The cold winter months bring many dangers to your beehives. No one wants to check in on their colonies in the springtime only to find a hive full of dead bees. Fortunately, there are several ways to prepare your honeybees and their hives for the cold months ahead.
If you spend late summer and fall taking all the right measures, you can set your honey bee colonies up for a safe and successful winter. Every climate is different, so make sure you pay attention to your honeybees’ behavior as well as the weather around you to determine when you need to get to work winterizing your hives.
As summer fades away, make a checklist to tackle these seven steps to help your honey bee colony prepare for the winter season.
Ensure Your Hive Is Healthy
The healthier your hive is at the end of summer, the better chance it has of surviving the winter. Pay close attention to your last few hive inspections of the season. Before the cold really sets in, make sure your hive has a healthy and productive laying queen.
Check the brood pattern within your hive—this is a good way to quickly judge the overall health of the colony. If your queen isn’t laying or is missing entirely, you need to replace her as quickly as possible so that the colony can accept a new queen before winter comes.
Pay close attention to the honey supply in your hive as well. Don’t take much during your harvest. This will ensure your honeybees have enough food to last them through the winter.
Provide Food If You Need To
If your honey stores are too light as the season draws to a close, it might be time to start providing food for your hive. You can use a baggie feeder to give your honeybees a sugary nectar substitute. However, remember that your honeybees will stop eating sugar syrup once the temperature gets too cold.
Alternatively, you can set up candy boards, fondant, or patties for your honeybees to feast upon. Keep in mind you should only use artificial feed as a last resort. You don’t want your honeybees to rely on your food and be unable to care for themselves.
However, these nectar and pollen substitutes are good ways to give your colonies the energy they need to keep their hive warm and survive the winter.
Watch Out for Pests
All the usual threats your honeybees face don’t go away just because of the cold weather. It’s important to continue watching out for Varroa mites and other pests that may creep into your hive. If you see signs of pests or parasites in your hive, make sure you treat them properly before winter hits.
You should also reduce hive entrances to keep out mice, yellow jackets, and robbers from other colonies. Smaller hive entrances give your honeybees less space to defend, which makes it easier for them to ward off threats.
Trim any tall grass or other vegetation around the base of your beehive. These make it easy for mice, bugs, and other pests to hide beneath or climb up and into the hive.
|Pest Alert: Mice and small hive beetles often invade beehives in winter. Use mouse guards and beetle traps to protect your hive.
Find the Best Winter Location
Where do your beehives sit in your yard? When it comes to keeping your honeybees safe and comfortable throughout the winter, location is key. As the temperatures drop and the days get colder, any sunshine that reaches your hives becomes crucial.
If you can, move your beehives to an area that gets plenty of sunshine during the day. This will prove invaluable when it comes to helping your honeybees keep their hive warm. Make sure your winter location doesn’t have tall vegetation.
You also need to consider the kinds of winds you get in the winter. Don’t leave your hives out in the open with nothing to block those winter winds. Try to find somewhere with a natural windbreak, such as a fence or a line of bushes. You can always build your own windbreak by building a fence or placing hay bales around your beehives.
If strong winds are a concern in your area, make sure you weigh down your hives to keep them from toppling over. You can also try putting a skirt around the base of your hives to prevent drafts.
Add Some Insulation
Anyone who has ever lived in a big house knows how hard it is to heat. Beehives work the same way. The more room there is, the harder it is for your honeybees to keep their home warm enough. You can help them by insulating and reducing the hive.
Provide enough insulation for your colonies by reducing hive entrances and installing hive covers. This latter step is particularly important if you live in colder climates. Just make sure you follow the directions for your hive cover so that you don’t harm the air circulation in your hive. You can also reduce the amount of space in your hive by removing empty supers.
But Not Too Much Insulation
Ventilation is just as important as insulation. You want to keep your honeybees warm, but you also want to make sure enough fresh air is circulating through the hive. Too much insulation can lead to high humidity levels and moisture buildup in the hive, which can cause problems such as fungi or mold.
To create proper ventilation in your hives, add a top entrance. This will allow air to flow between entrances and prevent condensation.
|Ventilation Tip: Using moisture boards or quilt boxes can help absorb excess moisture from the hive and prevent harmful mold growth.
Leave Them to It
Honeybees are hard workers! Most of the time, they know what’s best for their hive. Once your preparations are complete, the best thing you can do is step back and trust in your honeybees to take care of themselves.
Don’t open the hive throughout the winter unless you have a warmer day—the temperature should be 40°F at a minimum. Even then, it’s best to just quickly peek inside your beehive to make sure that the cluster is still alive and that there’s enough food for the colony.
Other than on these rare occasions, you need to leave your honey bees to their own devices. Messing with the hive might mean letting in cold air or disrupting the cluster that’s working to keep the entire colony warm.
Comparing Hive Conditions Throughout Winter
After preparing your hive for the winter and letting the bees do their work, it might be helpful to understand how the hive conditions can change during winter. The table below compares the key conditions of the hive at three different stages.
|Beginning of Winter
|Transition from moderate to cold
|Bees become less active, begin to form winter cluster
|Plenty of honey stored from the fall harvest
|Very cold, bees rely on cluster for warmth
|Bees mostly inactive, focus on maintaining cluster warmth
|Honey stores being consumed, may require supplemental winter feeding
|End of Winter
|Transition from cold to moderate
|Bees start to become more active, queen starts laying more eggs
|Honey stores often low, continued supplemental winter feeding may be needed
Understanding these changes can help you know what to expect at each stage of winter and can guide your hive inspection and management strategies.
When spring is on the horizon and temperatures are becoming milder, it's time to think about the post-winter care of your hive. The shift in seasons is a crucial time for your bees, and there are some considerations that can help your colony continue to thrive.
- First hive inspection. As temperatures warm, conduct your first post-winter hive inspection. Check to ensure the queen bee is healthy and laying eggs and that the colony still has sufficient food stores. Also, watch out for any remaining winter threats like mites or other pests.
- Supplement feeding. Even though it's not winter, you might still need to supplement feed your bees until there are enough blooming flowers providing nectar. As you begin to see more blooming flowers and other natural forage, you can slowly reduce the supplemental feeding.
- Swarm prevention. Prevent swarming by making sure that the hive isn’t overcrowded and that there's room for the queen to lay eggs. You might need to add additional honey frames or boxes to your hive to provide space.
By taking the time to prepare your hives and honey bees for the transition to spring, you can ensure their continued health and productivity. Remember, healthy bees in the spring allow for an abundant honey harvest in the summer.
Gearing Up for Winter
As the summer winds down, ensure you have everything you need to prepare your honey bees for winter. You can find high-quality bee equipment for sale at Mann Lake. We have the resources you need to set up your hives for success in the coming season.