Winter Is Coming, Here’s How to Prepare Your Beehives
Winter is coming! I, Matthew Davies, know that your bees may not be standing up against the White Walkers, but the winter months are frightening enough. Luckily, honeybees are amazing planners and have been prepared since late last winter! The colony’s life revolves around two things: swarming and hoarding enough honey to last the entire winter.
Winter preparations for beekeepers begin as the summer heats up, the humidity drops, and the nectar flow stops. The build-up season is done, and it’s time to winterize our bees. Everything we do is aimed to support what the bees are currently doing, while avoiding over-interfering. This post will look at:
- Harvesting the honey
- Winter and fall feeding
- Winter hive setup
- Insulation methods
- Winterizing hives
- Pest control
The Honey Crop
In California, the honey harvest occurs in late August. The bees have stockpiled as much as they can before winter, allowing us to assess their food reserves and decide how much we can ethically extract. First-year colonies should not be harvested, and harvest amounts for established colonies vary by region and winter season length. I recommend asking local beekeepers for general harvest instructions. In Stockton, I prefer a 1:1 ratio of brood to honey frames.
As you gain experience, you can “heft” the hives to receive an exact reading on your honey stocks. If a hive seems light or you can’t count frames due to them being under saturated, it’s time to feed.
Winter and Fall Feeding
I support feeding as a last resort. Simple sugar syrup cannot replace the nutritious components of honey without affecting colony health. Feeding can also help bees that couldn’t prepare for winter, allowing weak genetics to survive. If the bees’ honey stores aren’t enough to get them through the winter, artificial feeding is preferable to starvation.
In the fall, feed a 2:1 sugar water syrup. They’ll use the heavier syrup instead of nectar to stock up for winter. Raw sugar will irritate their delicate bee tummies, so use refined white cane or beet sugar. If you can, feed your bees leftover honey from a stronger hive instead of sugar.
If the honey frames are still light when the cold weather approaches, prepare for winter feeding. If the temperature drops below 50 degrees, the bees will cease ingesting liquid syrup. Install your late winter feed when you close them up in the fall. So, you don’t have to open the hive and expose them to the cold, you can use regular candy boards, fondant, or even simply sugar on newspaper, but I like the no-bake candy board. It’s like regular candy boards and fondant, but easier to clean up and reuse.
As there is much debate about whether or not to give pollen in the winter, let’s examine its importance in the honeybee diet. Pollen is the only protein source for developing young bees. The pollen is abundant in the early spring and the late fall. These are the times in which bees need to grow quickly to expand their population and to fatten up in the winter (respectively). The last thing they need is an invasion of hungry mouths to feed in the dead of winter.
Midwinter feeding of pollen stimulates brood formation in preparation for early February pollination contracts. You don’t need to feed pollen in the winter if you’re not shipping your bees to California in February. Artificially increasing winter population may harm hives.
Winter Hive Setup
Remove unused space. Overwintering your bees in a limited space by removing empty boxes prevents heat diffusion, saving them energy. This will also reduce the space available for mice and other small critters seeking shelter.
Situate the honey properly. This is because the bees normally arrange their brood nest and food storage exactly how they need them. However, sometimes things go awry and require adjusting. On either side and above the cluster in Langstroth and Warré hives. A TBH should have honey bars to one side. The cluster should be able to move in one direction to eat the stores. You don’t want half the cluster shifting one way and the other!
Remove queen extruders. If you leave excluders in the hive, the queen may be left behind as the cluster advances up the honey storage. Your queen will die.
Merge weak colonies to make one strong hive out of two less productive broods. Overwintering a single hive is better than losing them both! Additionally, combine a weak colony with a robust colony, but make sure the weak colony isn’t weak due to mite overload or disease. Also, make sure the stronger colony has enough food stockpiles to accommodate the increased bodies.
Where extra insulation is required will vary. Prevailing temperatures in Stockton are colder than in other parts of the US. Consult local beekeepers to find out what works best, but I will discuss some common strategies.
Check for watertightness. Ensure that the roof and box sides are sealed to prevent damp or cold air from entering the hive. If you have screens bottom boards, seal them up or replace them with solid boards.
In every climate, insulated boxes are a wise investment. The concept is simple: lay a small box filled with dry organic material on top of the colony. This comes standard on Warré hives but can also be seen on Langstroth and Top Bar. These insulated boxes will keep the hive warm and dry during the winter months.
Wrapping can be deadly if done incorrectly. Water buildup in the hive from wrapping might freeze and kill the colony. Mold thrives in a wet hive habitat. Make a wooden “hive cozy” with dead space between the outer shell and the boxes. This would enhance insulation while allowing for breathability.
Roofing tiles on top of the hive assist absorb and retain heat on sunny days.
Warré-specific technique: stagger the boxes so the comb runs perpendicular. This blocks cold air pathways from entering and ascending to the cluster.
Close the hatches. Always secure your hives with rope or ratchet straps, or large bricks. Hives are unlikely to survive being knocked down in the dead of winter, therefore protection is critical.
Make a windbreak. A wind buffer will help regulate temperature and prevent hives from being knocked over if your hives are in a windy environment. Hay bales create a great temporary wall.
Bring them in. In colder climates, beekeepers may store their hives in a shed or garage. If you do this, move them when the season is through so foragers don’t get stuck. Relocate them to an open area where they may undertake cleansing flights on hot days. The hives can be placed in three-sided constructions for increased protection without having to move them.
These should be used in late summer, as populations begin to decline and honey stores develop. Smaller entrances keep out yellow jackets, thieving neighbours, and mice in the winter. If your colony is weak, you should seal the entrance as much as possible. Check your hive entrances occasionally during the winter to ensure that bees can leave for cleansing flights when the weather permits.
Phew. Okay. We’ve done our part; now it’s up to the bees. North American beekeepers lost 28% of their hives last winter. I, Matthew Davies, know that a colony loss is always depressing, but a successful overwinter is fantastic! To ensure long-term colony life, don’t save the weak hives and don’t start over every year with expensive packages. Replacing swarms or splitting with robust, regionally acclimated bees is a better option. Learn how to split the hives that make it through the winter, and your apiary will gradually increase with strong, healthy bees who won’t struggle every winter. Best of luck!