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Keeping Bees Inside for Winter

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Beekeeping is an agricultural practice that requires management of its various aspects. The successful caring for bees in the cold season of winter is important for a good production year in spring. Beekeepers therefore use various methods and equipment to help their honey bee colonies survive winter. One of these methods is keeping bees inside structures for the duration of winter. In this article, we look at keeping bees inside for winter and the use of greenhouses to shelter bees from the cold.

Emergent practices in beekeeping are easily shared in beekeeping circles and adopted by many beekeepers. Beekeeping clubs contribute a lot towards sharing of beekeeping information and tips. It is important that beekeepers (both beginners and experts alike) join these clubs so that they can easily access various services and information. If there is no beekeeping club near your area, you should consider starting one. You should also reach out to agricultural authorities in your area and let them know you are keeping bees.

Wintering Bees Indoors

Wintering bees indoors is a practice that was done by some beekeepers in the northern hemisphere for some time. In recent years, more beekeepers are adopting the practice. They are no longer using the old dirty structures that were initially built for cold storage of potatoes and onions. Today, the structures used to house honey bee colonies indoors are well built and clean. They have features that are useful for the successful sheltering of bees indoors such as temperature control. Other technologies such as regulation of carbon dioxide build up are also deployed in these bee housing structures.

Reasons why Beekeepers Winter Bees Indoors

The main reasons beekeepers are moving their beehives indoors in winter vary. Some want to have to check on wintering bees less often. Others say they do it because they want to be able to monitor the bee colonies without venturing into the cold of winter. Bees in indoor wintering sheds are not very active. They require less feed to get through winter. In most cases, the honey you leave them is enough to keep the colony going until winter is over. You will not need to use extra money to feed the bees sugar or pollen.

Mite Control

Another reason beekeepers are taking to wintering bees indoors, is so that they can make sure the colony is without brood. The period of time that the colony stays without brood varies and is useful in mite control. This is because Varroa mites require the presence of brood for their reproduction. When there is no bee brood, the mite population in the beehive is drastically reduced. A combination of a brood-less period in winter and treatment soon after easily clears the beehive of all Varroa mites.

Bees in a confined space tend to build up carbon dioxide in the beehive. Restriction of ventilation accelerates the build up too. High levels of carbon dioxide can be harmful to bees and mites. The beekeeper makes sure to allow buildup of carbon dioxide to a point where it is lethal for mites, but still safe for honey bees. Research is still being conducted to find the acceptable range of carbon dioxide levels that achieve mite control best without having adverse effects for honey bees.

Improve Queen Laying

Beekeepers that winter bees indoors have experienced better laying behavior of their queen bees. In the cold storage sheds used, the queen bee does not lay eggs for some time. The break from laying eggs is believed to increase the lifespan of the queen bee. She lives longer due to these periods of rest, and lays better after the break. Once the honey bee colony is taken out of the indoor winter shelter in spring, the queen bee begins laying many eggs that raise the population of the honey bee colony very quickly This is preferable to some beekeepers than the gradual population increase seen in many other honey bee colonies that are not wintered indoors.

Factors to Consider when Keeping Bees Inside for Winter

The safety and survival of honey bees that are kept inside for winter depends on proper management. There are several factors that should be taken into consideration when wintering bees indoors. They touch on the setup of the indoor space and the management of honey bee colonies during the winter period. These factors include:

Keep the beehive clean

The individual beehives and the indoor wintering space should be kept clean at all times. Good hygiene keeps the honey bee colonies free of diseases that are brought on by dirty conditions. The setup of the indoor wintering space should be such that bees can make short cleansing flights. It is best if the bees can make the flight without having to leave the indoor space. Additionally, the beekeeper should make effort to remove dead bees from beehives. Even with indoor wintering, some honey bees in the various colonies die and fall to the bottom of the beehive. You should periodically remove the dead bees so that they do not encourage microbial growth in the beehive. Dead bees can also block entrances to the beehive and cause problems for the living honey bees in the beehive.

Control the temperature in the indoor wintering space

Take measures to control the temperatures and keep them at an optimum level. The best temperature ranges are just above freezing point. At this temperature, the honey bees get quite dormant. They do not produce brood, and do not eat too much of the honey availed to them. If you go above the right temperature range, the bees become too active. They start rearing brood and eat the honey in the beehive quickly. Such a colony would starve later in the winter. In the event that you allow the temperature of the indoor wintering shed to drop too low, the honey bee colonies might freeze and die out.

Light control

The amount of light in the indoor wintering space needs to be carefully controlled. Honey bees navigate using various techniques such as the polarization of the sun. In improper lighting, the honey bees can get lost when they make cleansing flights. It is best when the indoor wintering space is kept dark. Bees can find their way in the dark better than when there is artificial lighting. The dark also makes them dormant and consume less food in the beehive. If you must have lighting in the space, use it only when you need it for inspection and management of the wintering honey bee colonies. Leave the lights off at all other times. It is best to use red light if you can. It does not disorient honey bees.

