Unlike birds, bees don’t fly south for the winter, nor do they hibernate. So, what do bees do in the winter? They try to survive. They spend all their time and energy keeping warm and fed and waiting for spring.
In the wild, bees have a natural way of surviving by doing things such as living in moderate climates and building their hives in hollowed out trees. However, for domestic bees, it’s a good idea to give the bees a bit of extra help to survive the winter, especially if you are bee farming in areas that have severe winters.
The things that a beekeeper does to help the hives survive the winter will differ depending on what kind of hives are used; Langstroth, Warre or Kenyan top bar. The severity of the winter will also determine some of what needs to be done. For instance, if you live in a climate that rarely gets below freezing, you won’t need to insulate the hives but if you live where it’s below freezing for three solid months, you might need to insulate your hives.
To begin winterizing your apiary, you will need to remove any extra “space” from the hive. Some beekeepers prefer to not do a fall harvest and leave all the honey for the bees for the winter. The full frames of honey add insulation to the hive along with providing plenty of food for the hive. This will reduce the possibility of having to use fondant for bees as a food source and feeding bees in winter. I would suggest that unless a super is at least 70% full of filled honeycomb to not leave the super on the hive if you live in cold climate. The extra space in the super will just be more room that the bees need to keep warm. For the top bar hive, you will need to move the false wall as far up the hive as you can and still leave enough honey for the bees for the winter.
Some beekeepers prefer to harvest almost all the honey and leave just one deep for the bees for the winter. In this case, the hive will just be two boxes high and the space the bees need to warm will be limited.
The extra supers and frames need to be cleaned and stored where wax moths cannot get to them. Wax moths cannot survive freezing temperatures so storing the boxes and frames outside but under a covered roof is ideal in climates that freeze. If you live in a moderate climate consider putting them in the freezer for 24 hours before storing them for the winter. Wax moths like dark, damp climates so don’t store your boxes and frames in basements or garages if possible.
Another thing the beekeeper should do is remove the queen excluder if you are using one. This will allow the bees to move around as a cluster. This keeps the worker bees from having to make the choice between gathering honey from the reserves or keeping the queen warm and is especially important if the winter is long. Remember what happens when the queen bee dies? So keeping the queen alive is the hives number one priority and the workers will choose to starve to death in order to do that. Let’s not make them have to make that choice.
It’s important to reduce the possibility of pests stealing the bee’s honey. There are several things that can help with this. One is to make sure the hive is lifted up off the ground. We use cinder blocks but anything that will keep the hive off the ground will work. You can also use rat or mice traps around the hives to keep mice and rats away. If you use hay as an insulator or windbreak you will need to make sure that mice and rats don’t make their nests in them.
The next thing the beekeeper needs to consider is moisture build up in the hive. I’ve seen all kinds of recommendations ranging from not ventilating the top of the hive and reducing the entry on the bottom of the hive to leaving the entry the same size and adding 1/8” ventilation gap between the two boxes. Like most things in life, I don’t think there is one answer for everyone or every beekeeper.
The issue with ventilation is that if you give them too much, the bees have a hard time keeping the hive warm; however, if you don’t give them enough ventilation, condensation can build up and cause all kinds of problems. Some condensation is good as it gives the bees a source of water without leaving the hive. But too much condensation can produce mold and in very cold climates can freeze which means there is ice in the hive.
Since bees are living, breathing beings, they produce carbon dioxide and when there is not enough ventilation in the hive, the carbon dioxide can build up and suffocate the bees.
If you are a new beekeeper, I suggest asking local beekeepers how they ventilate their hives in the winter. A local beekeeper who has been gone through several winters will be able to give you specific advice for your climate.
Adding a wind block to your apiary is a good thing to do in the winter. This can be a wooden wall or even stacked hay bales. The important thing is to keep the majority of the wind from the hive.
For the most part, bees do a great job of keeping their hive at 96°F all year long. In the heat of the summer, they might need a little help if you live in a hot climate. In the dead of winter, the bees in your hives might need a little help maintaining 96°F if you live in an extremely cold climate.
Snow is a great insulator, so there is no need to clear the snow from the top of the hives. However, you will need to make sure that entry to the hive is always clear of snow so you don’t trap the bees inside.
Many beekeepers in cold climates will add insulation to their hives. This might be as simple as adding hay bales around three sides of the hives, leaving the entry side open. Or it can be as complicated as wrapping the hive boxes in batting or foam and roofing paper. Again, it will depend on how cold and how long your winters are.
There is a fine balance between helping the bees stay warm during the winter and accidentally tricking the bees into thinking spring has arrived. Therefore, whether or not to insulate a hive or how to insulate a hive in your climate is another great question for a local beekeeper. There is no substitute for learning from an experienced beekeeper what bees do in the winter in your area.
Bees are uniquely equipped to survive in the wild, but when we put them in man-made hives and keep them in areas that have cold winters, we need to give them a little extra help to survive the winter.
What are some things you do to help your bees survive the winter?