Winter is coming. Three words that beekeepers have been dealing with for decades and Game of Throne fans think they invented.
For many beekeepers, the thought of winter brings an ominous feeling.
Whereas individual workers drop dead from exhaustion every day, the colony which is a superorganism can also meet its demise from natural causes. Winter is at the top of that ‘cause of death’ list.
Let’s get something straight though before we dive into winterize hives.
Bees have been getting through winter for thousands of years. Winter isn’t new to them, but our hives are.
Our agricultural practices have altered their environment so much so that’s something new to contend with.
We also started shipping things all over the world and brought some nasty little critters, such as the varroa mite to their doorstep.
That wasn’t something these European bees had to worry about 1000 years ago. All these factors have caused their natural winter processes to malfunction. Since we caused the problem, it is now upon us to help them through.
What Happens to Bees in the Winter?
If you didn’t have to work, what would you do in the winter? I would move to a cabin in the woods with a stack of best sellers and a magical fairy who kept the fire burning in the chimney all winter long. Oh, and of course a four-month supply of food so I’d never have to leave my cozy wonderland until jack frost’s reign was over. The bees share my vision.
They spend the fall gearing up for winter. They collect nectar and work really hard to cure it before the temperature falls too low. The queen lays eggs to get workers who will see her through the winter.
These ladies can live for 6 months, unlike their sisters who only make it to six weeks.
Eventually, the queen stops laying eggs altogether which ensures that the stored honey will be enough to get them through the winter. And then, the colony comes in for a 4-month long cuddle, with a few bathroom breaks for hygiene.
Banding together for warmth makes them form a cluster. The cluster moves together and uses their wing muscles to vibrate and generate heat. The bigger the cluster, the warmer the bees are.
The heat and moisture generated by the cluster also enable them to feed.
As you can imagine, it can get pretty frosty in the northern states and honey is difficult to eat frozen.
However, the heat generated by a cluster rises and thaws out the honey above the cluster. By the time they get to the honey, it’s not too cold; it’s not too hard, it’s just right.
The cool temperatures also reduce the amount of activity in the hive. The less they do, the less honey they need. This is the bee equivalent of lying on the sofa with minimal movement. This way, although they don’t hibernate, they are pretty inactive.
When to Start Preparing Your Beehives for Winter
Preparation for winter begins early. Once July is over, you really need to get going.
You have to make sure the mite count is way down. Additionally, the pantry has to be adequately stocked for the bees to make it through the winter.
Although you will need to keep an eye on the colony and check on them from time to time, you want to minimize the number of times you need to open the hive.
Stores can be checked by weighing the box. The size of the colony will determine how much honey they need.
In addition to that, the severity of the winter will also determine how much honey they’ll need. The more severe the winter, the longer they have to remain indoors.
Even when the landscape starts to thaw out, the blooms are still not available to provide nutrition for our little workers.
In fact, many beekeepers lose their colonies at the beginning of spring.
Sometimes, the sun comes out and the colony starts to exercise those wings. By going out to rediscover their environment, they burn through even more food. By this time, the queen has begun laying eggs, meaning there are more mouths to feed.
In order to get the formula that works for you, you need to find out how much honey the beekeepers in your area regard as sufficient.
In a good year, the fall nectar flow will be sufficient to set up your bees for the winter. Unfortunately, that isn’t a guarantee.
So if the spring nectar flow was sufficient, you may need to sacrifice a few frames from your harvest. If sacrificing honey doesn’t seem acceptable, then your final option is to provide the bees with syrup for them to store.
That cannot be done when the temperature drops to low. When the syrup is less than 50°F, the bees won’t touch it. Even if they did, it would be very difficult to cure for long term storage.
If the bees can’t dehydrate it, then chances are that it will spoil and the bees may starve surrounded by low-class mead.
Let’s not forget about our 8-legged villains, the mites. You need to control the mite population before winter sets in.
If you don’t, the workers that are expected to care for the colony during the winter will be unhealthy and are unlikely to make it through the winter. Mites carry vectors with them and weaken the bees’ immunity system by feeding on their haemolymph.
Some mite treatments are sensitive to temperature. Thymol, for instance, needs to vaporize to be effective. If you administer it when it’s too cold, the oil doesn’t vaporize and it’s not effective.
This is important because the fight against varroa has only started to sway in our favor because beekeepers are alternating treatments. We are encouraged not to use the same treatment twice in a row, so you are likely to find yourself using a temperature sensitive treatment at least once every few years.
