Honey bees can live almost anywhere in the world, but as a beekeeper, you’ll need to think about what each season will bring.
If you live in a climate that gets cold or snowy winter weather, it’s important that you adequately prepare your apiary. Honey bees are much more comfortable in warm temperatures and often need help to successfully survive winter. There’s a lot to consider, and each situation is unique when it comes to wintering bees.
If you’re a new beekeeper, read on to learn all about wintering bees and how to get them through until spring.
Thinking Ahead About Wintering Bees
Whether you already have your bees or you’re still in the research phase, there is a lot to plan ahead for when it comes to wintering bees.
You can do several things to start off on the right foot and give your bees the best possible chance of survival. If you haven’t already, finding a mentor, fellow beekeepers in your area or a local beekeeping club can help you understand where to start with winter preparation.
It’s absolutely crucial that you do not open the hive up unless the weather is acceptable. Introducing cold air into the colony when they need to maintain as much heat as possible can be catastrophic for your wintering bees.
This means you need to do everything you can while you’re still able to do inspections and manipulate the hive. Once it gets cold, your honey bees need to be safe and warm with no interruptions.
Potential Risks to Wintering Bees
Low temperatures aren’t your only concern in wintering bees.
During the winter, honey bees won’t be able to forage. They will almost never leave the hive unless they get a nice warm, sunny day here and there. As a result, they need to be safe and robust going into the time of year when they’re stuck inside.
Some of the major things to think about are moisture, ventilation, mite treatments, and honey stores. All of these factors play into whether or not you’ll be successful in wintering bees. You want to do everything you can to keep your hive strong and healthy before the cold weather hits and ensure that conditions inside the hive are optimal.
Types of Bees
Some subspecies of honey bees naturally fare better in the cold than others. While you may not always have the option to choose what kind of bees you raise, if you’re able to it can help tremendously.
If you experience more extreme winters, opt for more cold-hardy bees. Breeds that originate in colder weather, such as Russians, typically have an easier time tolerating winter weather.
Getting honey bees locally is a great way to get your hands on bees more likely to acclimate to your climate. Sometimes this means they’ll be a mixed breed.
You may only be able to get whatever is available to you. A lot of the time, beekeeping shops stock Italian honey bees as they’re the most popular subspecies to raise.
While Italians aren’t as well-suited to the cold, that doesn’t mean they can’t thrive in all seasons. Knowing that your bees might be a bit more susceptible to winter-related issues can also help you prepare appropriately.
When temperatures drop in the winter, that means you can expect cold winds. Some areas experience stronger gusts as well, and it’s important to prepare your hive.
A wind barrier can be beneficial any time of year, but particularly in the winter when a strong, cold wind can give your wintering bees an extra chill. This will block that extra cold air from hitting the hive. It’s also a great way to keep your hives from getting blown over in really bad weather.
Fall Preparation Before Wintering Bees
Before the cold weather sets in, there are a few things you can do to prepare your wintering bees while it’s still warm enough to get into the hive.
This might just mean the difference between getting your bees through the winter and losing colonies. Remember, late fall will likely be your last chance to open up the hive for any necessary changes.
Below are factors you should be aware of no matter where you live.
Mites are not only detrimental to wintering bees on their own, but they also transmit diseases. Sick honey bees will struggle to deal with all the other factors going against them this time of year, even if everything else is perfectly in place.
Fall is often your last chance to test and treat for mites, so make sure you’re on top of it. Many mite treatments are either temperature dependent or require a specific placement inside the hive. Some treatments can also be a bit hard on the bees, and they may need some time to recover.
Think carefully about your treatment plan starting in the spring. This isn’t something that should be a last-minute or emergency decision unless you absolutely can’t avoid it.
There are many methods to treat your hive for mites, from formic acid to oxalic acid to mite strips. They all work in different ways and it’s often beneficial to use more than one at different times. Choose the method or methods that make the most sense for you.
Testing for mites is also an important piece of the puzzle in successfully wintering bees. You want to be aware of the mite loads in each hive, which can help you determine which course of action to take and when. It can provide clues if your hive doesn’t make it as well.
You should test for mites periodically in warmer weather both before and after treatment so you know if the treatment was effective. Some beekeepers treat automatically without testing, as mites have become so common that you’re almost certain to have them. Even still, it’s best to have as much information available to you as possible.
Before you go harvesting all the honey your bees have made at the end of the fall season, you need to make sure they have enough for themselves.
At a minimum, you should leave any honey the bees have stored in the lower hive bodies. For most people, that will be two deeps or three mediums where the bees usually keep brood and pollen through the rest of the year. That means that you should only plan to harvest from honey supers to leave enough food for your wintering bees.
If possible, you can also leave a single honey super on as extra insurance. Honey is the best feed for them so it’s preferable to leave them honey and avoid feeding if you can.
While mice won’t kill a hive, they can contribute to a weak hive.
A mouse guard is usually a metal piece with holes that goes over the bottom entrance to the hive. The holes are big enough for the bees to come and go but small enough that mice can’t get in and make a nest for themselves.
Consider Your Climate
How you choose to winter your bees will depend on exactly where you live and the conditions you experience.
This will be a little bit different for everyone, and it may take you a few years of testing different methods to figure out what works best for you and your hives.
The biggest cold weather problem you’ll deal with is moisture in the hive.
The cold itself is usually not what harms the hive but rather moisture in the air that chills the bees. It’s essential that your hive has a way of getting rid of the excess water in the air, and there are several ways to do this.
