UW-Superior researchers develop windshield to protect beehives

UW-Superior researchers have developed a windshield for beehives that can provide both insulation and ventilation, helping to prepare hives for winter.

This comes as bee populations are struggling across the country and in Wisconsin. Over the past decade, average winter hive loss in the United States is estimated at 30 percent, more than doubling the recent historic average.

And Wisconsin was one of the U.S. states that lost 60 percent or more of its honey bee colonies in the 2014-15 winter season.

This trend spells trouble for Wisconsin and the nation, as pollinating honey bees play a key role in agricultural industries.

Pollinator-dependent crops account for over $55 million in annual production for the state. And honey and beeswax together account for $3.5 million in annual production, per a 2016 report from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The WiSys Technology Foundation is seeking commercial partners to develop the new windshield design for mass manufacturing. The device is a curved installation that fits over a standard beehive entrance.

WiSys says early lab tests show a prototype can prevent 90 percent of 20 mile per hour winds from entering, without sacrificing passive ventilation or keeping bees from entering and leaving.

Eight beehives in Wisconsin were fitted with the prototypes last year, and six survived the winter of 2017-18. WiSys acknowledges this is a small sample size, but calls the 25 percent loss rate “a marked improvement” over the recent local average of 50 percent.

Based on what they learned last winter, researchers have updated the device’s design and created improved prototypes to be tested in the coming months.

Many beekeepers wrap roofing felt around their hives to insulate and prepare for winter, according to an info page from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. But if bees’ respiration over the season increases the condensation too much inside the hive, it can be dangerous for the bees.

Some beekeepers add a screen over the hive entry to cut down on condensation, but that can hurt insulating efforts by allowing cold winds to enter. WiSys says the new windshield can allow ventilation while still blocking the direct flow of wind.

A breakdown from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation shows how impactful winter hive losses can be.

If a commercial beekeeper with a 300-hive capacity were to lose 30 percent of their colonies, they would lose about $60,000 in honey profits, according to WARF. To just replace the hives, that beekeeper would face costs of $13,500. WiSys says the windshield could “substantially” reduce costs like these.

–By Alex Moe