Winter Beekeeping – A Slower Pace
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 chasing 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.
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.
Activities of Bees in Winter
The beehive in winter is much different than a summer hive. Instead of making honey and raising baby bees, the honey bee colony is focused on survival. If the beekeeper has done a good job preparing bees for winter, the colony should have enough food to survive.
But it takes more than food for a colony to survive until Spring. Only strong, healthy fall colonies have a good chance of living through the Winter months. Sick, pest ridden bee colonies are prone to failure.
Bees in Winter are not very active. The honey bee cluster huddles together to stay warm and eats honey that has been stored for this purpose. 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”.
Finding numerous brown or yellow spots on the ground or snow in front of the hive is normal. This is not a sign of disease – it’s just that when thousands of bees want to potty at the same time – things get messy. It is not the best time of year to park your car near the hives.
Winter Beekeeping Tasks for Every Beekeeper
Winter in the bee yard is mostly a time of observation by the beekeeper. We all struggle to keep bees alive over Winter and have strong Spring colonies.
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. Perhaps you can save some of the comb for next Spring. I know it makes us feel bad – 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.
Winter Hive Inspections
If your bees were prepared for Winter, the best plan is to leave them mostly alone. Unless you are professional with thousands of hives, don’t open your colonies when the temperatures are cold. You risk killing bees and any brood by chilling.
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.
A walk through the bee yard to check entrance reducers or mouse guards is a good idea. These were hopefully put into place before cold weather arrived. Check the opening to ensure it is clear.
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. When the temperatures warm, we want the bees to be able to leave the hive for a brief spell and not be locked up inside.
Winter is normally a time of less brood (baby bees) being raised. This makes it a good time to do a mite treatment with Oxalic Acid Vaporization. This is only one method of mite control. Oxalic Acid is especially effective in Winter.
For those of you who use OA, treating during a broodless time is most efficient. I would not use the dribble (water) method during cold times. The last thing cold bees need is to be wet.
Winter Beekeeping Chores Mean Preparation
During this time beekeeper chores are fewer. Use the Winter months to prepare yourself and your bee yard for Spring.
It is a good time to read new books or beekeeping magazines. 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. Equipment preparation is always time well spent and best done before hive inspections begin.
Some beekeepers choose to feed their bees a protein supplement at the end of Winter as Spring is beginning.
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. This is especially true for those of us who have early honey flows. We want to get our new 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.
Avoiding Discouragement in the Winter Bee Yard
Most people lose hives during Winter. There are several 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. Spring is coming.
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