Winterizing Hives

Having just experienced our first snow, it already feels like winter here in Ohio.  Living in the midwest, I am in love with the season changes.  I marvel in seeing the new growth and fresh start of Spring… I look forward to the long, sunny days of Summer… I LOVE the colors and smells of Fall… and Winter’s invitation to cozy up with those you love!

The joke about Ohio that you can experience all four seasons in one week; as Ohioans might don sandals on Monday and be in snow boots by Friday!

Ohio 4 Seasons.001

As apiarists, we have a crucial role in ensuring our bee colonies are strong, well, and prepared for the potentially long, hard winter.  Starting from November and lasting all the way until March, we could experience below freezing temperatures.  With this, bees will be restricted to their hives and the honey stores they built up all Spring, Summer, and Fall.  In fact, bees don’t even fly once temperatures hit 55º or below, so preparations should be made in advance of impending winter weather.

Bees are often resourceful and resilient, able to survive Winter without human intervention.  However, with the amount of time and money we have in the bees, we prefer to give them the best chance at survival possible!

Hopefully the colony not only survives Winter, but can even thrive come Spring.

Heading into our third winter, we still definitely have a lot to learn.  We have read books and blogs, watched video tutorials, and attended beekeeping conferences, but like rebellious teenagers, we have still had to learn a lot the hard way.

Here’s what we have learned and implemented this year for winterizing hives.

The first step is getting an overall assessment of the status of the hive.  Locate the queen and determine how much brood she’s laying.

  • Check for Pests: Varroa mites, hive beetles, ants, and other little buggies might try moving in for the winter.  These will be detrimental to hive health as they can impact the brood, honey reserves, and bee population.  If the hive condition becomes unstable enough, the bees could abscond (leave in search of a new home).
    • Beetle Traps – Hives beetles are pretty easy to spot, as they can be clearly seen with the naked eye.  As they are present in most bee hives and do minimal damage of their own, little has to be done about them.  A strong hive can typically keep beetle populations at bay.  However, if a bee colony is already weak from other factors or just working to get established, beetles can become a greater nuisance.  We have successfully used beetle traps, as needed.
    • Sugar Rolls – Scoop a 1/2 cup of bees into a quart mason jar with some powdered sugar.  Mites will not be able to cling to the bees during the sugar roll, once you release the bees (no harm is done to them in this process), you will be able to see the black mites in the white sugar.
    • Cinnamon – Considered to be a viable option for warding off ants… we have not had luck with this.
  • Mouse Guards: Larger pests can also become an issue to hives as other critters are looking for food and/or homes during the cold weather.  Once you have checked the hive for intruders and removed any that might be there, now is the time to take action preventing their return.  Mouse guards are an easy way to close up entrances to the hive from larger pests, but keeping them open for the bees (see image below), as they will still need to leave the hive occasionally for cleansing flights.
    • This is our tale of learning the hard way… Last spring when we went to check our hives, we realized that a mouse family had taken hold of one of them! It was our strongest hive and had already survived a winter, so we were very disappointed to see they had abandoned the hive when the unwanted houseguests arrived.  When we dug in, we found a number of damaged frames, complete ruin of the honey, complete abscond of bee colony, and a family of nearly a dozen mice!
    • This is our first year using mouse guards and we are hopeful they will do the trick in preventing any additional intruders!
  • Removal of empty boxes: Empty boxes do not add any value in the cold months and should be removed.  We added a box to one of our hives towards the end of summer to give them room to work and grow their colony (we’re always happy when they can produce some additional honey and wax for us!)  However, once the temperatures drop and they are no longer able to harvest pollen and work on expansion.  Thus, the extra, unused space can just become a hazard.  Bees are perfectionists and neat freaks! This extra space to clean and maintain is a waste of their precious energies.  Additionally, the extra space makes them a potential target for those pesky, unwanted visitors previously mentioned.
Come Fall, there were still many empty frames.  We removed the mostly empty box and reserved the honey and comb for ourselves. 
  • Check Honey Supply: Being that winter can be a long haul for bees (just as it can be for us!), it is important to make sure they have necessary food stores built up to survive.  As bees will not be able to harvest pollen and produce additional honey once the temperature drops, apiarists need to be mindful when harvesting honey.  We have heard and read anywhere from 50-80 pounds of honey is needed for the duration of winter.
    • This is something Matt and I have always been very conscientious of as we harvest. For, the bees made the honey to sustain themselves, and the hive is their home.  We hate the idea of being the cause of their starvation.  Checking throughout the summer to gauge honey production and taking early action is far better than going into winter realizing you have a problem.
  • Supplement Feeding: We have made sugar syrups, pollen patties, and given straight sugar before.  Here are our thoughts on those approaches:
    • sugar syrups – Cook up a simple syrup of granulated sugar and water, boil to thicken. We have added essential oils before too, having read that Lavender can be appealing to the bees.  This is placed in a feeder for the bees; however, we do find that this practice attracts unwanted visitors who also think the syrup is yummy!
    • pollen patties – Making these little pollen cake patties is the option that takes the most effort on the apiarists part, but seems to be the most sustaining option for the bees.
    • straight sugar – Confectioner’s sugar can be placed on newspaper for the bees to feed from.  This takes very little effort on our part and does not seem to draw in pests like the syrup does.  

Items we are working to better understand and possibly implement

  • Moisture Quilt: A top layer of the hive that will collect moisture that builds during the winter months when they are homebound. This is an additional box that is filled with wood shavings and placed on top of the hive. Wicking moisture will prevent mildew and mold from forming.
  • Wind Breaks: Roofing felt, tar paper, or other durable materials can be used to wrap the hives.  This will serve as a wind break and barrier from the cold.  Additionally, the dark colored material will draw in the heat from the sun, assisting bees in maintaining hive temperatures through the cold weather. Even putting up fencing or straw bails will help with blocking wind and potentially prevent burial in the snow.  
    • If wrapping hive, it is important to provide adequate ventilation.  As previously mentioned, moisture in the hive will be detrimental and cause added issues.  

We will periodically check the hives throughout the Winter, weather permitting.  However, at this point, are mostly at the mercy of mother nature and our own preparation, or lack thereof.  If we did not foster strong, healthy hives by now, little more can be done to help them.  

We’ll see what Spring brings for us and our bees… and we’ll keep you posted!

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