Need to know what to do for winter beekeeping? Here we give you what to look for, a cheat sheet to prepare for spring, and ways to help your hive thrive.
Winter is the most crucial season for beekeeping since the hives need to be prepped in order for the bees to survive the winter. We talked a bit about this in our fall episode but we’re going to deep dive into this info so you know exactly what you need to do. Bees are surprisingly hardy little creatures when their hives are winterized properly.
What you’ll find in this episode
- 11 different things to look for.
- What winterizing your hive entails
- Spring preparation tips
11 Things to Check
- Healthy, young queen. You’re going to need a queen that can survive the winter and also lay about halfway through the winter in order to have new bees in the hive come spring. Some bees won’t make it through winter and they will need to be replaced.
- You’ll want a decent population of bees. A good rule of thumb is they should cover up 8-10 frames.
- Adequate food supply. You need two deep bodies or three mediums full of honey, about 70lbs or so. I always put a candy board in the hive as well. It’s easy to make and you can find the link below. I’ve done this since I started and haven’t ever lost a hive during winter.
- Healthy bees. You need your bees to be disease free, you helped with that if you treated for parasites in the fall.
- Ventilation. You need an upper entrance for cleansing flights, which means the bees leave the hive for a little while during winter.
- Ventilation. You’re also going to need to drill a small hole in the top of your inner cover, or what we’ve done is drill a hole in the top of our candy board so that moist air is released.
- Windbreaks. This is to keep any rodents, snow, and moisture out of the hive.
- Inspections. If you live in an area that it is typically less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit then you really don’t want to open the hive hardly at all. So the easiest way to check on your hive is to press your ear against the outside and you should hear a hum coming from within.
- Face the entrance of your hive to the sun. Any help the hive can get to stay warm is a good idea.
- Provide sugar water.
- Weigh down the hives. If you’re in a really windy area it may be a good idea to weigh them down so the covers don’t fall.
Here’s an in depth look at how to help bees survive the winter. This will give you a couple of ways on how to keep bees alive in winter, like beehive winter protection and beehive insulation wrap options.
Insulating beehives for winter:
- Windbreaks. Windbreaks are going to help from snow drift, they’re going to help keep the moisture out of and off of the hive. Some windbreaks could be snow fence, evergreen trees, buildings, round hay bales, etc. You’re going to want the hive about 5 feet from the windbreak to ensure it’s working.
- Wrapping bee hives for winter. If you’re in an even colder climate (20 degrees or less) then you could look into wrapping the hives. I’ve not done this since it doesn’t get that cold here. So hives can be wrapped with either tar paper that will absorb the sun’s heat or plastic corrugated paper. This easier to install than the other kind. Check with beekeeping groups in your area and see what they use. You need to make sure that you keep top and bottom entrances open and also the top ventilation space that I talked about. There also needs to be dead airspace underneath the hive and you’ll need to probably use absorbent material in a super over the inner cover to draw moisture such as straw shavings, porous pads, fiberglass, etc. And finally you can use a poison to keep the mice from inhabiting your hive. There are some disadvantages to wrapping that should be noted. The first one is that the hive might warm up too much and the bees might begin premature cleansing flights before air temperatures are high enough. They might think that it’s warmer outside than it actually is and that’s one reason why hive wrapping may or may not be for you. Another disadvantage is there might be some excess moisture that accumulates in the colony and then if it freezes then the bees will be frozen as well. Finally, it is time consuming to wrap the hive. That’s just an extra thing that you choose to do, whether you think it’s a good idea or not. So that is a little bit about wrapping.
- Insulation. Insulation is supposed to provide colonies with extra protection against cold winter temperatures. Okay, so you can use a popular way to do this is to turn the inner cover over and then put straw straw or sawdust on top of the inner cover. Some beekeepers even paint hive bodies with insulating paint or put a super of dry drawn comb on top of the inner cover. There is a good chance that these combs could collect moisture and become damaged, so that may or may not be for you either. One other thing to think about is that supers, which is the top boxes or the smaller boxes that we typically harvest honey out of, can be good insulators also. So if you leave them on all through the winter for extra honey for the bees to eat, they would act as as natural insulators for your hive.
- Inside the hive. As the temperatures begin to drop the bees will start to form a cluster, a tight circle of bees where they all shiver to help stay warm. This heat causes moisture which can kill them which is why ventilation is so important. The amount of heat produced by the cluster will vary, when the queen begins to lay eggs and there is a brood again, the cluster will maintain heat at roughly 93 degrees. During longer winters, even if there is honey in the hive, the bees can still die. In order to access the food the cluster needs to move. If they aren’t able to make it to the honey they can still starve and die. So it’s important to have stored honey above the winter cluster in the fall when the bees can move up and the food stores are accessible. Which is why I put a candy board on top, because I know that my bees are moving up.
Why Hives Fail
- Long, cold winters
- Hive bound
- Queen died, got sick or injured
- Not enough food
Prepping for Spring in Winter
- Order queens and packages to arrive by the time fruit trees bloom in your area.
- Clean your equipment, super, frames.
- Paint and repair equipment
- Sort and cut out sagging disease and damaged combs and replace with new foundation store.
- Build or order new equipment
If you have a day where it’s over 60 degrees you can go ahead and get into the hives. Check on your queen, check for dead colonies or dead bees and clean them out, check for diseases and parasites, and start feeding the bees sugar water if they need it.