What’s a beekeeper to do during the winter? Those–like me–who hold such passion and adoration for their honeybees–for whom there is no better feeling in all the world than watching these busy girls coming and going, carrying pollen and nectar to the hive; for whom opening the hive, viewing the larvae-grubs in their cells, or finding the Queen amidst her doting entourage–brings such joy and elation. It is the beekeeper’s lament. When the long cold months separate us from our bees.
We miss our bees! Reading beekeeping books and magazines does little to ease the longing. Working to assemble and repair equipment to make it ready for the up-coming year helps, but still there is nothing like the thrill of interacting with your bees.
That’s where the winter hive checks come into play. It’s not much, and they’re few and far between, but I look forward to each and every trek out to the apiaries to check on my hives.
Preparing hives for winter
Wintering honeybee colonies is largely dependent on your location. Beekeepers in the southern states of America are going to do things very differently from those in the northern states. Here in the northeast, most beekeepers begin preparing their hives for winter when it is still hot and humid outside. We monitor honey and pollen stores, push the brood and bees down into the bottom box ’round about August and into September. We try to gauge how strong the hive is, so that we can combine weak hives with stronger hives–since weak hives have a lower chance of survival. We install mouse guards after the first frost, and protect hives from strong gusting winds–either by positioning them in a sheltered spot to begin with, or by stacking hay bales on the sides where the prevailing winds are strongest.
When the honey flow is over, and the cold weather really starts to set in–usually sometime in November–beekeepers here in Maine typically wrap their hives in tar paper. Usually when we do this, we include some form of moisture absorption–I use homasote board or a thick sheaf of newspaper on top of the inner cover.
Common winter problems
Moisture – Bees can create moisture inside the hive simply by breathing, causing condensation to build up. This condensation can drip back down onto the bees, chilling them, and it can also promote the growth of diseases, mold and fungi. Changes in the climate are bringing milder and frequently rainer winters here in the northeast, which plays havoc with the way that beekeepers keep bees. We are finding it increasingly important to provide adequate ventilation for our hives in the form of upper entrances and screened bottom boards, and to install some kind of moisture absorption, typically in the form either of newspaper or homasote board on top of the inner cover and under the outer cover, some use a wintering box filled with wood chips–though there are many innovative methods beekeepers have come up with for dealing with moisture in the wintering beehive.
Pests and diseases – While there may be a reduced level of varroa mites in your hives during the winter, if you did a poor job monitoring pest levels during the summer it may catch up with you now. Bees weakened by high mite loads during the summer will be more susceptible to diseases like Nosema, which are more prevalent during the winter months.
Nosema ceranae is a fungal disease that can inhibit the bees’ ability to digest food, and at the same time suppresses the function of the honeybees’ immune system. Bees can starve to death, even if there’s plenty of honey available in the hive. Nosema spores are transferred throughout the hive by the house bees–the spores can be ingested when workers are cleaning cells, or it can be stored in the pollen. The disease can be prevalent all year, but infection can become more acute during the winter when bees are cooped up inside their hives. Soiled combs or diarrhea on the front of the hive are visible signs of Nosema infection.
For more about Nosema take a look at this article from one of my favorite beekeeping sources–the scientific beekeeper.
Predators – Usually you hear of beekeepers struggling with predators like skunks or bears during the summer months, but bees still face predators during the winter months. Woodpeckers, mice, badgers, raccoons, and foxes are all predators who will prey upon honeybees during the winter.
In the summer you can watch the hives and gain some indication of how the bees are doing, but during the winter when they are tightly clustered inside the beehive, it’s much more difficult to gauge how the colony is faring. However it is still possible to monitor the activity of that winter cluster and it’s important to make the trek out to your apiary occasionally to do so.
External hive checks
- If you do not have upper entrances, it is important to make sure the entrances are clear of snow and free from ice, also, it is a good idea to poke a stick into the entrance to make sure there is not a blockage of dead bees preventing your girls from coming and going.
- Watch for bees on the warmer sunny days throughout the winter, they will take cleansing flights to relieve themselves and it is normal to see yellow and brown spots dotting the snow around the apiary.
- Go ahead and thump the side of the hive to disturb the bees, press your ear against it to listen for the buzzing sound of the colony.
- Heft the hive from the back to determine what the colony has for remaining honey stores. This will help you decide whether or not to feed your bees.
Feeding your bees
Feeding bees is a controversial topic among beekeepers; some will avoid it at all costs, some will leave an extra super of honey on their hives in case the colony require extra food during the winter, and still other keep a candy board on their hives throughout the entire season. It all boils down to the individual beekeepers’ personal preferences and methodologies when it comes to beekeeping.
Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. I am reluctant to feed sugar, and I will often feed honey when I can–but I am in the business of selling honey, so leaving a whole super of honey on the hive is not an option.
For most colonies, during an average Maine winter, 2 deep brood boxes filled with 65-70 pounds of honey (translates into 13-14 frames) and 3-4 frames of pollen, is sufficient to see a hive through to spring. That being said, if it is an especially large colony or if the winter is unseasonably warm, the bees will go through their stores quicker.
If it comes down to it, I’m going to feed a hive in need rather than watch it starve to death. However–I have made the commitment to use only organic GMO-free sugar when feeding my hives, to read more about why check out this post.
Internal hive checks
If you should decide that you need to supplement your hive’s food supply plan ahead. Prepare your candy board or sugar cakes 24 hours to 7 days in advance, then watch the weather for a winter warm-up. Occasionally in January and February there will be days when the temperature comes above freezing, when the sun is shining and the wind ceases to blow–these are the kinds of days you want when you have to open your hives in the winter.
Gather ahead of time everything you’ll need prior to trekking out to the apiary. All of your gear, tools, equipment and sugar–snowshoes and a sled often come in handy in my neck of the woods. If you have to open the hive to feed the bees, this is a good time to check the status of your moisture absorber–so bring spare newspaper or homasote board so that you can swap them if what’s currently on the hive is soaking wet.
Be prepared to wear your protective gear–I speak from experience when I say that the bees do not take kindly to having the top popped on their hive and being exposed to that cold air–even if it is a lovely winter day. Light your smoker, and have everything organized and laid out before you open the hive.
Once the hive is open, you want to get in and out within 1-2 minutes tops. Swap out that moisture absorber, slap on the sugar, and close them back up again. You need to avoid chilling the bees too much, and above all–do not disturb the cluster! This is not the time to be pulling out frames for inspection–that will have to wait until spring.
Even with the best of preparations and the sincerest of dedication, beekeepers will loose hives to the long cold of winter. It’s heart-wrenching, but if it happens to you, the best thing to do is to collect the equipment, bring it home and perform a postmortem on the hive to determine the possible cause of the colony’s death–hopefully you can glean some bit of information that may help you to preserve the life of other hives in the future. Clean up the equipment and store it away for spring. If there are frames of untouched honey or pollen, you can save those in your freezer for spring feeding or nuc-making.
Spring will come again, and we will be reunited with out bees–what a joy it will be to see them on the dandelions once more! Until then we must stay the course–and like our bees–endure the long cold of winter.
Are you missing your bees too? What are you doing to cope with the winter beekeeping hiatus?