Bees

DIY: $9.33 Insulating Hive Wrap for wintering honeybees

Wrapping the hive for winter is likely not necessary in my region. However everything on a farm boils down to energy management: less energy spent on keeping the cluster warm over winter translates into less energy consumption. This both extends the winter resources as well as lessens honey consumption. The latter point translates into more honey remaining in the spring, thus less need to refill the frames consumed over winter, thus allowing the bees to start storing excess honey sooner, thus increasing the harvest of the following year.

Total price tally (from amazon for universal considerations):

($17 for insulation + $11 for velcro) / 3 hive wraps can be made from these materials = $9.33 per wrap

First of all, I did not take very good pictures of the process so hopefully I can describe the process adequately with words. Secondly, I realize this post is late as I never got it written before I took my break in the fall. Third, as with all of my beekeeping posts [so far] I use 10 frame langstroth hives.

Tools Needed:

  • String or something to measure (tailor’s tape, etc)
  • Scissors
  • Empty hive body (can be any size, we are just after the outer perimeter measurement)
  • Rubbing alcohol and a rag for cleaning

Materials Needed:

  • Reflective Bubble Insulation (Affiliate link) 16″ wide by 25 feet (enough for 3 hives of 2 deep supers each) ($16.25 at time of writing)
  • Industrial Velcro, (Affiliate link) 2″ wide by 4 feet (enough for 2.75 hive wraps but see notes below) (I bought mine at walmart for $8 if I remember correctly but use that link as a reference to the exact product but save some money getting it locally) ($11)

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Procedure:

  1. Use the string to measure the outside of your hive body
    1. My hive bodies are 19-7/8″x16-5/8″ for a total parameter of 73.5″
    2. My actual measurement was just over 74″
    3. I like to compare the measurement to the expected perimeter calculation based off of factory measurements for extra assurance but this is likely not necessary
  2. Add 2 inches to the parameter total to accommodate the overlap needed for velcro
  3. Cut the insulating material to length
  4. Clean the last two inches along opposing edges with alcohol and a rag to ensure adhesive sticks well
  5. Apply velcro to OPPOSING FACES ON OPPOSING ENDS so the velco will align when wrapped around the hive
    1. for clarity: imagine the insulating wrap is a piece of paper. Put on strip of velcro on the top of the front of the page. Put the opposing strip on the bottom of the back of the page.
    2. ALSO BE SURE TO use the two different types of velcro at either of the two ends the loop velcro can catch the fuzzy velcro
  6. Apply to hives!

Picture of the finished product:

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Oops! On my original design I forgot to account for the overlap needed for the velcro to grab its opposing self so the insulation is cut to the exact perimeter of my supers. Which brings me to my next point.

Notes

This velcro is incredibly strong. After 2 months of use, the maximum of 1/4″ overlap I could barely stretch out of it has held the hive wraps in place without a single issue. I’m actually worried about being able to get the wrap off in the spring had I provided a full 2″ of overlap. After all, its advertised to hold fire extinguishers to the wall! I was also originally planning to reinforce the adhesion to the wrap by stitching the velcro in place. I decided not to for 2 reasons:

  1. The insulation is like unpoppable bubble wrap used as a packing material so stitching through it would have ruined the insulating air pocket under the strips of velcro
  2. After playing with the velcro, I decided it was unnecessary. Ok Ok…I actually dropped the velcro and almost destroyed the carpet trying to detach them from each other. If the adhesion wears out down the road, you all will be the first to know!

Insulation power:

The insulating wrap I linked to has a extremely low insulation value: R=1.04 which is roughly equivalent to 1 inch of solid wood, increased to 4 if a 3/4″ gap is made. That gap could be achieved by putting blocks of wood under each of the 8 corners but the work required was not worth it for me. Regardless, this current set up serves me fine as I doubt I even need insulation. If your location calls for more insulation, I would use many many many layers of this or use the age old method of hay bales (or both in combination) or leave snow piled up around the hive with the entrances clear for ventilation.

Dimensions:

I chose 16 inch insulation because overwintering, my hives are 2 deep supers: each 9-5/8″ tall or about 19″ total. The 3 inches of difference leaves the bottom entrances open for ventilation as well as the top entrance (although I keep that one plugged unless condensation becomes an issue). If you have a different hive configuration you will need to calculate or measure the required width and buy or cut the insulation to that figure.

Similarly, I use 10 frame deep supers so if your configuration is different you will need to calculate or measure the length requirement of the insulation. Don’t worry it is simple and discussed in steps 1-2 above.

Final thoughts

The setting sun can hit these hives and reflect off in blinding fashion that makes it look like the hives are on fire. If your apiary has a line of sight to a roadway or bee thieves are a valid concern, you may want cover the outside with an additional layer of fabric or paint. Also this makes me wonder if the wrap is causing the hives to lose that warmth but I feel that keeping in heat is more valuable than capturing it in the winter (although backed by no calculations).