Ventilation and airflow is crucial to carry moisture out quickly. If it snows in your area, make sure to keep all entrances to the hive clear.
At the same time, you don’t want drafts. Air should be able to move up and out to bring rising moisture out with it, but you don’t want cold air getting in everywhere.
You can also employ various methods for absorbing the moisture, either with a quilt box or with dry sugar that can later help keep your bees fed.
Quilt boxes sit on top of the other boxes and usually contain something absorbent like burlap or shavings. As moisture rises, it gets caught in the material and stays away from the bees. A dry sugar board will suck up water, and wintering bees will be able to eat the sugar later on if needed.
If you use insulated hives, you likely won’t have to worry about insulation.
If you have more traditional wooden hives, you may want to add insulation (ADD LINK TO INSULATION POST LATER) to help keep heat in. This isn’t always necessary, and many colonies do well without it.
You can use foam board insulation strapped to the outside of the hive to help maintain heat. This is a great budget-friendly option that’s quick and easy.
There are also plastic covers filled with soft material that fit around the outside of the hive. They’re usually black to absorb heat from the sun and are made for wintering bees.
Keeping Your Bees Fed
Your colony may need extra food, particularly toward the end of winter when they may have gone through any honey stores they had.
If you’re using dry sugar to absorb moisture, they’ll be able to eat it as needed. You can also make a sugar board by mixing a little bit of water with sugar, forming it into a board that will sit on top of the boxes, and letting it dry before putting it in the hive.
Winter patties are another great way to keep your bees fed, and contain both sugar and protein. These can be added to the top of the hive either at the start of winter or if you feel like your wintering bees need an extra boost.
What to Look for Through Winter
Unless you get a rare warm, sunny day, you do not want to open up your hive in the winter. This means you won’t be able to actually see what’s going on inside the colony like you would the rest of the year.
There are a few ways you can at least get an idea of how they’re doing from the outside. Watch for certain signs and be aware of potential issues. You may be able to intervene if you catch them quickly enough.
Every so often, you’ll want to observe any activity that occurs outside the hive. On warmer days, you may see the bees go out on cleansing flights or to forage. You can also see droppings that land on the boxes, which may indicate if the wintering bees are healthy or not.
While you can’t open the hive, there are still ways to get an idea of how the bees are doing inside.
Thermal devices can allow you to see where exactly the cluster is and how warm it is. They pick up on the temperature inside the hive and show you visually.
You can also listen to determine how your wintering bees are doing. Put an ear near an entrance and knock on top of the hive. The bees should buzz in response. Many smartphones have a “live listen” option that can magnify sounds for you to make this easier.
Intruders and Predators
Wildlife will be interested in getting into the hive year-round, but especially in winter when resources are scarce.
Honey and larvae are both desirable to hungry critters. They will happily knock a hive over in search of something to eat. A hive that gets knocked over in the cold weather is not likely salvageable once the wintering bees are suddenly exposed to that much cold air.
Regularly check for signs of critters like footprints near the hive. Keep the boxes secure by ratchet strapping them together, and you can also place something heavy like a cinder block on top.
If you didn’t add a mouse guard, be on the lookout for rodent activity as well.
My Hive Didn’t Make it – Now What?
If you suspect you lost a hive in the winter, you’ll need to confirm and figure out what happened.
Often it’s not the cold that kills wintering bees, and there are many reasons why they might not survive. It can be very discouraging to lose a hive in the winter, but don’t give up! Learn as much as you can and use your knowledge and experiences for next year.
Signs the Colony Didn’t Survive
If you aren’t seeing any signs of life when you periodically observe the hive, there are a few ways you can check to see if the wintering bees didn’t make it.
On warm days with a lot of sun, you should either see bees leaving the hive for cleansing flights. You can even try to peek into an opening to check for movement.
Listen for buzzing. A quiet hive of wintering bees may not have survived.
Use a temperature monitor to see if you detect any heat. No heat means no cluster of wintering bees.
Finally, a lot of dead bees around the outside of the hive or just inside blocking the bottom entrance is a good indication that you lost your colony. A combination of these factors will tell you what you need to know.
Performing a Hive Autopsy
Once you’re confident your wintering bees have died, you’ll need to open up the hive. It’s important to figure out what happened so you can rectify any issues for the following year.
A “hive autopsy” can help you better understand what went wrong and lets you put all the clues together.
The most common causes of colony loss during the winter can be excess moisture that isn’t well-ventilated, mites, starvation, or an overall weak hive going into winter.
Starved bees will be face-first into cells, and some may be clustered around the queen with no honey stores left. If they have food, they may still have starved due to a combination of other factors that meant they weren’t able to break the cluster to reach the food.
If mites caused the colony to fail, you’ll likely be able to see mites on individual worker bees, and there may not be other signs visible.
Lack of airflow means you might see liquid water dripping from the inside of the top of the hive. This tells you that the hive was retaining too much moisture.
No clear sign of what happened most likely means it was either mites or excess moisture, as these are sometimes less obvious but very common.
Successfully Wintering Bees
Keeping bees is a fun and challenging hobby. Winter can be a tough time for bees, but it’s important to learn as much as you can so you best know how to support your colonies. Wintering bees successfully is just one of many puzzles to solve.
If it doesn’t work one year, re-evaluate your strategy and try something different for next year. There is always more to learn and experience to gain.
Speaking of more to learn, we have all the information you need for keeping your own honey bees!