With cold weather upon us, bee populations have taken to their hives to nestle down with their colony and their honey for the winter. It’s a harsh time for most of nature, but with the right preparation and expertise in how to care for a beehive in the winter, your bees can make it through and be a prosperous colony come springtime.
Know Your Climate
When preparing your beehive for winter, it’s important to know what weather you’re up against. If your area gets extremely low temperatures, insulation is a major benefit to your beehive. If you’re expecting fierce winds, secure the hive’s lids. You can also shield the base and any ventilation holes to prevent drafts. Take into consideration whether you’ll face a lot of precipitation or flooding. Snow can act as a natural insulator, but your hives need to keep out any moisture to prevent excess humidity.
Set Up the Yard
Take a look at your yard and imagine it’s the dead of winter: are your hives in the best spot? Make sure your bees are in a position that receives plenty of sunlight and as little wind as possible to help them through the winter. Consider placing a windbreak—or utilize existing ones such as a line of trees or shrubs—to protect your hive from the bitter winds. If you get excess precipitation or flooding through the winter, move your hive to higher, safer ground. Check the hive’s base and eliminate any excess vegetation so pests can’t hide beneath the hive or climb up to use it for shelter.
Reduce Hive Entrances
Rodents and other small creatures looking for a wintertime shelter will see your beehive as the perfect spot—it’s warm, protected, and full of food. Keep out these intruders by making the hive entrance as small as possible. Your bees won’t need a large opening while they’re sheltering for the winter, and it’ll help keep the cold out as well. It’s also worth considering attaching a mouse guard to the hive entrance. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the entrance throughout the season to make sure it doesn’t get completely covered by snow and trap the bees inside the hive.
Keep Out Mites
Pests can endanger your hive, especially in the winter, and varroa mites are some of the most formidable enemies. These mites feed on broods and come in much larger numbers during the fall. If varroa invade the hive at this time, they can ruin the population of worker bees, meaning the colony won’t be able to make as much food ahead of winter. To prevent this, consider treating the colony for varroa mites as part of your winter preparation, so your bees are protected throughout the season.
Remove Excess Space
Extra space in your hive makes it drafty and hard to warm. Make your hive better fit the colony within it by removing extra supers. You can also use follower boards to make the hive area smaller, especially if you’re using a top bar hive. Not only does a smaller hive size keep your bees warmer throughout the winter, it also leaves less room for intruders to enter. While you’re arranging your beehive, make sure the honey frames are positioned so that the bee cluster will have easy access to food throughout the season.
Now is the best time to inspect and fix any equipment that needs it. Make sure all your boxes, boards, and covers are in good shape and able to keep the worst of the weather out. Clean anything that needs it, and make any necessary repairs or replacements. If there’s any equipment that you don’t need throughout winter, make sure it’s clean and in good condition before storing it somewhere safe.
Insulate the Hive
Your bees will cluster together and provide warmth for the colony, but you can help them by preparing the hive for extreme cold temperatures. Wrapping the hive keeps out strong winds, and black roofing felt can absorb warmth on sunny winter days. Foam insulation boards can also keep drafts out and warmth in, but be careful when covering your hive. Ventilation is just as important as insulation. Too much moisture built up inside the hive leads to deadly condensation or dysentery. To avoid this, make sure air can come in and out through the bottom and top of the hive—this creates cross-ventilation and keeps humidity levels low.
Keep a Healthy Queen
A healthy, laying queen is vital to your colony’s survival. While you’re preparing your hive for winter, ensure the queen is strong and has a healthy brooding pattern. If this isn’t the case, you have some options. You can requeen the colony, but be sure to keep the old queen alive until you’re sure the new one is accepted. You can also consider combining the colony with another one. Putting a weak or queenless colony with a strong one improves its survival chances for the winter. Combining colonies might be a good idea anyway, since larger colonies will have a stronger, warmer cluster, more food stored, and a better overall chance of survival. Just remember to never combine two weak hives—always put a weak hive with a stronger one.
Have Enough Food
Before winter hits, make sure your hive has enough food to last through the season. The amount of food bees need depends on the climate and the colony’s health, but remember that honeybees eat a lot in winter. If it looks like there isn’t enough honey to keep the colony alive through the winter, it’s time to set up feeders. Providing a nectar or pollen substitute provides your bees with the energy they need to stay warm and keep a thriving colony throughout the season and into the springtime.
Bees are amazingly hard workers. If your colony is successful, they’ll have a large enough honey supply and population to make it through the season. However, these tips on how to care for a beehive in winter can help ensure their survival and keep your busy little friends around for another fruitful year.