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Beekeeping in Winter

Introduction Winter is the most stressful season, both for beekeepers and bees. Even professional beekeepers sometimes report losses of up to 50%, while amateurs and hobbyists can sometimes lose all their hives. While predicting winter conditions can be difficult and no method of protecting your winter hive is 100% effective, there are steps you can take to dramatically increase your bees’ chances of surviving the cold winter months. First, there is safety in numbers. If you have two hives that are healthy, free of parasites, but weak, combine them to increase their chances. Sadly, if you have any hives that are mite-infested or with sick queens, they probably won’t make it and, even if they do, their viability for the next season doesn’t look good, so it may be best to put them out of their misery. A lot of the factors that determine the survival of your hives are things you can’t control: ideally, your cold season will be interrupted by a few warm days, with a nice thaw late in the season. Your winter, hopefully, won’t last unusually long and will not be colder than you prepared for.

Of course, you can’t plan for every eventuality, and some things are just out of your hands. But there are a lot of other factors that go into determining whether your bee colonies are going to make it that are within your control. Read on to discover how to give your bee hives the best chance of surviving the winter in a position to thrive the following spring.

How Bees Survive the Winter Even though you don’t see bees flying around during the winter, they don’t actually hibernate. Instead, they cluster together in a group or ball to conserve and generate warmth. The ball can be from the size of a softball to a small melon, with the queen kept warm in the middle. The bees on the inside enjoy the warmth generated by the bees on the outside, who vibrate their wings together. The collective effort of all those bees vibrating all those wings can keep the inside of the beehive up to 90 degrees. The task of staying warm and protecting the queen takes almost all of the bee’s energy during the winter. They cluster together constantly, with the bees on the inside taking turns generating the head for the hive as the ones on the outside move to the winter.

Occupied as they are with staying warm, the bees don’t have any time for collecting pollen (which there isn’t any of in most places, anyway) or making food supplies. Through the winter, the colony lives on the food stores they spent the summer and fall storing away. Ensuring the survival of your little guys, and a hive strong enough to survive in the spring, depends on helping the bees and facilitate their natural instincts by protecting them from parasites they can fall prey to while they’re homebound, keeping their hive warm, and making sure they have proper nutrition, especially if you’ve harvested the honey in the fall.

Insulating Your Beehives Bees do have natural defenses against the cold, but they can always use a little help, especially when they’re living in an artificial hive. In the bitter winters of drier climates, it’s a good idea to insulate the exterior of your beehive with tarpaper or black, UV-resistant plastic. If you’re making your own, the UV resistance will ensure that your beehive cover will last a few years. Commercially available wrappings are almost always treated

The tarpaper holds the heat of the hive in, but also works as a windbreak, so is crucial in places with high winds. Wrap your hives before it gets cold, especially if you

If your winters are cold and dry, wrap beehives in tarpaper or plastic to protect them from wind and conserve moisture! live in an area where ice and snow can make getting to your hives difficult. Many beekeepers get the wrapping done in mid-fall, after the feeding is done and the honey has been harvested.

Since heat rises, it’s very important to properly insulate the top of your beehive. A cover made of wood and metal will keep the heat inside. As the bee cluster generates heat, however, the warm air comes into contact with the colder surface of the cover at the top. The moisture in the warm arm then gathers at the top in the form of condensation, much like warm, moist air from the shower when it hits your bathroom window. This water then drips down on your bees, which is very bad news. Beekeepers have come up with a variety of ways of handling this problem. 

Put an extra super filled with absorbent material, such as straw, batting, or wood shavings, under the inner cover. This will help draw off moisture.

Simply flip the inner cover upside down. The imperfect fit of the lip will let air escape, but quite a bit of heat with it.

Add an extra layer of insulation to the top, so it is better insulated than the walls of the hive. Water will condense most where the hive is coldest; if it collects on the walls and runs down, your bees have a better chance of staying dry.

Covers made of polystyrene may be best. Unlike the solid wood or metal covers, they’re porous, which lets the moisture out into the outside. You can also use these kinds of covers on a year-round basis, as the porous insulating properties will also help your bees stay cool in the summer.

In warmer or more humid climates, wrapping your beehives isn’t necessary, especially If your winters don’t feature a lot of ice and snow. If your winters are relatively mild, wrapping your hive can result in overheating, which leads to the bees to believe it’s safe to venture outside. Naturally, this can be disastrous if it’s still too cold. Make sure that what water does accumulate in the hive can get out by tilting the hive forward slightly.

Ventilation & Access Proper ventilation will also help avoid condensation gathering and dripping on your bees, as well as ensure an air supply if ice or snow covers the regular entrance during the coldest period of winter. Since your hive will not be brooding through most of the winter, many will die of natural attrition, so dead bees may even cause a blockage.

