How to Winterize Bee Hives
How to Winterize Bee Hives
Bees have evolved ways of weathering the cold on their own for millions of years, but beekeepers can help their colonies cluster successfully. Ensure your hive has about 90 pounds (40 kilograms) of honey to sustain it during the winter. Check for healthy brooding patterns, and consider merging a weak colony with a stronger one before winter arrives. Provide insulation, but make sure the hive is well-ventilated, as excess moisture is the most dangerous threat to your colony’s health. Prevent pests, like varroa and tracheal mites, which can easily infest a wintering cluster. Deter predators, from mice to bears, that might want to snack on your hive’s honey.
Assessing Colony Health
Make assessments and preparations on a warmer fall day.You should assess your colony’s health and start preparing it for winter during the fall. Choose a sunny day with temperatures in the 50 degree range Fahrenheit (10 to 15 degrees Celsius).
- Avoid opening your hive box during the winter. If you need to provide food or make any other adjustments, choose the warmest and sunniest day possible.
- Bees need to cluster around the queen in order to survive colder temperatures. Every time you open the hive during the winter, bees will break away from their wintering cluster to seal up cracks using a resin called propolis. Breaking the cluster increases the risk of colony death.
Ensure the hive has enough food for winter.When harvesting your hive’s honey, make sure the colony has enough food to sustain it through the winter. Generally, a colony will need 80 to 90 pounds (36 to 40 kilograms) of honey for the winter.
- Harvest surplus honey only from the hive’s topmost supers (boxes). Leave the lower honey supers for the hive’s winter consumption.
- You can gently lift or tilt the hive box to estimate its weight when the weather starts to get cooler and periodically throughout the winter.
Feed the colony if necessary.If the hive box lifts easily and you believe its honey stores are low, feed the colony using sugar syrup or fondant. Place a honey frame or specially designed feeding panel saturated with the sugar or fondant at the top food super.
- You can make a sugar syrup by boiling two parts sugar with one part water and letting it cool. Fondant, which is a layered cake frosting available at your local bakery, is a costlier option, but its lower moisture content will help prevent condensation over the winter.
Look for healthy brood patterns.When temperatures drop below about 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius), bees will begin to form their wintering cluster around the queen and her brood. Before it gets too cold, check the brood box to make sure the clustering pattern is healthy. Brood frames should contain a neat pattern of capped brood cells in the centers surrounded by cells with pollen and honey.
- The brood box should be the deepest super (the lowest box of the hive). It, and the other supers, should contain several removable frames so you can monitor brooding and honey production.
- Spotty brood frame patterns, where brood cells and food cells are mixed up, indicate a failing or missing queen and other colony health problems.
Merge a failing colony with another hive.You can winterize a failing or queenless colony and hope for the best, but it’ll have a lower chance of surviving the winter. If you have another box or a beekeeper friend, merge the weaker colony with a stronger hive before winter arrives.
- First, consolidate the weaker hive into one super, or box, that contains the hive’s 10 strongest frames. The strongest frames will have the most brood and honey cells.
- Remove the inner and outer covers of the stronger hive box and place a newspaper with several slits or small holes across its top bars.
- Place the super or box with the weaker colony on top of the newspaper-covered hive box that contains the stronger colony. Give the colonies a week to chew through the newspaper so they merge gradually into one colony.
- Consolidate the three-tiered hive box back into two by selecting the 20 strongest frames. Place the frames that contain mostly brood cells in the lower super and the ones that contain mostly honey in the top super. That way, you end up with one colony with a conventional bottom brooding tier and top food tier.
Providing Ventilation and Insulation
Remove the hive’s queen excluders.Queen excluders keep the queen in the lower brood super of a hive box during swarming season. However, you should remove any queen excluders during colder temperatures. Clusters tend to move upwards through the hive box as they consume their food stores during winter, a queen excluder could leave the queen trapped in the lower super. Without the cluster’s warmth, she’ll die.
Use a vented inner cover.Your hive’s inner cover should have a hole in the center for bees to exit. It should also have other vents or small holes for moist air to escape. Without a vented inner cover, too much condensation will build up, leading to colony death.
- On warmer winter days, some bees will fly out to investigate conditions, cleanse themselves, remove dead bees, and perform other tasks. For these reasons, exit holes in your inner cover, in addition to those at the hive box’s base, are desirable.
Use a polystyrene telescoping top cover.A telescoping top cover is a standard part of a hive box that fits over the inner cover. Many beekeepers choose a reflective metal cover for the summer to prevent the hive from overheating. You should replace your metal cover with a polystyrene cover in the winter, since it will provide better ventilation and prevent condensation from forming.
Use carpet lining in the coldest climates.In the coldest climates, like Northern Canada, some beekeepers use a carpet-lined inner cover and baseboard, with the shag facing into the hive. This provides extra insulation, but the carpet fibers still let excess moisture out. Make sure the carpet lining has cut outs for the hive’s entrances and exits.
Wrap the hive with insulated tarp.If you live in a colder climate, like the northern United States or Canada, you should wrap your hive using an insulated barrier, like black tarp paper. Use a staple gun to attach it to the hive’s exterior. Wrap the hive box from about a half inch (or a centimeter or two) below the top covers to the same distance above the base.
- Purchase your tarp barrier online or at your local home improvement store.
Eliminating Pests and Predators
Make grease patties and place them between the food and brood supers.Mix one part vegetable oil with three parts confectioners sugar by hand or using a kitchen mixer. Form a handful-sized amount into a patty. Remove the food super, place two to four patties on top of the brood super’s frames, then put the food super back into place above the brood super.
- Grease patties will help prevent tracheal mites.
Use screening for the bottom board.The bottom board is the hive box’s base and sits above the hive stand. It’s become common for beekeepers to use a meshed bottom board instead of solid wood. In addition to providing ventilation, a screened base lets varroa mites fall through and exit the hive. This reduces the risk of colony-wide infection.
Attach sticky cardboard to the mesh base to test for varroa mites.A screened bottom board can also help you assess your colony for varroa mites. Attach cardboard coated with any sticky substance, like a sugar syrup, to the underside of the mesh. Check it regularly during warmer temperatures for any varroa mites, which are tiny eight-legged mites visible to the naked eye, that have gotten stuck on the cardboard.
Treat your colony for varroa mites.If you’ve used sticky cardboard and have detected only a few varroa mites, your bees’ standard hygiene routine will likely keep them from infesting. If you’ve found hundreds or thousands of mites stuck on your cardboard, consider using a chemical insecticide marked for varroa mite eradication.
- You can find pesticide online or a nearby bee farm. Be sure to use any chemicals you purchase as directed. See a list of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved products here: .
- If you want to avoid using chemicals, you can simply sprinkle powdered sugar over your bees and hive’s frames to encourage their own self-cleaning.
Install entrance reducers and mouse guards.Entrance reducers and mouse guards can be made of either notched wood blocks or mesh. Install them in the fall when there’s less traffic coming in and out of the hive. They should fit into the hive box at the base’s exits and entrances just above the bottom board.
- As swarming season ends and fall sets in, bees will guard their hive’s entrances against honey robbers from rival bee colonies. In addition to helping them do this, entrance reducers also will help keep mice out during winter.
Install a bear-proof electric fence.Use an electric fence with two hot wires to keep out bears and any other predators that might come for your bee hive. Place the first wire about 6 inches (15 centimeters) above the ground to deter smaller predators. Post another wire about 3 feet (1 meter) above the ground to deter bears.
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