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Winter can be a harsh season for many species. But those who are already of a delicate constitution can be at risk for survival. Bees are among those that need a lot of preparation before and caretaking during the winter season, hence why it is important to prepare beehives for winter. Honey bees remain active throughout the year while other bees and wasps hibernate. Honey bees have the natural ability to ride out the freezing temperatures of winter by creating their own heat source. Even with these favorable abilities, honey bee colonies suffer many losses due to various other factors. Sometimes, they require human intervention to give them a better chance at survival.
The major reason is that bees today are mostly living in a man-made environment instead of their natural habitats. To compensate for this change, beekeepers have to take certain measures to make the beehive ready for winter. This can be a huge undertaking. If you are not well aware of what a hive needs or how to prepare and provide for your beehive in winter, then you will incur huge losses in the population of your hive. However, if you are committed to seeing your beehive through this harsh weather, then here is everything you need to know to prepare beehives for winter:
Winter Maintenance for the Beehives
It is a two-step process:
Check the hives’ current condition to anticipate its need for the upcoming winters. A careful evaluation is necessary to give your hive the best chance at survival. You will need to check your microclimate. It will dictate the levels of some important parameters like precipitation, temperatures, humidity, wind, and hours of sunlight. But the microclimate is merely one parameter. You will also need to gauge the colony strength and perform checks for pests, parasites and diseases.
Once you have evaluated your hive for all relevant factors and outlined what needs to be done, it’s time to prepare. Be aware that these preps start in autumn and should be finished before the first chills. If your start late, your protected measures and preparations may not take effect and it will be too late for a do-over.
Some Necessary Winter Preps
1. Hive Configuration
All empty boxes need to be removed. It will create room inside the hive to commensurate with the colony size. If you have a top-bar beehive, you could also make reductions in the hive volume using a follower board, especially in a top-bar of the beehive. Suitable interior size is much less drafty and even less likely to harbor any unwanted intruders.
2. Keep the Supers in Place
Supers are the box in which bees store honey. This honey is their only food source for the winter. If you remove it, the bees will starve and die.
3. Remove Queen Excluders
The queen excluder should be removed before the winter sets in. The bee clusters need to move freely within the hive. The excluders can be problematic for the bees to move around in the hive.
4. Sterilize the Brood Combs
Always sterilize your brood combs, especially older ones before winter. It can be easily done by taking out the frames and boxes. Spread them in the open air for a couple of weeks. It is very helpful for cleansing them and eliminating any previous bee pests.
5. Check on the Bees
During winters, it is not advised to open the hive. But there may be times when you need to check if your bees are alive. For this purpose, gently rock the hive or tap on its sides and listen to the hum or buzz. This method can also be used to see if the colony has a queen. If the sound of bees is similar to a groan or a moan then it may be possible they do not have a queen. Without the queen, the hive will not survive the winter.
6. Tools and Equipment Cleaning
Do an inventory of your tools and equipment before the winter starts. Make sure to clean all the old tools and order the ones you will need. Arrange them properly to ensure easy access whenever required. The tools can be easily cleaned by soaking them in a fresh mixture of water and washing soda. This treatment will remove all wax and any other unwanted materials or accumulations from your tools. Afterward, you can arrange and store them as you like.
What do Bees Need in Winter?
When the weather starts to get chilly and the temperature drops to below 50 °F (10 °C), honey bees start to retreat into their hives. They form a cluster inside the hive called the winter cluster to keep warm. They cluster together to survive the winter period which is three months in general. Whether or not they can survive the cold depends solely on how adequately they have prepared for it.
The first thing necessary for their survival is warmth. To produce sufficient heat and keep the hive warm, the bee population will have to be pretty strong (you can also make use of beehive heaters). A robust population stands a much better chance of making it through this hard time. The bees also need plentiful stores of food. They need lots of honey to eat and a secure hive to hunker down in.
Socially the bees are divided into three casts: workers, drones, and queens. During winter, all the male drones die off. This leaves only the female castes in the colony i.e. the workers or workforce and the queen. So when the bees form a winter cluster, there are only females in it. They band together in a way that the queen lies in the middle core and stays the warmest. While the worker bees keep shaking and shivering around her to maintain a heat level they can survive in. It seems selfish but it is their nature. The whole purpose of the population strength and clustering is to make sure that the queen bee survives to lay eggs and replenish the colony in the coming spring.
