Preparing Beehives for Winter Involves Several Critical Steps
Beekeepers who spend time preparing beehives for Winter weather, increase colony survival odds greatly. Winterizing beehives does not have to take a lot of time. For the beekeeper who has followed a management schedule during the season, Winter prep can be accomplished quickly.
Every year many colonies of honey bees die over the Winter months. This is one of the big tests for beekeepers – especially new beekeepers. Can you get your bee colonies through the Winter season?
Because weather conditions are out of our control, high colony survival rates depends on a bit of luck. If you invest time in learning how to prepare beehives for Winter in your region, you will be a step ahead.
Learn everything you can about preparing beehives for winter. It’s not about how many hives you have, its about how many you can get through Winter. Each beekeeper has their own techniques but the basics are the same. The needs of the bees do not change.
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Useful tools for Winter Prep
Inside the Late Summer Beehive
When we are celebrating Fall y’all, the bees have been in Winter mode for a while. When the calendar said mid August/September, the honey bee calendar year said Fall. And, our honey bee colonies began preparing for Winter.
They were busy storing honey and collecting pollen. The pollen will be used to raise new babies in late December, January and February.
As incoming nectar and pollen reduces (because plants are finishing their life cycle), the queen bee will slow her egg laying. In fact she may stop laying completely for a few weeks from November to December.
The honey bee colony reacts to the length of daylight and temperature fluctuations. At some point, colonies will kick out the drones (male bees) and leave them to die.They don’t need drones during Winter and don’t want to have to feed them. Occasionally, I have had a colony keep drones over winter but this is not the norm.
When Winter Starts for Bees
As daily temps fall to 57°F and below, bees cluster together to conserve heat. Their only goal is to keep the queen and any brood warm.
Beekeepers can increase Winter survival rates by giving colonies a helping hand. Preparing beehives for Winter well before cold weather arrives – that’s smart. Once the daily temperatures drop, it may be too late. Cold bees are not efficient workers.
After the Winter solstice,(around Christmas) our daylight hours begin to lengthen. The queen bee soon begins to lay a few eggs. Now workers raise the brood nest temperature and must consume more honey.
Again the bee calendar is moving towards Spring, but we still have cold temps and few if any flowers. The colony relies on stored honey and pollen.
Preparing Beehives for Winter With Fall Inspections
New beekeepers look inside the hives more often than those of us with experience. That’s okay. You have to look to learn.
But remember that anytime we open a hive it is a stresser to the colony. Early and late Fall inspections should have a purpose.
There are specific things that we are looking for to gauge hive readiness. Beekeepers often use the term “putting bees to bed for winter” to describe the last major inspection.
Anything that you want to do towards preparing beehives for Winter needs completed while temps are still moderate. Because during Winter, only emergency situations will justify opening the hive.
Let’s get things done before cold weather arrives.
How Much Honey Does a Beehive Need for Winter
This is a question that everyone wants a definitive answer to. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to give one simple answer.
The length of your Winter and the genetics of your bees will both play a role in honey requirements. Bee colonies that over-winter a large population need more honey.
If Winter cold lasts 5-6 months, you will need more honey stored than someone in Florida. Check with local beekeepers in the region where you live.
For myself, I will say that every hive needs at least 1 shallow super full of honey on top. I tell local beekeepers, “when preparing beehives for Winter, you must have at least 1 shallow super full of honey”. Adjust this amount to your location.
How Much Winter Honey Does my Colony Have?
Unless you live in the deep South, your colony should have on average 65# of honey. My colonies do okay with the full shallow (avg 40-50#) plus what they store in the deep.
The typical range of honey requirements for winter beehives in the US is 50# – 100# of stored honey. The colder and longer your Winter season, the more honey you need.
A medium frame with honey on both sides will average about 4#-5# of honey (a shallow slightly less – on average). The full deep frame with honey on both sides weighs in at about 8# of honey. These are averages of course but it gives you one way to “guesstimate” honey stores.
When to Start Preparing Beehives for Winter
Seriously, Fall starts for honey bee colonies in July/August. Even if you who have a Fall honey flow, the bee colony has begun Winter prep.
Late Summer, is the time for us to begin to evaluate our beehives and consider what they may need for Fall.
This gives you plenty of time to decide which colonies may need requeened or fed. And you may decide to combine 2 weak colonies into 1 larger hive for Winter.
Getting Bees Ready for Winter – Requires Varroa Management
I can not ignore varroa mite issues because they sure will not ignore my hives. My varroa treatment plan begins in earnest in mid-late Summer.
I want a good population of healthy nurse bees in the hive (July-August) to raise healthy winter bees. The Winter bees will live until Spring so it is important for them to get proper nutrition. Mite levels should be well under control before September.
