Winter is coming.
Now is the time to begin preparing your beehives for a successful overwintering. During winter, instead of foraging for and storing food, the focus of the hive is to overwinter the queen. Successfully overwintering the queen ensures the hive’s survival for next spring. Honeybees during this time will cluster around the queen only to break the cluster during warmer days (mid-40’s) for cleansing flights and to move the cluster closer to food stores. So why do hives die anyway during winter?
Starvation: Honeybees will perish if they do not have plenty of food reserves stored in the hive. A poor man’s way to check for food stores is to gently lift your upper deep. Is it heavy or light? During this time of year it should take some effort to lift and be quite heavy with stores. If it is not, feed the bees a 2:1 sugar syrup until about a month prior to your first frost. After that, plan to use a back-up winter feeding method. There are few including the use of fondant, mountain camp method, and candy boards.
Excess Moisture: Bees create moisture in the hive during winter. Too much moisture and humidity in the hive can cause condensation in the hive, which in turn can drip cold water on your bees and cause them to die. To combat this, some people add a bit of newspaper in the hive, make quilting boxes, or ventilate the top lid ever so slightly. Candy boards are also helpful with this too.
Temperature Fluctuations: Severe swings in temperature can prevent the bees that broke the cluster to return to the cluster in time to protect one another from freezing temperatures. To help with this, some folks wrap their hives with roofing tar paper, use quilting boxes, or even make the switch earlier in the season to Styrofoam hives. Beekeepers who use a screened bottom board will also put the IPM board in the screened bottom board for the winter.
Weak Hive Going into Winter: If you have a weak hive going into winter, it will probably not survive. Consider combining that hive with another hive. Two weak hives can merge to create a strong one. You can also add a weak hive to a strong hive. Please research techniques on how to do this. It is not difficult but must be done properly to prevent the two hives from killing one another.
Strong Winds: There should be a wind barrier near your hives to help prevent temperature fluctuation. Evergreens provide a good wind break as well as a burlap fence around the hives.
Ill or Infested Hives: Hives with large counts of varroa mites, small hive beetle, or wax moths are already weak and stressed. The best thing you can do is stay on top of IPM during the year.
Replace the Comb: Frames with comb older than 2 years, should be replaced, a couple at a time, during the active seasons of spring and summer. Old comb contains pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that the bees are exposed to during foraging. Replacing the comb, reduces their exposure, the brood’s exposure, and the risk of causing stress to your bees.
Failure to Clear off Entrances: Bees need to be able to exit the hive even during winter. So be sure to clear off the entrances after every snow storm or provide an exit/entry at the top of the hive for cleansing flights.
Failure to Install Mouse Guards: Mice will move into your hives. So keep the mouse guards on to prevent unwanted tenants. You can make your own mouse guard with hardware cloth folded over and tucked into the hive entrance on the bottom board.
Failure to Check Your Bees in the Winter: It is important to lift the lids on your hives during the winter at least every few weeks. On warmer days (40’s degrees F), quickly lift the lid to check on food stores. Replenish as necessary. Peek at the inner cover for moisture/mold when you lift the lid. Increase ventilation at the top if present. This can be done with a small shim. Also, periodically knock on the side of the hive to see if you hear your bees buzzing back to you.
For honeybee feeding recipes throughout all the seasons, click here.
One photo used under Creative Commons Licensing agreement.