I want to present a peculiar winter-problem to you.
It may sound abstract, but an awful dilemma for (beginning) beekeepers in preparation for winter is the “Robbing Versus Slime” dilemma.
Beekeepers play God over honeybees. They do so at any time of the year, really. Especially for new or weak hives beekeeper supervision and support is important. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the overwhelming rules of nature can pose some tricky situations. Sometimes it can be hard to know what is best for the bees. Especially at the time of year when winter is setting in….
(Which is right now in the Southern Hemisphere)
Let me explain.
Bees love the sun. They love warm, calm days. They hate rain and they hate cold drafts. Try opening up a hive on a cold rainy day, and you will find out for yourself! But in most countries, winter is an inevitable phenomenon. So, just as we have to, the bees just have to deal with it. Luckily they have a good heating system. Their tactic is to cluster up in a ball-shape in the brood box of the hive. They vibrate while they’re bunched up, and this is how they keep themselves and each other warm.
If all has been going well over summer, the bees have built op significant stored supplies of honey. They depend on these stores for winter-survival. If summer hasn’t been that fruitful for the hive, meaning that they haven’t collected enough food supplies, the beekeeper needs to support the bees by feeding them an additional sugar syrup.
Mind you: the bees don’t completely stop flying in winter – you can find them outside the hive when its 12 degrees or over, to do household tasks like cleaning out rubbish. Also, they like to keep their poo’s outdoors.
This is why it’s important for beekeepers to realise that bees need an open entrance in the hive, even over winter. They need to be able to come in and out to do their tasks, as well as they need fresh air and a ventilated home.
Human-built hives that consist of stacked wooden boxes usually have two openings.
- One on the bottom front-side of the hive. This is an opening at the base “landing board” – the plank from which bees depart and arrive. Most beekeepers put “entrance reducers” over this opening, to make the opening smaller. This reduces the risk of intruders entering the hive.
- The other opening is at the top of the hive. The “hive-mat” is a plank that covers the boxes, protecting the bees. One side of the hive-mat has an opening in it. This opening is called the “vent”. Yes, a hole for ventilation, but also a potential entrance. However, you can choose to put the hive-mat upside down on the hive, which closes the vent off.
- (I feel that I need to mention that some old beehives have way more holes than this. After many years, the wooden structures kind of start to fall apart… but this is no reason to stop using them! Some beekeepers simply stuff some grass in the holes, and they’re ready to go again!)
Now, why would you choose to close off the vent? Why would you want to deprive your hive from ventilation?
And this is exactly where the “Robbing Versus Slime” dilemma comes in.
- Robbing. A good thing about closing off as many openings as possible, is the fact that it prevents robbing. Robber bees are sneaky bees from other hives, that come into your hive and steal your honey supplies. Very unfair, indeed! (Other creatures can rob out your hives as well: like mice!)
- Slime. Something horrible can happen in winter when the bees are all inside clustered up and vibrating. When there isn’t enough ventilation, slime starts to form on the walls of the hive. Literally, it drips down in big slimy droops. This makes the bees unhappy!
In other words: when you open up the vent you prevent slime-formation but you encourage robbers to come in, and when you close off the vent you prevent robbers but you encourage slime-formation!
But if bees don’t tend to fly much in winter, surely the risk of robbers can’t be that big?
This especially a problem for (beginning) beekeepers with new and/or weak hives. Weak hives are hives that haven’t been productive enough to collect enough honey supplies. The beekeeper that supplies his hives with large quantities of sugar syrup, basically sets out “bait” attracting other creatures. Of course, this is especially exiting for other hungry bees in times of cold, despair, and dead flowers. Myummm! As soon as temperatures allow, they will go out and inspect where this delicious sweet smell comes from, and if they can have a taste of it as well….
…Luckily, a happy end is possible for this dilemma –
There is always a DIY solution! To keep your hive ventilated ánd protected from robbers, you can attach a mesh over your feeder. This way the feeder is best accessible from within the hive, and intruders have no access via the vent.