While the bees are clustering, the temperature in the hive can rise as high as 90–100 °F (32–37 °C). While on the surface of the cluster, it fluctuates close to 50 °F. To maintain this ideal level of heat, the cluster crawls and climbs over each other in perfect formation around the hive to access the honey reserves. This cluster stays intact as long as this temperature holds. When the temperature outside the hive rises above 50 °F, the bees fly away momentarily. They only leave the cluster to relieve the wastes. This is called winter cleansing. But in certain regions, where the temperature does not drop below 50 °F ever, there is no need for winter preparations of clustering, etc. The bee colony keeps on working throughout the year.
Prime Beekeeping Problems and Solutions in Winter
1. Lack of Proper Action
Sometimes with all the evaluation and preparations, nature takes its course and minor negligence leads to colony losses. Generally, there can be many reasons for this problem. But the biggest losses happen with inaction. Sometimes people underestimate the food shortage, at others they may not feed the bees in a timely fashion just because it is raining and they do what to risk getting them wet.
Solution: Always have a Plan
The key here is commitment. This is what you needed to prepare for before winter. You have to be ready to do whatever your hives need to ensure their survival. If you let your bees starve, you may be looking at the end of the colony if you do not take action right away regardless of the circumstances. Yes, opening a hive in dead of winter may cause a loss of some bees but the rest will survive and so will the colony.
To take care of your hive while facing unsuitable weather conditions, you can manage to put your best foot forward. All you have to do is to formulate a plan of action:
- What needs to be done?
- In what order it should be done?
- What equipment will you need?
If you know what you are doing and how to do it then you can do it fast and risk very little exposure. This way you will be better off than doing nothing.
2. Neglecting the Queen
While preparing for winter, you need to make sure that your hive has a queen and she is laying eggs. A strong queen indicates a strong hive and a weak queen indicates a weak hive that may not survive the coming spring. To find your queen, you can either spot her in the hive to confirm her presence by locating the eggs. Eggs indicate that the queen was present as recently as two days. If you spot larvae but no eggs, it means that the queen was there about eight days ago. This is not an assurance that you still have a queen. Then there is the issue of a weak queen who may not survive the season.
Solution: Requeen or Combine the Hive
If you cannot find the queen in the hive you need to requeen the hive by obtaining one from a queen rearer. You could also combine the hive with another colony that has a strong queen. But if you introduce a new queen in the hive, do not get rid of the old one until the hive adapts to the change.
If the bees do not have enough food to carry them through the winter, they will perish. The first thing you need to do is to make sure you don’t harvest too much honey when the summer ends. If you harvest too much honey, your bees will starve and you will have to make alternate arrangements. To check if the hive has honey reserves you can lift the hive to weigh it and judge. Each hive should around 50 pounds. If the weight is any less, then your bees are hungry.
Solution: Emergency Feeding
In case your bees are running low on food reserves, you can initiate emergency feeding. You can feed 2:1 sugar syrup to your bees until the first frost. Then you can use a back-up winter feeding plan such as fondant, mountain camp method, and candy boards.
4. Too Much Moisture
In winter, bees cluster together to create a favorable environment to survive. But this clustering creates moisture in the hive which rises to meet the cold top causing condensation. Due to excessive moisture, humidity, and resulting condensation drops of ice-cold water drip onto bees and cause death.
The best way is to provide proper ventilation so that the bees do not have to dye trying to keep warm. You can drill holes in the roof or put a bit of newspaper inside the hive. You could also make quilting boxes or use Candy boards.
5. Temperature Fluctuations
When the temperature swings rapidly, it can affect the ability of bees that broke from the cluster to return and protect each other from freezing.
Solution: Cover the Hive
There is a very easy solution to this problem. All you have to do is to wrap the hive in the tar paper. It is affordable as well as accessible. Just remember to provide room for ventilation and not cover the entrance. You can also use quilting boxes or hives made of Styrofoam.
6. Weak Hive before Winter
If you start the winter with a weak hive, then expect to have staggering losses in the spring. There can be a complete colony loss or loss of the entire workforce with only the queen left with the honey reserves. None of these situations are ideal.
