As the rush of spring and early summer wanes, the beekeepers’ attention turns toward the up-coming cold months. Getting your honeybee colonies through the winter–especially one such as those we experience here in Maine–is perhaps the second most challenging thing a beekeeper will face (the first being coping with varroa mites). Wintering beehives is very largely dependent on your location, since beekeepers in the northern hemisphere will face different challenges than those in the south. Preparations begin in the beginning of August, with the first blush of the goldenrod bloom, and involves supering for the fall honey flow, re-Queening, medicating and treating for mites, and winterizing hives.
Note: Bees do not hibernate. They are active inside their hives, maintaining a temperature of about 96-degrees at the middle of their football-shaped cluster all winter, and they will even emerge from their hives on occasion to take cleansing flights.
In our region, preparations for winter begin with careful forethought into the planning of the apiary location–beekeepers site their hives so that they are on dry ground, first and foremost. We will face them south, in a spot where they have plenty of exposure to the sun, and–if possible–we will locate them with some kind of buffer at their backs. A barn, garage, hedge, or stand of trees, all serve to protect the hives from gusting winds.
Assess the level of mite infestation
I can’t speak for other regions, but here in central Maine, once the spring honey crop has been taken and extracted, we experience a “derth”–or a lull–in the nectar flow. How long this derth last will vary from one area to another, and even from one year to another, but generally it’s a good 3 weeks before the fall plants will go into bloom and begin producing nectar for the bees to collect. This is an ideal time to perform mite-tests on hives, to determine if treatments are needed. For more about mite-tests–the various methods, how to do it, and what to look for–check out this article I’ve written about the subject.
Re-Queen if necessary
Assess the Queens of each of your hives. Remember that your Queens are now laying the eggs for the bees that will carry the colony through the winter; large populations of young bees that will live 5-6 mos are vital for overwintering colonies. And strong colonies with young Queens are crucial. If your Queen is older, failing, or in any way unsatisfactory, fall re-Queening should be done during the goldenrod and aster flow.
Note: It will vary depending on your location, the Queen will cease laying as the days grow shorter, and the temperatures become increasingly colder. When the days begin to grow longer and warmer again, brood production will begin again.
Combine weak colonies
If you have a hive that has struggled all season–struggled to build up it’s population, made little to no honey, and has posed one problem after another all summer–this hive is a good candidate for combining with another hive. These weak colonies are very difficult to get through the winter, so take winter losses on your own terms, and combine the hive with a stronger hive (never combine two weak colonies!). Determine which Queen is better, squish the other, and use the newspaper method to combine the two different colonies.
When you make the decision to combine a weaker colony with a strong one, do so as soon as possible; the two colonies will need time to acclimate before their long winter incarceration together.
Optimize the hive
It’s at this point in the season that beekeepers in this region will begin “pushing the bees down”. During the winter, the location of the colony’s food stores is crucial to their survival; because honeybees have a natural tendency to move upwards through the hive, eating their stores, the majority of their honey should be located above the cluster. So whenever we get into the hives, we will take any empty frames from the lowermost brood box and replace it with a frame of brood from the second-story brood box. The empty frames are placed in the second-story brood box for the bees to fill with honey.
Ideally what you want to have is a bottom box with 4-6 frames of brood (depending on whether you are using an 8 or 10-frame hive set-up) in the center, a frame of pollen on either side of the brood nest, and on either side of that–along the walls–frames of honey. In the upper box you should have an empty frame in the center, a frame of brood if you have any remaining frames, pollen on either side, and then more honey on either side of those.
How much honey do the bees need?
Here in Maine the rule of thumb is to ensure that your bees have about 65-70 pounds of stored honey for the winter. That translates into about 13-14 frames of honey. And because pollen is essential for brood rearing, 3-4 frames of pollen is also recommended.
Quality of winter food
It’s not enough, however, that the bees are simply filling those frames with nectar, or to feed your girls into October because you made the mistake of taking too much honey from the hive. Unripe honey–nectar that the bees have not been able to evaporate all the water from to finish off as honey and then cap with wax–can cause dysentery within the hive. Bees need the lingering warm days to process the nectar, or sugar-syrup. That is also why at this time of the year, if we make the choice to feed the bees sugar-syrup, we do so at a 2 to 1 ratio (2 parts sugar to 1 part water).
If they do not have enough stores by the time the weather turns cold, they’ve got what they’ve got, and the only thing you can do is to make sure the colony has candy or dry sugar, and hope they make it through.
Remove extra equipment
Take your honey supers off after the first killing frost. Some plants–such as the purple New York Asters, Japanese Knotweed (aka “bamboo”), and Sumac–will continue to produce nectar that the bees will gather, but we leave this for them to store for themselves. Extract and bottle your honey, then go back to your hives and remove any extra equipment, including any partially drawn frames–if the bees have not built up the comb by now they are unlikely to do so at this late stage in the season.
