As the winter season draws closer, many beekeepers are considering more ways to shelter their bees from the harsh weather. Winterizing bees in a shed is a great way to protect a hive from the direct impact of the elements. This practice is already popular in Canada and now American beekeepers are taking notice.
Beekeepers, particularly those in regions with harsh winters, are building bee sheds with the purpose of overwintering hives. The sheds are completely dark and typically have a constant temperature of 40 degrees. Beekeepers also need to control the humidity level to ensure the bees do not overheat or freeze. These bee sheds are elevated from the ground and can include features like air filtration, ventilation systems, temperature monitoring, and more. Beekeepers enjoy the break from tending to hives as the bees are low maintenance during this time.
What are the benefits of winterizing bees in a shed?
Low maintenance. When winterized in a shed, honey bees are dormant. Because the bees are not flying, foraging, or caring for brood or eggs, they are not using much energy. This means that beekeepers don’t need to feed or inspect the colony during the winter. The colony can rely on the honey they’ve collected and stored in the hive. Beekeepers can save time, effort and even money during the season.
Lower risk of Varroa mites. Varroa mites can be the death of a hive and remains a serious problem for many beekeepers. Varroa mites are parasites that live on a honeybee. They can reproduce on honeybee brood and will feed on adult bees. Bees that are wintered in a shed remain in a cold and dark environment. As a result, the queen does not produce any new brood. Many beekeepers believe that this period with no brood can be a mite treatment since Varroa mites are not able to reproduce. In other words, the mite population will go down. Also, the bees are building up enough carbon dioxide in a confined space to kill any lingering mites.
Increase queen longevity. Since the colony is dormant during the winter, the queen gets a break from laying eggs. Some beekeepers believe that this actually increases the queen’s longevity.
Protection against predators. Keeping your bees in a structure provides added protection to your hive. Bees have many predators who are typically trying to get their honey. These predators can include mice, skunks, raccoons, ants, and more. Putting your hives behind closed doors can ward off many of these predators and keep a colony safe as they remain dormant in the winter.
Higher quality wax. Because the bees are dormant during the winter and require less food for maintenance, beekeepers find that the hive produces higher quality wax. The frames that hold the wax and the honey are not covered with bees during the winter so they stay dry, which also means no mildew is present.
Can I build a shed dedicated my hives?
Yes! Bee sheds are common in Europe and in parts of Canada. In fact, there are bee shed companies that build custom sheds intended to shelter bees all year round. Typically, this shed is built on a solid slabbed foundation facing the direction of the morning sun.
Inside of the shed, there are hive stands that keep the hives elevated and away from predators on the ground. These stands tend to be very sturdy and reduces the chances of a beekeeper causing vibration during an inspection. Too much vibration can cause stress on the honeybees.
How is indoor wintering different than outdoor wintering?
Wintering bees in a shed is practically no different than wintering them outside. My post about how to winterize bees details how beekeepers, who winterize hives outside, must wrap each hive with insulation. With indoor wintering, the shed serves as the insulation for any hive inside.
With outdoor wintering, honeybees can leave the hive during the winter, although they tend to remain in a cluster. With indoor wintering, the shed is kept completely dark so the bees are not tempted to leave.
Typically, indoor wintering is reserved for newer beekeepers or those with smaller hives. As hives mature, it gets harder to move them every year and experienced beekeepers choose to winterize the hives outside. Some hives can weight over 100 pounds due to the stored honey inside of it. However, in regions with intense winters- like in the north- even experienced beekeepers will consider bringing their hives inside.
What is the biggest challenge of wintering bees in a shed?
Overheating is probably the biggest concern with indoor wintering. If the temperature reaches 55-65°F the bees will crawl out the hives and won’t be able to find their way back. As a result, the bees will freeze to death.
If you plan to keep your hive in a shed, pay close attention to the temperature. If your region permits, put snow or ice in the room to keep the temperature low. Remember that bees produce a lot of heat, particular as spring approaches. If you have multiple hives in one shed, you may need to incorporate fans or other cooling systems to ensure the bees don’t leave their home too soon.
Beekeepers should wintering bees in a shed if they live in areas with long, cold winters. This is the optimal condition to keep bees indoors. If the shed ever becomes too warm, you risk the bees overheating and dying.
Wintering bees in a shed is a serious investment. You will need to install the proper equipment to track the temperature and humidity in the space. You also need to consider power source alternatives if you experience a power failure. Without another power source, you can almost guarantee that 100% of your bees will die.
Tip: Keep the floor clean
Hives are always shedding debris and it’s essential to keep the floors in the shed clean. Many beekeepers find it best to invest in a vacuum rather than sweeping the debris with a broom. During the winter, you may find debris and even dead bees on the floor. Some studies suggest that the chemicals released from these dead bees are not healthy for humans to inhale. Sweeping the dead bees around on the floor will only make it worse. Be sure to keep the shed free from bee debris.
When do I move the hive back outside?
When spring comes, you can carry your hive back outside and into the sun. Once it’s warm enough, bees will leave the hive for a cleansing flight. A cleansing flight refers to the flight bees take to cleanse themselves of all the poop they have been holding in (yes, for the entire winter!).
Depending on where you live, it may not be necessary to winter bees in a shed. Many times, they do just fine if you insulate the hive and keep it outside. Wintering bees indoors is more popular in Canada and the northern region of the U.S. with a harsh season. There are even specialty bee sheds you can purchase designed to protect hives from the elements.
The biggest concern with indoor wintering is overheating. The hive must remain in a dark room that is around 40°F at all times. If too warm, bees will leave the hive and ultimately die. You will need to track and maintain the air quality as well. Humidity levels, air ventilation, and temperature all need to be monitored throughout the season.
Be prepared to invest a lot of time and resources to prepare the ideal indoor space for bee wintering. However, if successful, you can put your feet up and enjoy the minimum effort it’ll take to care for your hive for that season.