Beekeeping in Winter – A Slower Pace
One may think that beekeeping in Winter means not having to think about the bees at all. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, beekeepers often spend time during the cold months, hoping that the hives are doing well. Year round hive management is a part of keeping honey bees. Our task is to offer the bees help if needed and spend the extra time getting ready for Spring.
Beekeeping tasks vary from season to season. In most locations, Spring is a busy time.
New bees are arriving, established hives are growing and beekeepers are trying to attract bee swarms.
Summer is a time of honey production and in the Fall, we are concerned about getting bees ready for cold weather.
But Winter beekeeping has some important things to consider as well. It is a time of rest, thought and preparation. There are also some things to watch as the cold season progresses.
How long your bees experience cold conditions depends on your location. Some regions have long cold Winters and others experience a much shorter period of Winter.
For those of us who live in the South (USA), Winter beekeeping can be a beautiful thing. Finally, I can wear my beekeeping suit without fearing heat stroke.
No longer will I have sweat pouring into my eyes – if I forget my headband. Beekeeping in the South is not for sissies.
Beehives in Winter
The beehive in winter is much different than a summer hive. During Winter (in most locations) the days of bees making honey are over. Instead, the honey bee colony is focused on survival.
Winter bees are not very active. On cold days, bees cluster together to stay warm. Colony survival depends on constant contact with stored honey.
Honey bees start to form a cluster when the temperatures fall to around 57 deg F.
On warmer days, you may see some bee flight. The is especially true if your beehive is placed in an area with warm afternoon sun.
Don’t be alarmed to see short periods of intense bee activity at the hive entrance – it’s probably just a “potty break”. Also, don’t panic if you do not see activity on cool days. The bees may not want to come out and be chilled.
Some hives fly on cool days and some do not. This is due (in part) to the genetics of the colony.
In general, Winter is not the time for hive inspections. Do not open the hive on cool days without a darn good reason. There is no need to stress the colony unnecessarily.
Preparing Bees for Winter
Feeding bees for Winter is one of the most important late Summer – early Fall tasks for a beekeeper. Not every colony will need help but some will not survive otherwise.
However, It takes more than food for a colony to survive until Spring. Only strong, healthy colonies have a good chance of living through the Winter months.
Colonies should be free of heavy mite varroa mite infestations. Varroa mite treatments need to be completed well before cold weather arrives.
This gives healthy nurse bees a chance to rear strong healthy fat Winter bees. They will sustain the hive until Spring.
Beekeepers in very cold regions may desire wrapping their hives with some type of beehive insulating material. However, that is unnecessary in most US locations.
Cold Weather Tasks for Beekeepers
Winter in the bee yard is mostly a time of observation by the beekeeper. Observe the hive entrances on warmer days, don’t be alarmed by short bursts of activity (potty breaks).
Do you see a few bees bringing in pollen? That’s a good sign. If one colony has no activity while the others are busy, you may need to do a quick check.
Pick up any dead colonies that you find. We all struggle to keep bees alive over Winter and have strong Spring colonies.
I know it makes us feel bad to lose a hive– it sure does for me – but don’t feel like a failure if you loose hives over Winter.
Everyone does. There are too many factors out of our control to save every hive – every year.
Any unused boxes and other supplies should be safely put away. Find a good place to store your beekeeping equipment so it will be ready to go next Spring.
Winter Hive Inspections
If your bees were prepared for Winter, the best plan is to leave them mostly alone.
A quick peak in the top of the hive tells if your bees need more food. If you see lots of bees at the top of the box and no honey in the frames, it’s time for some emergency winter feeding.
Take a walk through the bee yard to check that entrance reducers are not plugged and that mouse guards are still in place.
Daily bee deaths are normal in the Winter beehive. The older bees begin to die and cold temps may prevent workers from clearing out the dead.
You don’t want the bodies to block your reduced entrances. Has your region experienced snow or ice? If so, check the hive opening for snow or ice.
Winter Beekeeping Chores
Use the Winter months to prepare yourself and your bee yard for Spring. It is a good time to review some beekeeping books.
Consider taking a beekeeping class. Perhaps you can travel to beekeeper meetings and get new ideas for ways to help your colonies.
Repairing and painting beekeeping equipment should be done during this time. It will come in handy when the bee colonies start to grow.
Planning for Spring Beekeeping
As late Winter progresses, some beekeepers choose to feed their bees a protein supplement or pollen patty. You can make your own pollen patties if you wish.
Order bees and new equipment now. If you know that you want to order bees, do not procrastinate.
Honey bees are best ordered in December and January for Spring pickup. In your region is warm, it is good to get bees early so they can build up in time to take advantage of the Spring nectar.
Beekeeping equipment suppliers will get behind and have limited availability in early Spring. Order now, beat the rush and get the equipment that you want.
Winter Dead Out Hives
There are many reasons for beehive deaths in Winter. Some of the problems we can work to avoid and some are out of our control.
Try to not be too discouraged when you lose hives over Winter. Unfortunately, this is a common problem for all beekeepers.