Lesson 16 – Winterizing Our Hives
In December, most of us place our ear against the outside of the hive and give a gentle tap to see if they are still buzzing, and usually they are. It is rare for a hive to die in December or even in January. The fact is, most hives that die do not even die in February. They die in March, when they have exhausted their food supply and have few to forage the early nectar on the occasional warm days.
So what can we do to help our bees make it through winter? There is no plan that ensure 100% survival. Bees are livestock. Things can just go bad. But a few things can help.
Typically, most consider winter preparations consists of the following:
1) Put on a mouse guard at the entrance. (The smallest entrance)
2) Lift the hive and see if it has enough stored honey by how heavy it is.
3) Wrap the hive with some sort of insulation or roofing paper. (Typically not necessary where we live, not even in the mountains)
4) Establishing wind breaks by location or by building them.
5) We treat for mites and nosema.
These might be good measures to take. However, they are not fail proof. In fact, here are three concerns that probably cause our hives to die during the winter that many overlook:
1) Queenlessness. Your hive is most certain to die if your queen is weak or gone going into winter.
2) Winter Condensation. If you seal up your hive too tight, you might increase the overall condensation within the hive and cause this cold water to constantly drip onto the cluster and eventually kill your hive.
3) Keeping stored honey next to the winter cluster. How many times do we hear that a hive died even though there was plenty of honey.
So, here’s my checklist for what you should be doing to your hives now to prepare for a great hive in the spring:
1) Remove queen excluders.
2) Remove honey supers. (Excluding the ones you have given permanently to the hive)
3) Examine the amount of stored honey and be sure your bees have plenty. Most beekeepers in the lift the back of the hive and hope it feels like there is 70 pounds of stored honey. 70 pounds is the approximate equivalent of 1 medium super full of honey.
4) If your hive is short on stored honey, FEED! Feed 2:1 sugar water. Use an internal or top feeder if robbing is a problem. Robbing is more of a problem during the fall dearth.
5) Make sure that your hive has some sort of upper ventilation. It does not have to be much but something. Our screened top insert should do the trick here. (We often call this the small entrance reducer)
6) Use good mouse guards, either metal or wooden entrance cleats to keep mice out.
7) Treat the hives in late fall with vaporized oxilic acid.
8) If wrapping hives, be sure to allow upper ventilation.
9) Combine weak hives with strong ones. Most of the small swarms you caught are not going to winter well unless you caught them in May. Do not feel like a failure if you’ve worked hard to build up your numbers, but now you have to slice your hive count in half by combining hives. Combining ten hives into 5 which survive the winter is better than having 8 out of 10 die out.
Much can be said about preparing a hive for winter, but the hive that has the best chance of surviving the winter will be the hive that was very strong all year and has a young queen. Remember, a strong hive is more apt to be pest and disease free, thus overwintering much better because it does not have viruses caused by mites.
Only strong hives overwinter well enough to explode in the spring. Weak hives that do survive the winter usually are not impressive the following year, unless requeened soon in the spring.
This year, I will expand my overwintering experiments. I will be overwintering a variety of configurations to see which hive does best. I have one hive going into winter that we are now feeding pollen and heavy nectar to stimulate the queen to keep laying deep into fall to see if this is better or worse of winter survival.
Please put it on your calendar to peak in your hive in January on a decent day when the temperature rises to atleast 40 degrees. Then, make a plan to quickly open your hive on a calm day and in 1 minute or less, pull up a frame of honey, scratch it open and place it next to the cluster. If they have no honey left, then feed!
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