Just when you think winter will never end, you suddenly awaken to an azure sky. You hear sounds you haven’t heard in months: frogs, birds, kids. Without warning, honey bees you haven’t seen since fall are circling overhead, stretching their wings and looking for nectar.
Right then, you remember the hole in your bee veil, the unassembled honey supers still packed in a box, the new brood chamber you haven’t painted. You also remember you haven’t ordered mite treatments, and you wonder if you have the equipment you’ll need to make a split.
The panicky feeling you get when the work seems overwhelming is not fun, and it can spoil the blue-sky euphoria. To prevent that sinking feeling, here’s a list of beekeeping projects you can tackle in the winter while your bees are tucked away in their hives.
15 Short Beekeeping Projects for Winter
- Paint your hive tool. I once estimated that I spent about 40 percent of my beekeeping time looking for my hive tool. I scour the ground, re-trace my steps, re-open hives, and pat my pockets. Things happen fast in a bee hive, so hive tools are not your first priority until you need them in a hurry. The best solution for me has been bright pink paint. Pick any color you like as long as it catches your eye.
- Buy a butterfly net and learn how to use it. My butterfly net is my second most indispensable tool. I use it for catching bees that get in the house, and for pulling bees out of puddles and pools. But its most important function is catching yellowjacket and hornet queens. Every queen you catch in early spring is potentially one less colony your bees will have to deal with in the fall. A little practice can save you a lot of frustration later.
- Design your honey label. Why not have a honey label that is unique to you and your apiary? Modern printing companies that allow you to upload your own file are inexpensive and fun to use. Get together with your family and design a label you love. Cute or unique labels sell lots of honey, so put in the time now to be ready for your next harvest.
- Render your beeswax. All summer long I toss bits and pieces of beeswax in a bucket. By fall, I usually have enough to make the very messy rendering process. You can make gifts, household products, or your own starter strips for your spring bees. Or, if you use plastic foundation, you can paint them with a fresh layer of your own beeswax.
- Make a swarm charm. Yes, rendering wax is messy, and if you melt brood combs you will be left with an unsettling byproduct called slumgum. In spite of its appearance, slumgum makes a great swarm lure. Simply dip an old rag in melted slumgum and let it harden. In spring, throw a rope over a tree limb near your hives and hang the charm 15-20 feet from the ground. With any luck, an escaping swarm will settle on your charm while scout bees search for a new home. When it does, just untie your rope and lower the swarm into a cardboard box.
- Rough up the interior of empty bee boxes. If you have any empty brood boxes, take advantage of the winter season to rough up the interior surfaces, using something like rough-grit sandpaper. Honey bees smooth out rough surfaces with propolis, and propolis has antimicrobial properties that help keep colonies healthy.
- Try a new honey flavor. The holidays are a great time to try a new-to-you honey and share it with friends. Get online and search for something out of your geographic area. Try to describe its flavor and imagine how you might pair it with cheese or fruit. My pick for this year is chestnut honey. What’s yours?
- Prepare for tax time. If you’re running your bees as a business, remember that tax time and swarm season coincide. It’s best to collect your documents and run your numbers in the winter. Then, come spring, your bees can get all the attention they need.
- Stock up on supplies. The holidays are filled with all sorts of deals, so be sure to check on supplies you will need in spring. You may be able to find honey jars, straining cloths, mite treatments, foundation, and even sugar on sale. Not only can you find good deals, but you save time when you need it most.
- Repair your bee suit. The veil of my bee suit had a tear in the black mesh fabric. I was meaning to mend it, but I kept putting it off. Last week, while checking on winter stores, I kept seeing a bee in my peripheral vision. I thought, “That’s funny, she looks like she’s on the inside.” Turns out, she was. And she proved it. Ouch! So go get a needle and thread—don’t wait.
- Join iNaturalist. iNaturalist is a site that can help you identify just about anything that lives. If you see a plant, a bug, a mushroom, or a bird, just snap a photo with your smart phone and upload it. Specialists in many different fields will help you identify whatever it is. What’s the name of the plant your bees find so enthralling? Just click and learn.
- Choose a try-it. Every year I try one new experiment that will improve my knowledge of beekeeping. It can be something easy like a new kind of forage plant, or something difficult like raising queens. It doesn’t matter if you are successful or not. The point is to learn something new. I use the winter months to prepare for the next year’s try-it.
- Rethink your hive location. If you had any doubts or misgivings about your hive location, winter is a good time to make a switch. Since the bees are inside for the winter, you won’t have problems with re-orientation come spring. Just close off the entrances, tie the hive altogether with ratchet straps, and move the whole thing at once.
- Read at least one beekeeping book. Beekeepers are compulsive readers, so select a good read for those cozy winter evenings. It can be a how-to book, a memoir, or a biology of bees. Or expand your reading to include other pollinators or the biology of plants.
- Build pollinator housing. Remember all those hollow-stemmed plants you saved? Now is the time to take your collection of lovage, teasel, and joe-pye weed and turn them into tubes for spring pollinators. If you have no stems, just use paper straws. It’s a fun project to tackle over a mug of hot chocolate.
Do you have a favorite wintertime beekeeping project? We would love to hear what it is.