The ultimate guide to overwintering success
Honey bees are masters at overwintering. But for the most part, our modern-day honey bees find themselves living in man-made structures that are not like the homes they would have built for themselves. To compensate for the difference, a beekeeper often has to tweak the hives to prepare the bees for long periods of confinement.
And since all beekeeping is local, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for preparing. A South Carolina winter is not like a Minnesota winter, and an eastern Washington winter is not like a western Washington winter. To develop a successful overwintering strategy, each beekeeper must evaluate his own microclimate, which dictates things like precipitation, humidity, temperatures, wind, and hours of sunlight.
But your microclimate is just one parameter. You also need to consider your colony strength, the prevalence and type of wintertime pests, and the type of hive you are using.
In my own operation, winter prep begins in August and ends in October. However, even after all the steps are taken, I monitor constantly until spring is well established. I check my hives weekly during the winter. Usually I just walk by, flick the dead bees off the landing boards, remove fallen branches or limbs, and listen for the murmur of bees. At other times I examine the debris on a varroa tray or look in the snow surrounding a hive. Clues are everywhere.
If I become concerned, I may check with an infrared camera to see where the cluster is. If the bees are tucked low in the hive, I move on to the next. If the cluster is up high, I may open the hive and check for food stores.
Surprising as it is to me, I have saved a number of my winter colonies just by looking around. One year I discovered a dead queen on a landing board and was able to combine the colony with another. One year, I discovered headless bees with hollow thoraxes in front of the hive, a sign of shrews. When I discovered mouse droppings on a varroa tray, I was able to trap the mice. And many times I’ve found bees separated from their food supply and was able to save a colony simply by moving frames around.
The biggest beekeeping mistake
It’s easy to make wintertime mistakes because we are more removed from our bees than we are in the summer. However, I believe the biggest mistake is inaction.
The most common story I hear goes something like this: “I think my bees are starving, but it’s too cold to open the hive.” Similarly, “I think my bees are out of food, but I can’t add more because it won’t stop raining.”
Honestly, I don’t understand the reasoning here. If your bees are starving, they will soon die. Period. End of colony. If you open your hive and quickly add some food, you may lose some bees to cold and rain, but chances are you won’t lose many and the colony will live to make up the loss.
Always begin with a plan
I have combined colonies at 20 degrees F. I have added mouse traps in the 30s. I have fed bees in the rain, wind, snow, and dark. Is it ideal? No. Can it be done successfully? Of course.
Whenever I have to deal with bees in less than perfect conditions, I first write a plan. What must I do? In what order will I do it? What equipment do I need? If I know the answers to these questions and prepare my equipment in advance, I can often be in and out of a hive in less than a minute. But even if it takes longer, you are better off than the beekeeper who does nothing because of the weather.
Suggestions for wintertime preparations
Even though it is possible to correct problems in winter, it is best to avoid those situations if you can. Below I have listed some things beekeepers can do to prepare for winter. The ones you choose should be based on your particular conditions and hive type. No one needs to do all of them, and you may do some I haven’t listed. I find that my preparations vary even within my own apiary. My top-bar hive gets different treatment than my Langstroths, and my hillside hives are a little different than those closer to buildings.
My wintertime time prep starts with a notebook. After my honey supers are off, I go around to each hive and make a simple sketch of what is there. I put one hive on a page and record just what I see. If any extra equipment is near the hive, I mention that too. That small sketch reminds me of what I need to do before winter. Looking at the sketch, I make my list.
A simple example
So, for example, hive #4 has a screened bottom board with no varroa drawer, a slatted rack, one deep brood box, one medium super, a screened inner cover, and a lid. It also has a robbing screen.
Below the drawing, I make a list of what needs to be done. Here’s a hypothetical example:
If paper’s not your thing, you can use software programs and add photographs. How you motivate yourself to do wintertime prep is not important as long as you do it.
The guide to overwintering
Below are some ideas for winter preparations divided into potential problems. Pick out the ones that apply to you and add those I missed.
- Check for colony size and combine small ones. Come spring, it is better to have one live colony than two dead ones.
- Check for a laying queen. Most likely, you will see at least some brood in your hive. If you don’t, try to find your queen to make sure she’s alive and healthy. If you can’t find her and see no sign of her, order a queen or combine.
- Do a mite count.