Ventilate the indoor wintering structure

Honey bees need oxygen even when keeping them inside for winter. The space in which they are wintered should be ventilated to bring in air with oxygen, and remove the air that has high levels of carbon dioxide. The beehives in which there are honey bee colonies should also have vents so that the circulating fresh air can enter the beehive. Sometimes, you can tweak the ventilation system to allow some minor buildup of carbon dioxide as an effort towards mite control. The ventilation system should be well built, so that the air it brings into the indoor wintering space is not outside the acceptable temperature range. It saves you the additional cost of heating the space or cooling it, due to temperature variations brought on by poorly managed ventilation.

Pros and Cons of Wintering Bees Indoors

Pros

  • You are able to control the temperature at which the honey bees are wintered. Aim for temperature ranges where the bees can break the cluster to access food in the beehive, but not too warm such that they are very active and take to rearing brood and eating too much of the available food.
  • You can use any available structure that is of suitable size as an indoor wintering facility. Sheds and other structures available to the beekeeper can be converted into a indoor wintering space using locally available materials. The various systems required for management of the space are also not too expensive to buy and set up, when weighed against the potential benefits to the beekeeping operation.
  • You can use the closed structure to reduce the population of mites in wintered honey bee colonies. The levels of carbon dioxide and lack of brood in the wintering beehive are used for this purpose. An oxygen and carbon dioxide monitor must be used in the space for best results and to reduce the risk of killing the honey bee colonies.
  • By wintering bees indoors, you are able to monitor them without being exposed to the cold of winter. You also need fewer inspection visits to the beehives. By being indoors, the chances of survival for the honey bee colony are increased greatly. You get to spring with more colonies that are strong and healthy.
  • With indoor wintering, you do not need to buy equipment such as insulation wraps, covers and individual beehive heating systems. This lowers the cost of your beekeeping operation by a significant margin. It also reduces the total number of individual systems that need setting up and monitoring over the winter season.

Cons

  • The investment needed to construct an indoor wintering facility and warm it can eat too much into your beekeeping operation’s budget. Coupled with heating costs and the need to set up various systems such as ventilation and oxygen monitors, the amount of money spend on the endeavor could prove to be too much for some beekeepers.
  • Any accidents or lapses in the indoor beekeeping space can prove fatal for all the honey bee colonies. Beehives wintered outdoors suffer such consequences individually. With indoor wintering, all the beehives suffer and may be lost such as if a fire breaks out in the indoor wintering structure. Allowing too much buildup of carbon dioxide is another potential risk that could see you start the beekeeping year in spring with not even one surviving honey bee colony.
  • Honey bees that get out of their beehives in indoor wintering spaces might get lost. Some cannot find their way back into the beehive due to navigational errors. At the same time, cleansing flights are needed. The beekeeper must strike a delicate balance between letting the bees out of the beehive on warm days and risking the bees developing some diseases and conditions while they are wintered.

Inspection of Honey Bee Colonies in Winter

Even when keeping bees inside for winter, the colonies still require inspection visits. The cluster and food resources are the major items to check. If the bees have eaten up all the honey you left them, you should warm the honey bee colony to break the cluster so that they may feed. You can also bring in more honey if you have any unextracted frames. The cluster of honey bees is checked for tightness and size. A bigger cluster is better because it can generate and conserve heat better.

In winter, it is usual to find dead bees, usually on the floor of the beehive, among the beehive frames or on the floor of your indoor winter structure. The dead bees should be examined and analyzed. This observation and analysis helps you determine whether the colony is well or at risk of dying out. Honey bees die at a higher rate in winter than in the other warm seasons of the year. However, too many dead bees from a single colony in winter can be a sign that all is not well with that particular colony.

Some of the things you should look out for during a winter inspection of a colony wintered indoors are:

  • A clean entrance and few dead bees from the colony are signs that the beehive is still strong. Many dead bees and an entrance with smears of bee feces are a sign that all is not well in the beehive.
  • Take measures to prevent predators and small animals from accessing your winterized beehives. They can cause honey bees to get chilled to death if the integrity of the beehive is damaged, or can cause the indirect death of the bees by eating up honey in the beehive.
  • Bees sometimes die among the frames when their numbers get too low. Periodically check the cluster to make sure it is still alive. When doing this, do not disturb or break the cluster.
  • Control Varroa and Tracheal mites before keeping bees inside for winter. Check the colony for mite infestations and treat accordingly. The biggest killer of wintering honey bee colonies is Varroa mites.
  • Whenever you open up the beehive, be brief about it and make sure to check for food in the beehive. The number of frames that still have honey should be checked at every available opportunity.
  • If possible, look at the brood that may be present in the beehive. If there are any abnormalities such as punctured cappings and scaly brood, treat the beehive for brood disease.
  • Should you need to use fumagilin in a winterized beehive, applying it via a 1:1 sugar solution is advised. The syrup is sprayed onto the bees instead of putting it in their feed. Once a winter cluster of bees has formed, feeding them liquids is often not possible.
  • Clean out dead bees from the beehive. All comb with dysentery streaks should also be removed from the beehive. If a wintering honey bee colony is too small, you can transfer it to a nucleus hive box for the rest of winter. You can also merge weak colonies if they are not diseased.

