No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
One can find on internet bee fora long and detailed discussions about hives in winter and the problem of condensation. Such discussions invariably focus on the water vapour given off by the respiring winter colony and frequently resolve themselves into two camps, being those who propose that extra winter ventilation is helpful and those who maintain that it is not.
What seems never to be discussed is the water vapour that comes from the atmosphere. For those who live in locations where the winter is characterised by cold, fairly dry, weather, this is not a problem. But where I live this is not the case. Winters can have quite mild weather for long spells, but dryness is generally not a characteristic. This is not to say that it rains constantly, although it can, but more that the atmosphere is damp. It can be damp for weeks on end. Put a cardboard box in the garden shed and it rapidly becomes soft and pliable, having absorbed moisture from the air.
As the poem makes clear, November is often a month characterised by perpetual damp but, this year, November has been largely dry, with the odd day when the air has been almost crisp. Today, however, the weather returned to type. Large swathes of southern England have been shrouded in thick mist, airports have been closed, the sun has not been seen. On days such as this, the air entering the hives is at saturation point in terms of water vapour and, when it comes into contact with just about any surface, condensation will form. Increasing the ventilation in a hive may not help matters if it just allows more dampness in. If, and how soon, the dampness disappears depends on the exact location of one’s hives. Topography and aspect are important factors. We all know how mist will form at the bottom of a slope but not the top, or on a north facing slope but not a south facing one, or in a slight hollow but not on the surrounding land. Wind is also a factor; it does not take much breeze to move mist, while spots where the air does not easily move tend to dampness. Exposure to winter sun also helps. Bear in mind the fact that deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter, thus enabling shelter from summer sun while giving exposure to winter sun. I’m sure bees instinctively know all these things.
So getting winter ventilation right is as much about where you place your hives as it is about what gaps you have in them. As with all things to do with bees, appropriate placement is a matter of observing and, sometimes, experimenting. Eventually one finds a balance that works most of the time. Compromise will be inevitable, with both bees and English weather there is never an answer that works in all places all the time.
Gareth, Cotswolds, December
Photo: Mist Tree, Rob Hockley