How to Winterize a Beehive: A Beekeeper’s Guide to Preparing Bees for the Winter

Winterizing a beehive is a critical task to ensure your colony’s survival over the cold, winter months. Lack of preparation for the winter season can cost the lives of your bees. While you may hear of some beekeepers that choose not to winterize their beehives, even in northern regions, there are several advantages to winterizing your hive. Here is a guide on how to winterize a beehive to give your colony the best chance of survival.

Bees will consume less honey as a result of them using less energy to keep warm. Wrapped hives also eliminate condensation on the ceiling and keeps bees dry. Warmer bees will also have the energy to move around the hive to access the stored honey.

Investing in a high-quality beehive will give your colony an advantage over the winter season. Purchasing a low quality hive can increase the chances of the hive falling apart over the year.
It is imperative that you invest in a beehive equipped to withstand the weather in your region.

Inspect the beehive

In the autumn, inspect your colony for its overall health. Ensure that the queen looks strong and that the population is still large. Also inspect how much honey is stored in the hive. In the winter, bees will consume more honey to increase their energy in order to stay warm.

Ensure the colony has enough food

Knowing that they will have a low activity level during the winter, bees begin collecting their food in the spring and summer. Bees eat increasingly more during the winter because they have to generate enough energy to keep their queen and each other warm. In colder regions, bees will eat as much as 90lbs of honey over the winter. Be sure to leave more than enough food in the hive to help your colony based on their average monthly consumption.

Many beekeepers are now choosing to harvest honey in the spring rather than the autumn because bees use the honey for food as well as additional warmth. During the day, honey will absorb warmth from the sun, store it, and then release the warmth back into the hive throughout the evening.

If you harvest all of the honey from your colony, you will need to give your bees a sugar mix throughout the season. The additional feeding will ensure that your colony has the necessary nutrients until the spring- when flowers are in bloom. Mix granulated sugar and water (2:1 ratio) prior to wrapping the beehive. Continue to feed the hive into the early spring. Having a surplus of food will encourage the queen to continue to reproduce. You can stop feeding the hive once pollen and nectar are naturally available in the spring.

Once the temperature falls below 50ºF the bees group together in the middle of the hive to stay warm, called a winter cluster. One mistake that novice beekeepers make is failing to put the honey close enough to the winter cluster. Once the bees form a cluster, they will remain as one. This means when they move, they move as one cluster. This limits the distance that the cluster can move. If the food is positioned too far away, the bees will simply ignore it. When the queen begins to reproduce in January, the cluster will stay even closer to protect the brood and keep them warm. They will not risk the safety of the queen and brood to feed.

Make sure the food remains within reach to the cluster or else they will not use it. Even placing food just a few inches away can jeopardize the health and safety of the colony.

Insert an Entrance Reducer

When you prepare to wrap the hive, begin by closing any extra holes in the bottom boxes and, instead, have the holes on the top box. Insert an entrance reducer- a barrier placed at the entrance of a beehive that will reduce the size of the opening. An entrance reducer controls ventilation and the temperature within the hive.

An entrance reducer reduces the likelihood of food robbing. Food robbing is when honeybees invade other hives and steal their stored honey. The invading bees will rip open capped cells, fill their honey stomachs, and bring the stolen honey back to their homes. Food robbing can occur any time of the year, but it is most prominent in the late summer. Some beekeepers choose to use an entrance reducer all-year around. At the very least, use an entrance reducer in the winter. An entrance reducer makes it more difficult for hive robbers and other animals to gain access into the hive. This also makes the jobs of guard bees a lot easier.

Insulate the Hive

In mid-October, wrap the beehive with a foam sheet. Because the foam sheet does not produce too much heat, it won’t encourage the cluster to be more active in the winter. Be sure to cut out a hole in the foam sheet so the top entrance hole remains exposed.

It’s also important to prevent condensed water from dripping on the cluster. Insulate under the roof of the hive with foam sheeting, quilt batting, scrap wool, packing peanuts, or even newspaper. Bees generate heat when they flap their wings and that heat will rise and form condensation at the top of the hive. This can result in several health problems to the bees. Wrapping a beehive will keep the walls and ceiling warm and prevent condensation. Proper ventilation will keep the temperature of
the cluster around 90ºF. Some hive designs may require more than one ventilation hole.

Some hive designs may have surplus boxes. Remove these boxes before the winter to remove dead space for cold air. When winterizing a beehive, do not completely close the hive. Poor ventilation
in the winter plus wet and cold weather conditions is the formula for mold. Only the sides of the beehive should be wrapped, not the top or bottom.

While you’re insulating a hive, consider having a wind barrier to protect the colony even more during the winter. Bales of hay will protect from the winter wind. However, be very cautious when using hay because it can attract mice.

Remove the Queen Excluder

If you are using a queen excluder, it’s encourage to remove this tool for the winter season. During the winter, the cluster will move throughout the hive to utilize the stored food. Removing the queen excluder will eliminate the choice the worker bees have to make to either follow the food or tend to the queen. They can simply take the queen to the food. This allows for more flexibility.

Mouse Protection

Mice are a hive’s worst enemy in the fall. Mice attempt to move into a hive because it is warm with plenty of available food. Mice do not eat bees, but they do eat the honey and pollen. Mice can cause a colony to starve in the winter.

Beekeepers can use a hardware cloth to cover the entrance of the hive to make the hive entrance opening even smaller. Some use nails to do this so bees can continue to come and go while keeping mice out. Other preventative measures includes mouse guards and ensuring the boxes with honey are not at ground level.

Inspect for Varroa Mites

Varroa mites are the biggest enemy to bees. Varroa mites transmit dangerous viruses and bacteria that jeopardize a colony’s health. Varroa mites can wipe out an entire hive if not treated appropriately. There are ways to identify an infestation early. Varroa mites are prominent in late summer to early fall- the same time when queens stop reproducing. Varroa mites feed on broods and when they are no longer present, these mites will target worker brood cells. Once a hive is winterized, the beekeeper has little action to take. However, inspecting the hive for mites is a recurring responsibility.

Varroa mites are a copper-color and are the size of a pinhead. They will cling to bees and suck their blood. Female mites will reproduce in brood cells and allow their offspring to suck the blood of developing bees. Use a sticky board to count for mites in a three-day period. Treat for mites, if appropriate.

Final Thoughts

Winterizing a beehive is imperative for a colony’s survival, but it does not mean that a beekeeper’s job is done. Beekeepers should regularly inspect the hive of the hive. Ensure that the hive has limited holes and make repairs, if necessary. However, be careful not to upset the hive during the cold season. Disturbing the hive will put the bees under a significant amount of stress which leads to more activity and more food being consumed at a faster rate. Check the perimeter of the hive to make sure the entrance is not blocked with dead bees or other debris. Also look for any signs that predators may be trying to access the hive. Many beekeepers will invest in a stethoscope to listen to their bees without needing to open the hive and causing a disruption.

The queen will begin to start laying eggs again in January while inside the winter cluster. She will only reproduce if she believes there is sufficient resources to feed the current colony and the new eggs. It is the beekeeper’s responsibility to ensure the resources are provided so the colony can emerge as a strong unit when spring arrives.

How to winterize a beehive- Honest Beekeeper

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