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How to Winterize a Beehive {Step by Step}

Long before cold temperatures arrive to stay, beekeepers begin preparing bees for Winter. How much effort should you invest in winterizing beehives? The severity and length of Winter cold in your region must be taken into consideration. Let’s consider some general guidelines good for every beekeeper to think about.

Preparing Beehives for Winter

Well prepared beehives in Winter snow image.

Bees have lived for millions of years without our intervention. They have a survival plan that involves storing honey to use as food during the cold months of the year. With this bee survival plan in place, why should beekeepers be concerned about preparing their hives for Winter?

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Honestly, good beehive Winter preparation is probably more important today than in the past. One reason is that our environment is not the same as it was even 50 years ago.

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.

Also, we keep bees in man-made hives that are very different from natural bee homes. Most modern hives provide less insulation than a tree cavity. Therefore the change in temperature would be vastly different.

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.

Winter Survival Goals

Some colonies will not survive the months of cold, even with proper planning and preparation. There will be some 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.

This is one of the first true tests for new beekeepers. Can you get your bee colonies through the Winter season? It’s not how many hives you have that makes you a good beekeeper – its about how many survive Winter. 

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.

Bee hive wrapped in black winter quilt image.

The Winter Bee Cluster

As daily temps fall to 57°F  and below, bees cluster together to conserve heat. This mass of bees gathering closely together can produce a little heat.

Their goal is to sustain life and keep the queen and any brood warm. During true Winter most colonies will have very little to no brood. The winter cluster does not heat the whole interior of the hive – only the mass of bees.

After the Winter solstice, (around Christmas) our daylight hours begin to lengthen. The queen bee soon begins to lay a few more eggs.

Now, workers raise the brood nest temperature to protect the developing young honey bees. This requires consumption of even more honey.

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Again the bee calendar is moving towards Spring, but we still have cold temps and few if any flowers.  Now is the time that the colony relies on stored honey and pollen.

This amazing plan of Winter survival will not work unless the colony is prepared with a healthy population of bees and ample food stores. Actions taken/or not taken by the beekeeper last season can affect the outcome.

When to Winterize Bee Hives

Cold weather preparations begin in Summertime. When we are celebrating late Summer and early Fall, the bees have been in Winter mode for a while. 

Our honey bee colonies began preparing for Winter months before the first cold day. They were busy storing honey and collecting pollen with extra enthusiasm as the Summer days begin to shorten.

At the end of the season, most plants are finishing their life cycle and incoming nectar and pollen is reduced. 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.

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.

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.

Bee colony with baggie feeder on top image.

How Much Honey Does a Beehive Need for Winter?

Many factors are involved in determining the amount of honey needed by a colony. An informed guess is about the best we can do.

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.

If Winter cold lasts 5-6 months, you will need more honey stored than someone in Florida where cold temperatures are rare. Check with local beekeepers in the region where you live.

Does Your Colony Have Enough Food?

The top box should be full of honey before Winter. If you live in a moderate climate – a full medium super might be enough. 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 (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.

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 in your hive.

If you bees are short of honey, feed them. Successful Fall feeding can save colonies that are on the edge.

Do Not Feed Sugar Water During Winter

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.

If a lack of food is noticed late in the season, beekeepers have to get creative in bee feeding methods.

Beekeepers use emergency winter feeding techniques such as candy boards, fondant and sugar bricks.  These do not take the place of proper feeding that should take place earlier -but can serve as insurance to avoid starvation.

Winterizing Beehives Check List

  1. Bees have sufficient honey stores & stored pollen
  2. Hives are healthy with low mite loads
  3. Good ventilation for each hive
  4. Hives wrapped only in very cold regions
  5. Entrance reducer or mouse guard in place

Beyond making sure your colonies have ample food stores, there are other things you can do to get your bees ready for Winter. These do not apply to every beekeeping situation but they are good tips to keep in mind.

Combine Small Colonies in Fall

Late Summer/early Fall, is the time for us to begin to evaluate our beehives . In addition to deciding if a colony requires feeding or needs to be requeened, consider your hive populations.

You may decide to combine 2 weak colonies into 1 larger hive for Winter. 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.

Varroa mite treatments are especially important from late Summer – early Fall and into Winter.

The colony needs a good population of healthy nurse bees in the hive (July-August) to raise healthy fat winter bees. These Winter bees will live until Spring so it is important for them to get proper nutrition. 

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.

Condensation – the Winter Beehive Killer

Condensation is a bee killer. This is a bigger problem in some regions than others. If you live in an area with moist Winters – this could be an issue.

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 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 – often called a “hive quilt“.

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. You may 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 with protection from cold winds is the best plan.

Screened Bottom Boards: Should I Close Them in Winter?

A healthy colony with proper food stores should be able to get by just fine with screened bottoms in most regions.

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.

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.

Colorful hives in the winter snow of my apiary image.

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. You should 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.

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. Without proper hive ventilation hive wraps 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 norther climate, 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.

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.

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 excluder to reach stored honey and the queen is left to freeze.

When Winterizing your hives, 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.

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.

For most beekeepers, attention to your hive in early Fall, will give the colony its best chance of making it to Spring.

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