Also after seeing how ferociously strong the velcro is, next time I am going to use only a few inches at each corner and maybe on in the middle instead of lining the entire length of the end of the insulation.

Lastly, I may build a collar of sorts for the hives out of scrap wood to give the insulation the 3/4″ gap that quadruples its insulating rating. It would be a simple wood frame that sits down over the hive to be wrapped instead of the hive itself.

Honestly with the low insulation this provides, the benefit is likely more psychological to the beekeeper than anything else. As bees are best left undisturbed over winter, it is a hard time for a keeper who is uncomfortable with taking a hands-off approach. This at least provides a piece of mind that the keeper is doing everything in her or his power to help the bees survive!

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Garden

El niño year causing garlic top growth in winter

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This photo kind of hurts my eyes. I must have had HDR on for some reason so I apologize for that!

Fall planted garlic is not supposed to form top growth until spring! Winter has finally arrived after much of December seeing temperatures in the 70 degrees F.

If you are concerned about the effect of unseasonably warm winters on the success of garlic, fear not. Most reading I’ve done on gardening forums has assured that the top growth will die back in when cold finally sets in only to regrow in the spring causing no harm to the clove-bulb development that we seek.

Anyone else seeing this? Or has anyone had this happen in the past and want to provide some additional reassurance?

 

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Bees

Bees finishing up their services for the year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this time of year, the only remaining nectar producing plants are a few in the Asteraceae family and some straggling goldenrod.

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Gathering nectar/pollen to the bitter end of autumn is a good sign since I’ve stopped feeding liquid syrup for the year as temperatures at night have been dropping below freezing. I only have two more tasks to carry out before I’m forced to stand back and hope the bees have enough resources to get to the spring:

  • Pull the empty hivetop feeders, place some newspaper on top of the frames and pile some dry sugar. Moisture is an enemy within hive over winter, but so is wind penetration. A medium ground has to be carefully reached where condensation can be whisked away by limited airflow.
  • Sew together a hive wrap insulating blanket. I’ll post my cost-effective method for insulting winter hives once I’ve received my raw materials!

Wrapping the hive for winter is likely not necessary in my region. However everything on a farm boils down to energy management. The less energy spent on keeping the cluster warm over winter translates into less honey consumption. This both extends the winter resources as well as lessens honey consumption. The latter point translates into more honey remaining in the spring, thus less need to refill the frames consumed over winter, thus allowing the bees to start storing excess honey sooner, thus increasing the harvest of the following year.

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Garden

Idle Brainstorm: Biochar, greenhouse and aquaponics

I’ve previously published a much unpolished brainstorm regarding the viability of aquaponics in areas like my Shenandoah Valley that experience a hard freezing winter and how to make the prospect more viable. Previously, I brainstormed about tapping into geothermal energy by sinking the domed transparent greenhouse into the side of a south facing hill with the mass of the earth serving to help regulate temperatures. As always, the energy required to provide heat to keep the systems working negates any benefit in year round production…and then some.

Since publishing the aforementioned post, I’ve brainstormed enough additional tidbits that I believe warrant another post. In order for the fish to survive the winter, the aquaponics system needs to be heated. There are many biological processes that produce heat that could be used singularly or in tandem. Due to the living nature of these processes, if one goes down or the temperature drops too far, they will all fail which would be the greatest weakness in this system.

Fermentation

Yeast converting sugars to primarily alcohol and carbon dioxide is an exothermic reaction meaning it also releases heat as a byproduct of the reaction. If this process occurs in a closed greenhouse, the carbon dioxide will feed the plants via photosynthesis while the heat produced can extend the growing season. I have yet to determine how much sugar would be need to be fermented to have a noticeable effect, but it is an option worth considering. As fermentation is carried out by slightly fickle microbes, the temperature would have to remain above 55-60 degrees for this process to be viable.

Composting (Decomposition)

The same heat that gardeners everywhere encourage in their compost heaps in order to speed the process of decomposition could be harnessed within a greenhouse. That heat indicates that decomposition is also an exothermic process. In fact this same logic is applied to winter husbandry of livestock…at least in the sustainable agriculture world.

Manure packs are formed in the winter when animals are kept on deep bedding. In order to preserve all of the nutrients in the livestock waste, more carbon bedding is added as needed. As the pack grows and anaerobic decomposition begins, the heat produced is enough to keep animals comfortable. Pigs are even better suited to this process when natural instinct leads to  the front-end loader built into their noses to burrow, turning the pile and creating aerobic decomposition. With animals like horses with dry manure, this might even create a fire hazard as it gets so warm but the wet manure of pigs negates the threat. Chickens also create a hotter aerobic environment in their bedding when they scratch for spilt feed, or if the pack is on bare earth, when they scratch for worms. Polyface farms just down the valley from my own reports that worms are active through the winter with this method.