In summary, once fall begins, it’s time to start making the long winter plans.
How to Winterize a Beehive Step by Step
Step 1: Determine if a Mite Control Treatment is Needed
First, we tackle the health of your bees. You need to establish if you need to do a mite treatment.
To do this, you need to a mite count, best done through an alcohol wash. You will need a cup full of nurse bees, some rubbing alcohol, and some containers.
Feel free to ask for help the first time you do this.
It is important that you get nurse bees because they are more likely to carry varroa.
The mites need brood to procreate, and nurse bees are always around brood so naturally, the mites hitchhike around the hive using nurse bees as their primary vehicle.
The alcohol wash will give you an approximation of the number of mites in the hive. The threshold for acceptable mite populations varies from one apiary to another.
Once you work out what the maximum acceptable count is, then you will know whether treatment is necessary.
If the count is high, you need to treat the hive. Most beekeepers agree that August is the best time to treat for mites. It gives the colony a chance to build healthy workers for the winter before the queen stops laying eggs.
If the treatment is done too late in the season, then the brood expected to take the colony through the winter will probably be infected with various viruses and will die despite your best efforts.
Step 2: Assess Honey Stores
Is the fall nectar flow sufficient to get your bees through the winter? You need to talk to other beekeepers in your locality.
The beekeepers association will be a valuable asset to guide you on how much honey is likely to be needed and whether the local flora is capable of delivering enough nectar to your bees.
For instance, in the case of a double deep brood colony, you will about 80 pounds of honey.
If the season’s nectar flow isn’t sufficient, your options are to keep some honey aside from your summer harvest or feed your bees in the fall.
When making the syrup, the ratio of sugar to water should be 2:1 or 5:3. The idea is to feed the bees a solution that requires little energy to cure. A lighter solution is more suitable for spring.
If the temperature drops too low, the bees will not be able to consume the syrup and you’ll have to switch to solid alternatives such as candy boards and powdered sugar.
Step 3: Remove Unnecessary Bee Furniture
The bigger the space, the harder it is to keep warm. So turn that hive from an auditorium to a little cabin. Make sure the supers are off. If the colony is small, move them to a nuc which is smaller, or combine them with another colony.
Also, remove the queen excluder. The queen doesn’t eat honey, but she needs the warmth from the rest of the colony to survive. As the cluster eats its way up, the queen would be separated by the barrier and she would die. You can either remove it altogether or place it above the inner cover.
Step 4: Protect Your Hives From Prevailing Winds
There are several things you need to do here.
One, ensure that the entrances are facing away from the wind. You don’t want a sharp breeze chilling your colony after you’ve worked so hard to keep them alive.
Second, create a windbreaker for your apiary. You could use bales of straw. You can move the hives behind a tree line. You could build a temporary snow fence.
The only problem with the latter option is that you have to take it down when the season is over and up again next fall.
Step 5: Prepare Mouse Guards
In winter, everyone is looking for a nice warm place to keep them from hypothermia. Mice happen to be on that list and they find the cozy inside of a hive as prime winter real-estate.
Now, this arrangement would be tolerable if the mice didn’t destroy the furniture. They can really do a lot of damage to the combs and the hive bodies.
You want to keep them out of the hive by making a mouse guard. You can make your own mouse guard using some 1/4” hardware cloth. An entrance reducer can be just as effective and you can use it all year round.
Step 6: Prepare Ventilation and Moisture Control
When it’s cold, we close all the doors and windows and come very close to shrink wrapping the entire house to keep warm. Well, we would if we didn’t have indoor heating. The temptation to do that to a hive is probably high but ventilation is vital to the survival of the colony.
Without proper ventilation, the moisture in the hive would build up and wind up dripping down on your bees, chilling them to death. It also causes mold to grow in the hive. Even though this doesn’t kill the colony, that level of moisture is so unhealthy for the bees that they would probably die anyway.
Introduce an upper entrance. This provides a vent for the moist warm air to escape. It also provides an exit for the bees to take cleansing flights, a fancy word for bathroom breaks when the lower entrance is blocked with snow.
You also need something to absorb some of that moisture while providing insulation. Some straw or wood shavings between the inner cover and the outer cover would work perfectly.
Depending on the size of the colony, you may need to change this insulation during the winter to keep the straw/wood shavings from getting waterlogged.
Bees have been getting through winter for a lot longer than we have been around but we have altered the environment so much that their tricks don’t work as well in the new world as they did in the old.
The guide above will help you help your bees survive the winter frost just like they used to in the old days.