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As you journey into the world of beekeeping, you will recognize the rhythms of nature. The priorities of the honey bee colony seem to change with the season. They know the cold season is coming. As a beekeeper, expect to spend some time and thought in winterizing beehives. The severity and length of Winter cold in your region affects the exact steps you will take in preparing bees for Winter.
In most regions, our hives are not very active during the cold months. However, this is undoubtably the most difficult time of year for the bees. Making sure your colonies are ready is a vital part of seasonal beehive management.
Preparing Bees for Winter
What exactly does it mean to make sure your hives are ready for Winter? Must you buy or knit thousands of little bee-sized jackets? No – not at all.
In fact, the honey bee colony has a good natural plan that should serve them well. With a good population of healthy bees and ample food stores – they may not need your help.
And truthfully, that is what we hope for. Still, it is important to make sure they have all the resources they need to survive.
Winterizing Beehives Check List
Remember to consider that each colony is different (even those in the same location). And, in areas with extreme weather, hives may need more assistance. Here are some steps to check when winterizing the beehives in your apiary.
- bees have sufficient honey stores
- decent population
- hives are healthy with low mite loads
- good ventilation for each hive
- hives wrapped only in very cold regions
- entrance reducer or mouse guard in place
- remove that queen excluder
Does Your Colony Have Enough Food?
Consult local beekeeping associations to learn how much honey your hives need for Winter. Typically, we see at least 2 boxes on a hive with the brood nest in the bottom box and honey on top.
The top box should be full of honey before Winter. If you live in a moderate climate – a full medium super of honey might be enough stored food.
Some beekeepers use 2 mediums for Winter honey storage and that’s fine as well.
Most South Carolina colonies do okay with a full shallow super of honey (avg 40-50#) plus what they store in the deep.
This is a minimum of course and the colony must be watched as brood rearing begins in late Winter/early Spring.
Guesstimating Honey Stores
A medium Langstroth frame with honey on both sides will average about 4# – 5# in honey weight (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 in your hive.
Hive Population – Combine Small Colonies in Fall
Evaluating colony population levels in Fall can be a bit tricky. It is normal for the queens to slow down egg production.
Depending on the type of honey bee (breed or race) that you have – a small population might be normal.
However, the colony needs a certain amount of workers in order to generate enough heat for survival.
If you have less than 3-4 frames of bees but everything looks good otherwise, you might consider combining the hives.
It is much better to go into Winter with 4 strong colonies – rather than 8 weak ones. Colonies with a larger number of bees have a better chance of survival. As for hive numbers, take your loses in the Fall – expand in the Spring.
Mite Control Before Winter Arrives
Do not ignore varroa mite issues in your hives. The varroa will surely not ignore your bees. A good year round mite control plan is necessary.
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 find dead bees later in the Winter.
Provide Good Ventilation
Condensation is a bigger problem in some regions than others. Condensation forms when excess moisture from the warm cluster rises and condenses into water droplets on the inner cover.
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 bigger concern have several options.
They may add an extra shallow super or medium on top of the inner cover (between the inner cover and outside top).
This added space can be filled with several types of materials to absorb extra moisture: hay, straw or crumpled newspaper – often called a “hive quilt” or quilt box (make your own).
An upper entrance can help warm, humid air escape and may be necessary in regions with a lot of snow.
Rather than drilling holes in your bee boxes – use a small shim during Winter that allows an upper opening.
In the process of Winterizing Hives, avoid trying to “keep the bees warm”. Good ventilation for your hives is the best plan.
Should You Wrap Your Beehives?
Do you have to wrap your beehive for Winter? 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.
There are risks to hive wrapping. It can led to condensation problems. Also, you may keep the bees too warm causing them to consume too much honey- resulting in starvation.
If your area experiences severe cold and high winds – perhaps a northern climate, perhaps wraps are the way to go.
Otherwise, you can take a few extra precautions. Stacking a few hay bales or bales of straw on 3 sides of the hive can offer breathable insulation and a good wind break.
Most modern hives provide less insulation than a tree cavity. Therefore the change in temperature would be vastly different.
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.
Mouse Guards and Entrance Reducers in Place
In the warmer states we don’t have a big problem with mice in our beehives during Winter. Still by the time cold arrives – use an entrance reducer set to a smaller opening.
This helps weaker colonies fend off late season robber bees and may keep out cold drafts.
If you do have mouse problems, reduce your hive entrances with a mouse guard before cold weather arrives.
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.
Remove Queen Excluders
Remove queen excluders from the hives before Winter. 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. The colony moves up through the queen excluder to reach stored honey and the queen is left to freeze.
Take them off and only put them back on when you are ready to add another honey super for you.
When to Winterize Bee Hives
The beekeeper’s cold weather preparations should begin in late Summer and early Fall. Your goal is to have any problems addresses by the time cold arrives to stay.
In my area – this is mid October. All feeding, combining etc is finished by then.
The bees have been in Winter prep mode for a while. They were busy storing honey and collecting resources with extra enthusiasm as the Summer days begin to shorten.
The queen bee slows her egg laying. At some point, colonies will kick out the drone bees and leave them to die.
The colony has no need for male bees during the cold Winter months. New drones will be raised in Spring.
Late Fall inspections should have a purpose and be brief. Beekeepers often use the term “putting bees to bed for winter” to describe the last major inspection.
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, opening a hive during cold weather should only be attempted in a true emergency.
Bees have lived for millions of years without help. Why should beekeepers be concerned about preparing their hives for Winter?
Honey bees, and other pollinators, face extreme changing weather conditions. Unusually, bitter Winters and wild temperate swings interfere with the natural survival mechanisms of the bees.
Because we keep honey bee colonies in less than natural situations, we have a responsibility to do what we can to help them survive. Good Winter beekeeping depends on proper preparation in Fall.
Avoid Late Feeding of Syrup
Feeding sugar syrup during Winter is not a good idea in most locations. The bees have to work hard to metabolize the sugar water into “a honey-like substance” and it creates extra moisture inside the colony.
Expect Some Hive Failures
Some colonies will not survive the months of cold, even with proper planning and preparation.
There will be years that you will loose colonies – even if you avoid common beekeeping mistakes. The goal is to keep the number of Winter colony losses low.
Store Your Equipment
Don’t forget to store your honey supers, those with drawn honeycomb need special care to protect the wax from pests -especially for beekeepers in warmer regions.
Having a dedicated place for beekeeper storage of suits, tools and other items when not in use should be included in your Fall plan.
It is not necessary to keep the grid boards under the hives during the winter in most places. If colder than normal weather is in your forecast it is okay to insert the grid for a bit and then take it back out.
If you live in a region with bitter cold temps, close the bottoms or switch out your screened bottoms for solid bottom boards over Winter.
Many factors are involved in determining the amount of honey needed by a colony. The typical range of honey requirements for winter beehives in the US is 50# – 100# of stored honey.
The length of your Winter and the genetics of your bees will both play a role in honey requirements.
Sure, if you are not concerned about disease – you can move full honey frames from a colony with excess to one that needs more food.
This is one of the first true tests for new beekeepers. Can you get your colonies through the Winter season? It’s not how many hives you have that makes you a good beekeeper – its about how many thrive.
Getting colonies prepared does not have to take a lot of time. For the beekeeper who has followed a management schedule all season – it may be as simple as making sure the bees have enough stored food.
For most beekeepers, attention to your hive in early Fall, will give the colony its best chance of making it to Spring.