Have you ignored mite management until late Fall and find your colony with a heavy infestation. I would certainly try to do something now but the chances of successful overwintering is not good. You may lose the hive.
Do You Need to Feed Beehives All Winter
Certainly not. In fact, unless you live in the very warmest regions you will not be able to feed all Winter. And as always, our goal is to not have to feed at all.
But, some colonies will fall behind and not have sufficient winter stores. Beekeepers use emergency winter feeding techniques such as candy bars, fondant and sugar bricks. But these are just what it seems – emergency measures.
So much better if we can get the hives ready ahead of time. Preparing beehives for Winter includes feeding if necessary. This should be completed before cold, Fall weather arrives.
While the temps are still warm, feed 2:1 sugar water (2 parts sugar to 1 part water). This ratio of sugar water encourages the bee colony to store it rather than use it to draw comb or raise brood.
Feeding sugar water during Winter is not a good idea. The bees have to work hard to metabolize the sugar water into nectar. Also, this activity creates extra moisture inside the colony.Most first year hives yield no extra honey. If you take honey and leave your bees to starve, that’s just not good beekeeping.
Condensation the Winter Beehive Killer
Condensation is a bee killer. This is a bigger problem in some regions than others.
I have never had a problem with condensation in my hives. However, I do use a ventilated inner cover so that may explain it. I also never feed sugar water during winter.
Condensation forms when moisture from the warm cluster rises and condenses into water droplets on the inner cover. It may even freeze on the underside of the telescoping top.
Then, when temperatures rise above freezing, cold water rains back down on the cluster. Cold wet bees are dead bees.
Beekeepers who live in damp regions or very cold regions where condensation is a concern have several options.
They may add an extra shallow super or medium on top of the inner cover or top super. This added space can be filled with several type of materials to absorb extra moisture: hay, straw or crumpled newspaper.
These items are often called hive quilts or straw boxes and can be purchased also. An upper entrance can help warm, humid air escape and may be necessary in regions with a lot of snow.
Screened Bottom Boards: Should I Close Them in Winter?
Bees don’t warm the whole inside of the hive just the brood nest. A healthy colony with proper food stores should be able to get by just fine with screened bottoms.
I do not keep the grid boards under my hives during the winter. Beekeepers that live just north of me also leave their screened bottom boards open.
If you want to slide in a board, there is no harm in doing so. If you live in a region with bitter cold temps, I would certainly close the bottoms or switch out for solid bottom boards over Winter.
One exception: If we have a severe cold front come through, I will install my grid board. I don’t know that it helps but I don’t think it hurts. I am also experimenting with installing the grid boards in February. Perhaps this will encourage early brood rearing.
Mouse Guards and Entrance Reducers
In the warmer states we don’t have a big problem with mice in our beehives during Winter. I do use a standard entrance reducer. I feel it helps weaker colonies fend off late season robbers and may keep out a cold draft.
But many beekeeper do have mouse problems, reduce your hive entrances with a mouse guard before cold weather arrives.
Once night temps cool, mice will be looking for a warm place to spend Winter. With the bees tightly clustered to stay warm, Marty Mouse may pick your hive for his Winter abode.
Once inside they chew up comb, urinate and leave feces inside – its a mess. Choose a wire or metal mouse guard if you live in an area with this type of problem.
Does Preparing Your Beehive for Winter Involve Wrapping Hives?
Do you have to wrap your beehive? No. It is certainly not necessary in most parts of the country. Unless you live in a region of severe cold, your time could be spent in better ways.
Wrapping can help some colonies in bitter regions but there are risks. There is a possibility of harm if the bees don’t have ventilation. Also, you may keep them too warm and they consume too much honey resulting in starvation.
We want to Winterize our hives in a way that helps their natural survival process. A healthy population of bees with sufficient food stores in a draft free hive.
Winter Beehive Inspections Should Be At Minimum
When preparing beehives for Winter, I hope you left each colony with a box (or boxes) of honey on top of the hive. Over Winter, the bees will eat their way up into the top box.
On a warm day (assuming you have one) a quick late Winter inspection will tell if the bees have migrated up to the top. If you see lots of bees and no stored honey on top, your colony is in danger of starvation. This would be the time to begin emergency feeding measures.
PLEASE: Remove queen excluders from the hives. As the cluster moves up through the hive to stay in contact with food, what will happen if the queen can’t get through? They wont stay with her – that’s for sure.
For most beekeepers, preparing your beehive for Winter in early Fall, will give the colony its best chance of making it to Spring. Here is an additional resource for beekeepers.
Preparing Beehives for Winter/Wintering Hives Check List
- Bees have sufficient honey stores & stored pollen
- Hives are healthy with low mite loads
- Good ventilation for each hive
- Hives wrapped only in cold regions
- Entrance reducer or mouse guard in place
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