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Beekeeping in Winter -Beekeeper Tasks

One may think that Winter beekeeping tasks consist of sitting around the fire waiting for Spring. It is true that the cold months are not an active time for most beekeepers. But, beekeeping in Winter does not mean that we forget about the bees completely. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, beekeepers often spend a great deal of time during the cold months, hoping that the hives are doing well.

Beekeeping apiary row of hives sitting in Winter snow image.

Winter Beekeeping Hive Management

Beekeepers have a variety of tasks to perform to help their hives stay healthy and productive. These task vary from one season to the next. In most locations, Spring is a very busy time.

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New bees are arriving, if the beekeeper has placed orders, established hives are growing and beekeepers are trying to attract bee swarms.

Summer is a time of honey production, making hive splits and ensuring that things are well in the hive. As Fall approaches, we are concerned about getting bees ready for cold weather.

Honey bees fly from beehive entrance on warm Winter day image.

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 true 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.

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No longer will I have sweat pouring into my eyes – if I forget my headband. Beekeeping in the South is not for sissies.

However, even Southern locations can experience cold temperatures and resulting colony loses. There are challenges for every beekeeper – no matter the location.

Preparing Bees for Winter

Beekeeper tasks performed in the Apiary before late Fall have a big impact on colony survival rates. Not every colony needs special attention.

But, those that do need help may perish without the assistance. Your Winter beekeeping strategy should build upon good Fall work.

You may find yourself doing risky Winter hive procedures to keep the bees alive if you failed to get them ready for Winter in time.

Early and Late Season Feeding

Late Summer – early Fall feeding can help the colony in several ways. Not every colony will need this extra attention. However, some will not survive otherwise.

As Winter approaches, providing extra food resources for beehives in need is important – if needed. These practices can be considered extra insurance to prevent starvation.

Including items such as candy boards made of sugar or fondant. Having a little extra food on the hive is rarely a problem. Having too little can be a disaster.

Beehives wrapped for Winter in the snow image.

Your Winterized Hives

Strong, healthy honey bees colonies with good food reserves have the best chance of survival. Colonies should be free of mite varroa mite infestations months before cold arrives.

Most Varroa mite treatments need to be completed in late Summer-early Fall at the latest. Yes, it can be too late – don’t delay testing and treatment if needed.

This gives healthy nurse bees a chance to rear strong healthy fat Winter bees. They will sustain the hive until Spring. Sick mite infested colonies will not raise strong bees for Winter.

Do you need to wrap your hive? 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.

Your winterized beehives should be healthy, well fed and free of pest loads. Take appropriate measures for your climate and you have done your best as beekeeper.

Winter Apiary Guidelines

  1. prepare your hives with sufficient food before cold arrives
  2. wrap hives with insulation in cold regions but ensure good beehive ventilation
  3. combine any hives that are low on population or weak
  4. Store unused equipment (honey supers etc.) and order supplies if needed
  5. examine hive entrances regularly to ensure they are not clogged
  6. don’t open the hive when temps are cold
  7. if your bees do not have stored pollen – consider adding a pollen patty in late Winter

What to Expect from Winter Beehives

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° F. On warmer days, you may see some bee flight. This 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”. It could also be an small orientation flight as a few new bees are produced in late Winter.

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.

Beekeeper in Winter apiary cleaning hive entrance and listening image.

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. Do you see a few bees bringing in pollen? That’s a good sign.

If one colony has no activity while all the others are busy, you may need to do a quick check. Just pop the top and look in (with your veil on of course). If they seem okay – don’t disturb them – they may just be cold-natured.

Pick up any dead colonies that you find. We all struggle to keep bees alive over Winter and have strong Spring colonies but hives die.

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 hives were properly winterized, 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.

This can be accomplished with fondant, winter patties (pollen), or dry cane sugar. Winter is not the time to be feeding sugar water. No sugar water in cold weather.

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.

Dead bees from a Winter hive on bottom board image.

Winter Dead Out Hives

When a colony dies it is often called a “dead out”. There are many reasons for beehive deaths in Winter.

Too little food, too little food in the right place, poor quality queens, extreme moisture all play a role. 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.

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.

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.

While the success of our hives over the cold months depends in part on how well we prepare them – there are still things we can do to help marginal colonies make it until Spring.

Check the hive entrances to ensure they are open so the bees might take a cleansing flight on a warm day. Watch for any hives that might turn over in storms and check food stores when weather permits.

Winter beekeeping will have its share of disappointments but those colonies that make it through will hopefully be healthy and ready to go in the new year.

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