If they are still bringing in nectar and finishing honey, you can leave frames of partially capped honey, but take care to go back and check to see that they finished capping the honey properly. Bees cannot cluster on uncapped honey, and again, unfinished honey can cause dysentery. Better to remove the unfinished frames completely once the season is over.
Note: If you have a 10-frame hive, but your bees have filled 10-frames in the bottom box, and only 8 in the upper box–it is better to leave empty space than to have empty frames in the hive. The reason being that the bees will not cross an empty frame in the winter, and may get stuck on the wrong side of the hive, with no access to food, which will result in starvation and death of the colony.
Medications & end-of-season mite-treatments
This is the time of year to treat for American Foulbrood, Nosema Ceranae, and for the Varroa mites. For AFB, beekeepers generally apply an antibiotic in powdered form, whereas Fumagilin-B is the only drug known to be effective in preventing the Nosema disease, and is administered via your sugar-syrup feedings (again, using the 2 to 1 ratio).
As for the mites, I strongly urge beekeepers to perform mite-tests to assess the level of infestation before treating. Do not assume that because you are in a secluded area your bees will be safe, or that because you treated in the summer, you will be set for the winter. Test to find out what’s going on inside your hive. If you are so lucky as to have a low-level of infestation, you may be able to skip the treatment this time around.
The amount of protection your hive requires is going to depend largely on your regional climate, and also on your own personal philosophies, but during the winter hives need protection to some degree from mice, excess moisture & CO2, and wind.
Keeping rodents out: Mice love to spend their winters inside a beehive, snug and warm, with a plentiful food source readily available, and they can do a lot of damage. To keep the rodents out, you can purchase mouse-guards to put onto the entrances of your hives. Personally, I use half-inch wire-mesh, which I staple right over the entrances and entrance reducers. Some beekeepers say half-inch is too big, and they prefer three-eighths of an inch, but I have not had trouble with mice getting through the half-inch stuff, so I will continue to use it until I run into problems.
Whatever you choose to use, do it early in the fall when rodents are beginning to look for nests and dens for the winter, and be sure to check for mice inside the hives before you put the mouse-guards on! No need to pull the entire hive apart to check; if you can get a second person to assist you, you can tip up the brood boxes away from the bottom board (not as easy as it sounds, by the way!) so that your accomplice can look under for signs of a mouse nest.
Inner cover adjustment: Many northern beekeepers are now using the wintering inner covers, created by Maine’s very own Lincoln Sennet of Swan’s Apiary in Albion. These inner covers are deeper than the traditional inner covers, which allows for feeding candy during the winter. Lincoln’s design also boasts an opening for an upper entrance, increasing the opportunity for ventilation–both of CO2 gases, and of excess moisture. An upper entrance is a great advantage in areas where heavy snowfall often blocks the lower entrance, preventing the bees from taking cleansing flights.
Absorbing excess moisture & allowing for ventilation: Old school beekeepers used an extra box filled with wood shavings to absorb excess moisture created by the accumulation of condensation inside the hives. Today, many beekeepers are using “homasote board”, available a most building-supply stores; homasote board is made from recycled cardboard and is reusable for a number of years. You can purchase ready-made homasote boards for your hives, or do-it-yourself. Simply dado a groove in the board to run from the center of the opening in the inner cover, to the entrance so the bees can take their cleansing flights, and place between the inner cover and the telescoping cover. In my area, a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of homasote board costs roughly $25, and can be cut on a table saw to make a number of pieces for your hives.
Wrapping hives: Here in Maine, the majority of beekeepers wrap their hives in tar paper; yet Ross Conrad of Vermont (who wrote Natural Beekeeping), prefers to leave his hives au naturale. Also, recent studies have indicated that hives painted in darker colors–forest green, plum purple, etc.–maintain warmer colonies than the traditionally painted white hives; warmer even than the wrapped hives, since the wrapping creates a barrier of air between the hive and the paper, which must be warmed first before penetrating the hive structure.
Weight down the top-cover: Many beekeepers use a heavy rock, or a cement block to prevent the telescoping cover from being blown off by forceful winds during winter blizzards, while others prefer to strap the entire hive using a ratcheting strap–more pricey, but if your hive were to become unsettled for whatever reason, and tipped over–your bees may be jarred and on their side, but the colony would not be exposed to the elements and die, they would very likely survive because the hive would have been held together by the straps.
Wind-buffer: If you weren’t able to site your apiary with some kind of natural buffer at it’s back, you can create one by stacking hay bales or cement blocks. Some beekeepers put a section of fencing up behind their apiary to offer their hives protection from the wind.
The rest is up to nature
Properly preparing your hives for winter is one of the most important things you can do to ensure the survival of your colonies. If you’ve done everything you can to safeguard their health and vitality, performing mite-tests and treatments as needed, taking care to organize the frames within the hive, and providing adequate food stores–then you’ve done all you can, and the rest is up to nature. Take a deep breath, and hope for the best; go play with some beeswax while drinking tea with honey, and wait out the long cold months til spring once again reunites you with your bees.