There must be a better way! That is my husband’s motto.
Sounds great, right? But this kind of thinking usually ends with our projects taking five million times longer to complete and me pulling my hair out exasperatedly and wondering…why the heck can’t we just do things the way everyone else does?
But today I’m eating my words. Because this cheap, DIY beehive insulation is genius – leaves. Last year, we used free maple leaves to keep our bees toasty warm throughout the winter and they SURVIVED.
This will be the second winter we will be trialing leaves as our beehive insulation and we will update this page as we continue our test.
Why do honeybees need protection from the cold?
Not all do. It depends on where you live. Honeybees originate from Africa. Although they spread north over time to some of the colder regions of Europe and Asia, they have not genetically adapted to the long, cold Canadian -40 degree C winters. So, as their caretakers, it is our solemn duty to protect them and I take this seriously.
Except for last year. I failed two of my newly split hives that I kept at my parent’s house. I still feel guilty and ashamed. Although I protected the outsides like all the rest of my hives, I forgot to place the insulation in the top cover. I couldn’t understand why two brand new hives with plenty of winter stores would perish in the cold. Until I looked inside the cover. Stupid! Yup, still kicking myself in the butt.
Do leaves really insulate?
What does Mother Nature use to insulate? Leaves. A thick blanket of leaves protects plants from the winter cold. But what you may not have realized is that they can also be used to protect your bees from the frigid winter temperatures. Last year, we experimented with using leaves around four of our beehives with excellent results.
The R-Value of fresh leaves (I couldn’t find one for dried) is about 0.54 (per inch) using the calculations from this study. To increase the thermal resistance, we made a thick, 1.5-foot wall of leaves, which results in an R-Value of about 9.65.
But leaves have an even greater superpower. They have a high heat capacity or thermal mass (similar to that of water), according to this study from the Journal of Biotechnology. This means they are able to buffer the bees from extreme temperature changes. Leaves hold onto heat, whether generated by the sun or from the bees flexing their wing muscles inside the hive to keep warm throughout the winter. The leaves hold onto this heat and slowly release it. Some heat may also be generated from the ground where we observed some decomposition.
Although there are many other methods you can use to successfully insulate your hives, we are really impressed with leaves for two reasons:
1. They are free.
2. They are compostable and sustainable.
How to use leaves as beehive insulation
Ensure you don’t have any open cracks and crevices in your hives and that they are properly ventilated. If warm, moist air can’t escape from your hive, it will condense on the bottom side of the inner cover and drip cold water onto your bees. We use both an upper entrance and a quilt box on all our hives. You can read more about our beehive set up here.
It’s also beneficial to have some sort of windbreak – this could be a fence, bushes, or plastic sheet.
Surround your hives with several wooden stakes. Hammer them into the ground about 1.5 feet from the hives.
Staple Tyvek building wrap to the stakes.
Fill the area between the hives and the Tyvek wrap with dry leaves (you do not want to use wet leaves that will mat together). Although we used whole leaves, shredded leaves may work even better to create fluffier, air-filled layers.
WARNING: The leaves will settle over time so make sure to add about a foot extra and then check on the hives every so often to ensure they remain covered.
Ensure the bees can get in and out of the hive by extending the bee’s entrance. We used a piece of wood as the base and then covered it with wire mesh to make a tunnel.
Cover the top of the hives with a plastic sheet to ensure the leaves don’t get wet. We used a clear, plastic sheet, but would like to try a black plastic to help absorb more of the sun’s heat.
Don’t forget about spring feedings
If you have to emergency feed in early spring, you have to be able to take your insulation apart. Be prepared for this by ensuring you can easily remove the plastic sheet on top of the hives and remove your hive rooves.
So, what do you think of this idea? Will you try using leaves as beehive insulation? Let me know in the comments.
Read more about bees:
Six Secrets to Choosing the Best Beehive for Beginners
The Bees are Coming…
Why You’d Make a Great Beekeeper (and the benefits of beekeeping)
How to Catch a Swarm of Honeybees…
How to Find the Queen Bee…
Healing Honey Hand Salve (and how to render beeswax)
The 7 Must-Have Hive Tools
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