Even if manure is not the primary source of nitrogen in the compost, there are still plenty of sources of organic matter from both on and off the farm: grocery store produce waste, spent coffee grounds from the local shops, restaurant waste, fallen leaves, household waste, etc. Like fermentation, the living microbes responsible for decomposition require heat to remain active through the winter.

Biochar

Biochar is simply charcoal. I assume the added prefix is to make it sound more appealing as a soil amendment, one of many calimed biological uses for farms. Where I stand on biochar…I’m not sure yet. I’ve been researching and trying to find reliable studies but remain unconvinced. The fact that one of the first commercial biochar production facilities was shut down in a Ponzi scheme investigation (Source: FBI) certainly did do any favors in convincing me of all the claims made.

Regardless, I’ve still considered making my own charcoal for outdoor cooking. Any claims made of biochar proven by future science would be a bonus. There are some waste products of the farm that I don’t want to compost. Cedar, walnut and tree of heaven all contain compounds that inhibit the growth of many plants thus I am weary of adding the scraps that cannot be turned into firewood to compost. Charcoal is a viable alternative. My apprehension regarding actively harvesting biomass or diverting biomass from other uses solely to produce biochar would be lessened if the heat produced was put to a secondary use.

Unlike the other two processes, making charcoal in the greenhouse would not done by a living organism. Thus it would likely have to be the primary source of active heat while the living processes provide supplemental heat.

Conclusion

Could a combination of geothermal, solar, fermentation, decomposition and charcoal production keep a greenhouse or aquaponics environment alive in the winter? I’m not sure without doing some intense math. If I ever get the time or resources to dispose on the project, I might just give it a shot!

Also, have you thought of any additional, low input heating sources I have not considered? If so, please share!

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Bees

Bees are gearing up for winter!

Winter is the most trying time for bees and their keepers. Last year, Virginia lost 45.6% of its beehives which the state attributes mostly to winter loss. I will expand more on this in the future.

For now, I want to share this frame. While it is a work in progress by the bees, it is just about perfect in terms of winter preparation.

Why is it so perfect?

Well:

  • The brood where the main cluster of bees is expected to hang out all winter is toward the bottom of the frame
  • The bees are moving honey and pollen, their sole source of carbohydrates and protein, respectively, into the cells at the top of the frame

Bees cluster to stay warm in the winter and the entire cluster moves through the hive consuming resources through the winter. Winter loss is usually due to the the bees not having a food source within the cluster as it moves through the hive. Commonly, a colony will be found dead with full frames of honey left untouched but since the honey was not within the proximity of the cluster the bees did not consume it.

Thus in the frame above, the cluster of bees working in the brood area will have access to nourishment on that same frame.

Only a few things are within the beekeeper’s power to help the bees through the winter so he or she can only do so much before they must leave it in the hands (or mandibles?) of the hive. However I can record the activities and progress of my hives in order to learn and do better the following years.

Next spring will be proof if my management is successful, and if not, at least I have recorded data to help me be more successful in the next season.

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Cattle, Forestry

Carbon Medium for Nutrient Absorbtion in Compost while Wintering Animals

Follow up to Wintering Animals = Backbone of Soil Building

Capturing all of the nutrient rich excrement from the wintering of animals is going to require a huge amount of carbon. Skills I have gained while studying forestry and the associated graduate projects I assisted will be called upon in order to accumulate the carbon biomass I will require. I’ll write a well-cited post on my sustainable forest management plans once I have finished collecting and amassing my research. The gists of my strategy will be to provide the canopy disturbance necessary to have a healthy, sustainable forest.

Good points were made in Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. Starting around page 182, Salatin asserts that soil is built and carbon sequestered more efficiently via grasslands opposed to forests. Trees grow very slowly, then die. As they decompose, much of that sequestered carbon is released right back to the atmosphere. Grasslands grow, die and decompose every year; multiple times a year if serviced by grazers and herbivores. However the sequestered carbon in the grasslands us more fully absorbed by the soil and stored in the animal tissue of grazers. Salatin’s assertions seem to be backed up by this study I found.

To minimize the negative impact of forest land on the atmosphere, I plan to eventually harvest the dead, diseased, crooked or otherwise undesirable trees from the forest to make room for subsequent generations of oak and hopefully someday soon, American Chestnut. Despite my minor in forestry, I have a lot more to learn about sustainable harvesting. Fortunately, there are many pioneer trees in the pasture that need removed, and the unmaintained forest has many dead trees that should sustain me for at least a year while I broaden my forestry knowledge.

I will likely invest in a wood chipper to process the farms own biomass to provide the winter bedding. I may also seek out locally discarded christmas trees, shredded paper/cardboard, peanut hulls (suggested by Mr. Salatin in our correspondence) or any other source of easily attainable carbon material.

Note: If you plan to store wood chips on your farm, please be sure to do so in a manner that accounts for the heat generated as they naturally decompose. Limit the height of piles to prevent a fire hazard in your structures and to ensure that the chips dry fully.

 

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