Solution: Combine the Hives
A weak hive can survive winter if you combine it with a strong one. The combined hive will be much stronger and will hunker down together to live through the cold. You can combine two weak hives or a weak one with a stronger one. But make sure to do it correctly otherwise the bees will not acclimate and kill each other off.
7. Strong Air Draft
Strong and chilly air can cause temperature fluctuations. They can disrupt the whole environment of the beehive. With too many disruptions there can be distress in the colony.
Solution: Hive Relocation or Fencing
You can relocate the hive to a shady location or a place that breaks the direct wind. You could move them to a basement or an indoor garage. Also, you could use evergreens as windbreakers or erect a burlap fence around the hives.
8. Hive Infestation
With all the other things that you need to watch out for, you need to keep an eye on the signs of pest or disease in the hive. Some common infestations are Varroa mites, small hive beetles, or wax moths. They can cause disasters in an already weak hive if not caught and treated in time. Staying on top of your integrated pest management during the year would be the best practice.
Check for pests and disease early and treat as soon as possible. All medication and treatments must be stopped before feeding. Otherwise, the honey will be contaminated.
Beehives are vulnerable to predators during the winter when food is scarce. Your hive may have some robbers under such conditions. There can be stray bees from other hives in search of food. There could also be mice there to seek warm shelter as well as honey for food.
Solution: Safeguard the Hive
If you spot any droppings in or around the hive but do not see the mouse itself, catch it right away. Make sure to install a mouse guard to prevent the mice from moving into the hive in the first place. To prevent stray bees, reduce the entrance size maintaining proper ventilation.
10. Blocked Entrance
In winter, the entrance to the hive can get blocked by snow or wrapping materials. The bees need to be able to come and go for cleansing flights.
Solution: Unblock the Entrance
It is imperative that you keep the entrance clear. Keep in mind to give ample room for ventilation as well as entry/exit space at the top of the hive.
11. Old Comb Issues
Combs that are older than 2 years may accumulate the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that the bees get exposed to during foraging. You run the risk of disease and honey contamination with overused combs.
Solution: Replace the Old Comb
Replace all combs that are older than two years. The best practice is to replace them a couple at a time. It is best done in active seasons of spring and summer. This replacement will help to reduce the brood’s exposure and the stress to your bees.
12. Winter Flooding
Winter flooding can be very problematic. It will disturb the hive temperature and cause colony death. It is necessary to prevent flooding for the safety of the hive.
Solution: Relocate or Raise the Hive
To protect the hive from winter flooding, you need to move the hive to some higher ground until the condition subsides. Raising the hive about 40 cm from the ground could also do the trick if relocation is not possible.
13. Vegetation outside the Hive
Any vegetation or grass in front of the hive can give way to unwanted creatures climbing into the beehive. Vegetation can facilitate entrance by serving as a ramp or stepladder. It will provide convenience for unwelcomed creatures to move into the hive. Vegetation could also lead to molds growing on hive stands or brood boxes because of the moisture it contains.
Solution: Remove all Vegetation
Removal of all weedy vegetation should be conducted as soon as possible. Especially the base of the hive should be kept clear. Make certain that you remove all overhanging branches including the dead limbs. These dead limbs can damage the hive if they fall during winter storms.
Is your Beehive Ready for the Winter?
If you took time to plan and prepare for the winter then your hive has a good chance to survive a harsh season. To ascertain that your beehive is fully prepared for the upcoming weather, ensure the following:
- See that all treatments are completed
- Make sure you have a queen-right colony
- The strength of your hive is good i.e. you have enough bees in the hive
- The bees are healthy and free of any disease or parasite (as much as possible)
- The hive properly is ventilated (covered or insulated against the weather)
- Your bees have enough food rations and you are prepared to feed them if needed
A Final Word
A lot of effort goes into preparing the bees for winter. But keep in mind that there will be some level of loss. Despite your best efforts, not all the bees in all the hives can survive. Have realistic expectations and avoid disappointments. Sometimes it can be very tempting to check in on your hard work again and again. Do resist the temptation. Opening the hive often and unnecessarily can cause damage beyond measure. It will create sudden temperature fluctuations and one of those times, the bees might not be able to recover.
Preparation and patience is the golden rule here to abide by. You can see the results of your efforts in early spring when your beehives survive. For now, take note of everything so that your bees are ready. Then sit back and relax. You did everything to prepare beehives for winter, now let nature take its course.
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