived with queen bees which crossed our boarders illegally. Varroa mites were first found in Massachusetts in 1988 and by the early 1990’s the pathogen has spread to all 14 Massachusetts counties. As a result of the devastating winter colony loss associated with 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 more 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. It is during this time, when bees are at their weakest, that the added stress from hive humidity and resulting condensation will threaten to kill the colony.

This experiment seeks to investigate the effects of wrapping bee hives with their traditional (tar paper) or modern (closed cell foam with a black, wax corrugated cardboard jacket) methods. We will compare these methods against a control (unwrapped) hive and ambient (outside of the hive) temperatures and relative humidities (RH). Weighing the hives in late fall and again in early spring will determine the honey store consumption and will seek to determine if wrapping with modern materials actually keeps a colony too warm (the added warmth may allow for additional bee activity which may cost the colony more honey and potentially create more humidity).

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.

Describe the cooperators and their roles in the project:

This project relies heavily on the participation on 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.

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

At present, the data collection phase of this experiment has yet to commence. This winter has been one of the warmest on record. Due to this uncommonly warm weather my cooperators and I have been sharing concerns for the experiment. We have all seen evidence that our colonies have yet to form their winter clusters (some have even quicken spring brood rearing, a bad omen). Consequently, we believe that the premature addition of insulation will make a bad situation even worse. As a result, with permission of Dale Riggs, Northeastern SARE coordinator, I have asked for an extension of one year to our project. This request was granted and we will be collecting data next winter (2007-2008).

Describe your results and accomplishments to date:

All experimental supplies have been procured and cooperating farms have been involved in communications. As mentioned earlier, we are in agreement that the aberrant winter will yield compromised data.

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 a much warmer than average December and January (as I write, outside temperatures are climbing into the mid-50’s). It is not clear how this abnormality will affect my experiment but we are hesitant to proceed.

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

At present, I have no evaluated the economic effects of this project on my farm.

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 temperature and humidity (we all can attest to the chilling effects of being damp). Consequently, I have proposed to continue working on honeybee survival over the 2007-2008 winter season. I believe that such data will answer any questions about the influence of fluctuant temperatures during dormancy. At present, such information is unavailable to beekeepers, regardless of region.


Westley Autio

Techincal Advisor
Plant Soil & Insect Sciences Dept.
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01002