You can use a shim to create a small gap along one edge of the inner cover, or drill a small hole near the top, no more than 1” across. The polystyrene covers already mentioned have little access tunnels built in for additional ventilation and to give an emergency exit point for your bees. Some also come prefabricated with divots on the edges for strapping your beehive to the ground, helpful in windy areas. During the rest of the year, bees are natural defenders of their hive, but during the winter, when they’re in survival mode, mice and rodents love to take refuge from the cold in beehive. If they’re allowed in, they’ll ravage the food stores of the hive, kill bees, and disrupt the delicate business of winter survival. To keep them out, winterize your bee hive’s entrance by making it smaller. A block of wood and smaller opening cut into the wrapping will limit your bee’s mobility, but they won’t be going out much, anyway, and will keep the rodents out.

Parasites The cold isn’t the only threat facing your bee populations in the winter. Various parasites, such as tracheal mites Varroa mites. If your hive isn’t

properly prepared, they can wipe out your entire colony. Although this little mite might seem harmless, and even sort of cute, it’s actually a dangerous parasite responsible for the decimation of wild bee populations and lost hives for beekeepers all over the western world. The Varroa Mite is originally from Southeast Asia, where it doesn’t do much damage to the indigenous types of honeybees. It started traveling Westward through Europe and eventually landed in U.S. shores in the 1980’s. It was recently discovered in Hawaii and seems to soon present a worldwide problem. Varroa Mites suck the blood of honeybees, much like ticks to a human. They especially like the blood of pupal bees, still sealed in their wax cells as they’re developing into adults. Bees that have been fed on likely die but, even if they live, they will grow into weakened adults unable to contribute to a healthy colony. There is an easy way to prevent Varroa Mite infestations, however, that is sure not to harm your bees.

Coating the supers with powdered sugar once a week, three times a week in the Fall and the Spring will keep your hive healthy and mite-free? How? Well, the powdered sugar disrupts the mites’ traction; their feet won’t adhere to the hive, or the bees, and they fall off. If you replace your bottom board with a 1/8” screen in a wooden frame, the mites will fall through the bottom of the hive and won’t be able to get back in. Without bees to feed on, they’ll die. But a little sugar never hurt a honeybee. Tracheal Mites are singlecell parasites that live in the tracheas of honeybees. Affected bees are often irritable and confused, making it difficult for them to cluster well in the winter. If they can’t cluster well, the beehive likely won’t survive. weaken and die.

Eventually, the bees

Unlike the Varroa Mites, Tracheal Mites aren’t visible to the naked eye and a colony, once infected, can’t really be treated. Vegetable oil and menthol have both been shown to be useful in suppressing the spread and symptoms of Tracheal Mites. Administer the vegetable oil by feeding your bees vegetable shortening patties. Mix one part

vegetable shortening, like Crisco, with two parts granulated sugar and make patties about the size of a hamburger. Place it within the top bars of the hive and replace it as necessary. Commercially available menthol packets are available, but make sure you follow the directions exactly. Neither the vegetable oil nor the menthol should be applied when the bees during nectar flow. Both are better when applied during the spring or the fall, but the vegetable shortening patties can be supplied as a food source during the winter, too.

Food Stores & Supplies Making sure your bees have a good supply of nutrition won’t guarantee they’ll make it through the winter, but they certainly won’t without it. A lot depends on their productivity during the production season. If they produced plenty of honey, you can harvest and either give some back or replace their food stores with sugar water. They’ll need about 90-120 pounds of honey or sugar syrup, about equal to one deep super full of honey.

Mix it up in a ratio of 2:1, sugar to water. Remember not to add sugar to boiling water. Boil the water, then take it off the stove and mix in the sugar. Timing is critical in beekeeping, so plan ahead. If you are going to be replacing their honey stores with sugar, or if the productivity of the hive that year wasn’t great, you need to supply it when the weather is still warm and the bees are working so they can cure it. The strength of the colony in the Spring depends on their food supplies they take with them into the winter. This is the energy they’ll use for raising the new brood in midwinter and to power the hive’s recovery.

& keep Your Fingers Crossed Since you won’t see your bees flying around, it can be hard to tell whether your colony is doing well in there or whether you’ve lost them all. Go ahead and check on them on warmer days and make sure they are moving upward in the hive after new stores of honey or sugar water. If not, bang on the side of the hide to encourage the cluster to resettle. Even with your help, wintertime is the true measure of the success of your colony. There are plenty of

unpredictable factors working against them, but with the right preparation, you’ll give your beehive the best chance of emerging from their winter dormancy ready to find flowers and make you some honey.

Winter beekeeping  

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