Overwintering Bees in a Greenhouse

Greenhouses have been proposed by various beekeepers for use in keeping bees inside for winter. The greenhouse structure is attractive due to its warmth. It presents an alternative that many beekeepers feel would greatly increase the chances of their honey bee colonies surviving winter. Overwintering bees in greenhouse is possible when managed well. It gives your honey bees a late start of spring, but better production rates and population increases. Overwintering reduces the chances that honey bee colonies break the cluster on a warm day of spring and then get caught in a sudden chill. The overwintered colony is let out of the greenhouse only when spring temperatures have stabilized.

Risk Using Greenhouses

Using a greenhouse to overwinter honey bee colonies carries with it the same risks and benefits of wintering bees indoors. Some of the risks however, are more pronounced when a greenhouse is used. Understanding how greenhouses work is necessary if you are going to use one to overwinter your honey bee colonies.

  1. A greenhouse takes advantage of any sunlight, even in winter and warms up. Though, it can get very cold in the night. This behavior of greenhouses can be very harmful to honey bee colonies. The warm greenhouse in the day can easily trigger the honey bees to break their winter cluster and even venture outside the beehive. Cooling later in the day often finds the honey bees dispersed in the beehive. Without forming a proper winter cluster again, the honey bee colony dies due to the cold. This requires greenhouses used for overwintering bees to be cooled. The beekeeper can incur very high electricity costs because they need to run refrigeration systems inside the greenhouse.
  2. Another risk to overwintered honey bee colonies brought on by the characteristics of greenhouses is starvation. A warm greenhouse causes honey bees to get active. The queen bee starts laying eggs and the bees in the colony eat more honey in the beehive. In the end, bees are forced to expend more energy keeping brood warm in the beehive. The brood also leads to increased consumption of stored food resources since the brood is fed. The colony that undergoes these changes ends up consuming the available food resources fast, and starving out. The beekeeper must feed the colony to save it. This additional cost of feeding lowers the profits from your beekeeping operation. When it is too much, you might incur losses.
  3. Conservationist beekeepers are not suited to keep honey bee colonies in greenhouses. The purpose of conservation beekeeping is to allow bees to be in a natural environment. Using a greenhouse to overwinter the bees goes against this primary purpose and characteristic of conservation beekeeping. Conservationist beekeepers also aim to spend the least they can on the bees, and in return do not aim for beehive products and profitability. They encourage swarming so that there are many wild bees. It is therefore understandable when conservationist beekeepers avoid using indoor wintering with their honey bees.

Guidelines for Overwintering Bees in a Greenhouse

  1. In a greenhouse used for keeping bees inside for winter, you should follow the guidelines of indoor wintering. The light on the greenhouse should be removed or a red light used. Total darkness is advocated for so that honey bees do not get triggered to fly about. The greenhouse must also be ventilated to let fresh air in and stale air out.
  2. Feeding bees that are overwintered in a greenhouse is often necessary. This is because the prolonged period of wintering sees the various colonies deplete their honey reserves. The beekeeper should feed the honey bees so that they survive the overwintering period.
  3. After the weather has stabilized in spring, you should remove the overwintered honey bees from the greenhouse. It does not pay to keep the colonies in the greenhouse any much longer than necessary. The colony is allowed to get used to the warm spring weather and start rearing brood to raise its numbers.
  4. Airflow, ventilation and temperature regulation systems need to be installed in the greenhouse for overwintering honey bees. The three systems work in concert to make sure honey bees remain at a reduced state of activity but do not die from the cold. The best temperature for overwintering honey bee colonies is between 4 and 10 degrees Centigrade. This temperature range allows the winter cluster to periodically break and move to honey in the beehive.

 

A Final Word

Helping honey bees survive winter is important in beekeeping. It is achieved using various methods, including keeping the bees indoors. Structures for this purpose are designed and supplied with systems to make sure bees remain active but do not exhaust food resources quickly. Keeping bees inside for winter is easy for both beginner and experienced beekeepers. It is not too expensive or labor intensive.

Do you winter your beehives indoors? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts on this practice.

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