Wintering Hives in Moderate Climates
For those of us involved in keeping honey bees, Winter can be a time of concern. The cold months of Winter are a difficult time for a honey bee colony. What steps should you take when winterizing beehives? That depends to a degree on where you live. The severity and length of Winter cold must be taken into consideration.
Beekeeper Tasks in Winter Prep
Bees have lived for millions of years without our intervention. Why should we be concerned now? For one thing, our environment is not the same as it was 50 years ago.
Honey bees, and other pollinators, face changing weather conditions. Unusually, bitter Winters and wild temperate swings interfere with the natural survival mechanisms of the bees.
And, 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.
Because we do “tend” honey bee colonies in less than natural situations, we have a responsibility to do what we can to help them survive.
Year Round Hive Management is Key
Do not wait until the last few weeks of warm weather to prepare your hives.
It is much easier to help a colony that only needs a few touches rather than trying to heal a sick colony.
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 may be as simple as making sure the bees have enough stored food.
Still, every year many colonies of honey bees die over the Winter months.
This is one of the first true tests for new beekeepers. Can you get your bee colonies through the Winter season?
Because weather conditions are out of our control, high colony survival rates depend on a bit of luck. Learn everything you can about local conditions.
What makes you a good beekeeper? 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.
Inside the Late Summer Beehive
When we are celebrating Fall, the bees have been in Winter mode for a while.
When the calendar said early August/September, the honey bee calendar year said Fall.
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.
Honey is of course used as “fuel” throughout the Winter. But pollen is also stored inside the honeycomb cells.
The stored 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. This time frame will vary somewhat depending on where you live.
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.
The colony has no need for male bees during the cold Winter months. New drones will be raised in Spring.
Occasionally, I have had a colony keep drones over winter but this is not the norm.
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 only goal is to keep the queen and any brood warm. 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 eggs.
Now, workers raise the brood nest temperature to protect the developing baby bees. This requires consumption of 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.
This amazing plan of Winter survival will not work unless the colony is prepared with a healthy population of bees and ample food stores.
Important 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, anytime we open a hive it stresses the colony. And, opening a hive during cold weather should only be attempted in a true emergency.
Late Fall inspections should have a purpose and be brief. Specific things need to be checked in the late season hive.
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. Let’s get things done before cold weather arrives.
How Much Honey Does a Beehive Need for Winter
This common question of every new beekeeper is almost impossible to answer.
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 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 where cold temperatures are rare. Check with local beekeepers in the region where you live.
For myself (in upstate South Carolina),every hive needs at least 1 shallow super full of honey on top.
This is in addition to some honey that will be stored in the brood box below. If you live in a colder region, your bees will need more stored honey.
Does Your Colony Have Enough Food?
Unless you live in the deep South, your colony should have on average 65#-#90 of stored honey.
A common hive configuration is to have 2 deeps or brood boxes. The top deep box will be full of stored honey with some also in the bottom box.
My colonies do okay with the full shallow (avg 40-50#) plus what they store in the deep.
My 1 1/2 story hives work well during most Winters. I watch them closely in early Spring and do not have to deal with lifting heavy deep boxes off the top.
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.
Measuring Your Stored Honey
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.
Winterizing Preparations Begin in August
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 a new queen or to be fed for Winter stores.
Also, you may decide to combine 2 weak colonies into 1 larger hive for Winter.
Getting Bees Ready for Winter – Mite Control
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.
These Winter bees will live until Spring so it is important for them to get proper nutrition.
Mite levels should be watched all season. However, they must be under control long 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.
Late Season Feeding
Should bee colonies need constant feeding year round? No, but there may be colonies that need help through no fault of their own.
Small swarms, new hives, late season splits, local droughts – any of these issues can affect the capability of bees to prepare their hives for Winter.
Preparing beehives for Winter includes feeding by the beekeeper, 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.
Avoid Feeding Sugar Water During Winter
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.
Finish your feeding plan before cold temperatures cause the bees to remain inside the hive.
In many regions, first year hives yield no extra honey. If you take honey and leave your bees to starve, that’s just not good beekeeping.
As always, our goal is to not have to feed at all. But, some colonies will fall behind and not have sufficient winter stores.
If this lack of food is noticed late in the season, we have to get creative. 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.
Preventing 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.
In the process of Winterizing Hives, avoid trying to “keep the bees warm”. Good ventilation with protection from cold winds is the best plan. We do not want to wrap up our hives too tightly.
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 (unless we have extreme cold).
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.
Winterizing Beehives 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
Let’s work hard to give our bees the very best chance.