Guest Blog Post from - Alex Jokela: Beekeeping in Minnesota!
Ice crystals around the front door in MN.
It is January in northern Minnesota. This means we have had much snow which is usually followed up with several severe cold days and nights. Night time temperatures, at their coldest, will reach down to -40F without the wind. How does one keep bees in colder climates? For me, it started with planning. My planning started in August while attending the Eastern Apiculture Society's annual conference (held in Boone, NC, last year). I quizzed any master beekeeper who was from a northern state and who would give me a couple minutes of their time. Valuable common sense tidbits that I assembled, in piecemeal fashion, into comprehensive plan.
Growing up, while hunting whitetail deer with my father, I learned to pace yourself while hiking in the woods. You did not want sweat. As soon as you stopped to wait for the occasional deer to wander by, you would become cold faster with the moisture on your body.
The same principle of moisture and cold holds true with beehives. Moisture + cold is a perfect equation for ending up with a pile of frozen, dead bees mid-winter. To control excess moisture (remember, bees shiver in the winter to keep the collective warm; lots of moisture is given off with the shivering), a master beekeeper from Maine recommended using homasote board as an inner cover. A piece the length and width of your top super is cut, and then, using a router with a rabbiting bit, a groove is routed out from middle of the piece - roughly halfway through the material - to one edge. This will be your top entrance for the winter.
On top of the homasote, a 2" wood spacer is used. Inside the space, a piece of rigid foam insulation cut to snugly fit. The outer cover is then placed over the spacer with care being taken to not cover the cut-groove in the homasote.
I picked an insulation-blanket-type wrap. It is covered in a heavy-mil black plastic. The insulation is loose enough to trap air between itself and the hive boxes while the heavy plastic is useful for keeping out drafts. The wrap is pulled up and secured just below the groove in the homasote board.
As a side note, I use screened bottom boards during the warmer months; to prevent updrafts into the hives, I slid a solid piece under the screens. The bottom entrance is still accessible, but gets covered with snow.
It is very important to make sure that the top entrance remains accessible; this will be the bees' link to the outside world while their bottom entrance is in the snow.
We have a taller fence to the east and north of the hives. These are the predominant directions the winter winds blow from. Even though the hives are wrapped snug and warm with insulation, there is the fence to act as a wind break. The fence, during the warmer season when the bees are active, also forces the bees to enter and leave the hives at a very steep angle - well above the yards of any neighbors.
Depending upon the size of your apiary, it might not be conducive to put up solid fencing; instead it might be enough or more time-economical to have the top entrance facing away from the predominant wind direction.
Lastly, food. This is a tricky one. You want to harvest enough honey for yourself, but you also need to leave enough for your bees for the winter. It gets trickier if you get an extra cold snap that causes the bees to "lock up" and be unable to reach the food stores. A beekeeper friend had this happen last year; in the spring, there was plenty of food stores left, but all his bees frozen out directly under the food.
By day, Alex is a programmer and data analyst for the University of Minnesota Duluth. But, in his off time, he tends bees and gardens. He is also actively involved in basset hound and coonhound rescue - he and his wife, Melissa, own two bassets and two coonhounds. He blogs about bees and gardening at http://snowshoe-farm.com/blog