- Remove empty bee boxes. Make the space inside the hive commensurate with the size of the colony. If necessary, reduce the hive volume with follower boards, especially in a top-bar hive. A proper interior size is less drafty and less likely to harbor intruders.
- Remove queen excluders so the cluster can move freely within the hive.
- Reduce hive entrances if you haven’t already. It’s time for mice, shrews, and other small creatures to find a snug and warm overwintering place—one filled with honey is especially attractive.
- Consider using a mouse guard over the entrance, such as #4 hardware cloth.
- All ventilation ports should be covered with smaller screening (#8 is good) to keep out other freeloaders, including large spiders.
- Put a slatted rack in your hive if you don’t already have one. The slatted rack adds space between the bottom of the cluster and the drafty hive opening.
- Check for honey stores. If your hives are too light, it’s time to pull out that reserved honey you saved just for them. If you don’t have honey in reserve, you will need to feed sugar syrup.
- Once the temperature of the syrup (not the air) falls to around 50 degrees F, you need to feed hard sugar instead. You can use a mountain camp feeder, a bag of granulated sugar in an eke, or a no-cook candy board.
- Candy boards can be made with or without a pollen substitute. However, don’t give a pollen substitute too early in the winter. Pollen given too soon can result in a large population without adequate food stores. However, if early spring rain prevents your bees from foraging, a pollen boost in January or February can help your bees build up for the nectar flows.
- Assure that the honey frames are in the right place. That is, they should be on both sides of the cluster and above it in a Langstroth hive. Move frames around if necessary. In a top-bar hive, put the cluster at one end of the hive and put the honey frames next to the cluster on the other side. This way, the colony can move laterally in one direction to find food.
- As an option, you can place a wintergreen grease patty in each hive. I no longer do this because a grease patty won’t control a mite infestation. However, some beekeepers believe the patties can slow the increase of mites during the winter months.
Outside the hive
- Remove weedy vegetation from the base of the hive. Vegetation is a convenient hiding place for creatures who may want to move into the hive and it can be used like an entrance ramp or stepladder. Also, vegetation can hold moisture and cause mold to grow on hive stands and brood boxes.
- Remove overhanging branches or dead limbs that might fall during a winter storm and damage the hive.
- Use an inner cover under your outer cover for greater insulation.
- Some people like to use a moisture board, tucked into the lid.
- Moisture quilts can provide insulation and remove excess moisture at the same time.
- Make sure your lids keep out the rain. Make any needed repairs.
- Consider adding a rain shelter over your hive.
- Ventilation holes in upper structures can be drilled at an angle so rain drips to the outside instead of to the inside.
- If wintertime moisture is a problem in your hives, add a moisture quilt above the brood boxes.
- Provide ventilation for your hives: air must be able to come in through the bottom and out through the top. Ventilation is a give and take. Yes, you lose some warm air, but moderate ventilation helps air quality, reduces air-born pathogen counts, reduces carbon dioxide build-up, lessens the chance of mold and mildew, and keeps the interior dry.
- If your temperatures are not extreme, consider using a screened bottom board all winter long.
- Depending on your local climate, consider giving your bees a small upper entrance. Moist air can escape from the opening, and the bees can take cleansing flights on warmer days, without having to travel down through the cold hive to the entrance, and then repeat the trip back up through the cold hive. Warm bees can go out and back quickly, and a steady stream of warm air from the cluster leaves through the opening, preventing cold air from coming into it.
- Consider using a ventilated inner cover and/or a ventilated gabled roof to keep the hive dry inside.
- You may consider adding a skirt around the base of your hive to reduce drafts. Although you want adequate ventilation, you don’t want a wind tunnel.
- Secure your lids with heavy stones or tie-downs.
- You may want to shield upper ventilation holes from side winds.
- Consider providing a windbreak, such as bales of straw.
- If extreme cold is a problem, consider wrapping your hives with insulation or tar paper . . . but don’t forget the ventilation. Improperly wrapped hives can get soggy from the inside out. Remember, your bees need a source of clean, fresh air.
- Consider using a skirt, as for high winds.
- If winter flooding is a problem, move the hives to higher ground now while the weather is still dry.
The rest is up to your bees
Once you’ve done what you can, the rest is up to the bees. You should relax, catch up with your wintertime reading, and let the bees get on with it. You hear all kinds of scary statistics about winter losses, but if you prepare in a way that is appropriate for your local conditions, and you do it on time, you can overwinter your bees with excellent results.
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