How do beekeepers prepare their honey bees for winter?
To answer this question, we have to consider where the beekeeper is located and what type of winters they experience.
Beekeepers near the equator don’t need to do much – honey bees in those parts live year-round and are exposed to the elements (they don’t live naturally in a cavity)
Beekeepers closer to the north or south pole (think of Canada) – keep their honey bees in large air-controlled units for half the year (in the colder seasons) and then move their honey bees outdoors (in the warmer seasons).
So, to a large degree, what beekeepers do depends on where they live. We are located in Idaho, USA – so for the most part – I will outline what we do in this area. If you live in other parts of the state or world – refer to your local beekeeping club or ask your local beekeeper how they winterize their beehives.
Winterizing a hive means ‘preparing it to survive through winter.’
The first step is to make sure the hive has plenty of food. In this part of Idaho, the weather varies; you can have semi-cold winters or freezing winters – so it’s best to provide them with enough food in case it is freezing.
For an established hive, that would be one deep or two mediums for our area – or about 70 pounds of honey reserve. A deep frame holds about 8 pounds of honey, and a medium frame holds about 6 pounds of honey. Some beekeepers aim for two deeps or three mediums and around 90 pounds of honey. We see success in winterizing our hives in Southern West Idaho in only single deeps, and they seem to do very well. You can look at our other article on Honey Bee Food Requirements that goes into the reason we keep our hives smaller, or you can check out a good article in you want to keep your hives larger and the setup for that called “Wintering Bees in Cold Climates.” Another article we found showed higher success rates winterizing in Single Deeps and NUCS vs Double Deeps (SUSTAINABLE NORTHERN BEEKEEPING A METHOD TO IMPROVE SURVIVAL AND REDUCE REPLACEMENT COSTS)
So before the end of fall – the beekeeper has to make sure each hive has an appropriate amount of honey reserve to last them through the winter – they do this by either leaving the appropriate amount of honey for the honey bees during harvest (the best option) or feeding sugar syrup to get to those numbers (see this article on sugar syrup ratios).
Ok, so the beekeeper makes sure that each colony has food; what next? Well, depending on the beekeeper – they would treat chemically for Varroa destructor to make sure the count is low entering into winter – this is a standard practice currently. We don’t chemically treat our hives since we are focusing on Varroa resistant queen breeding, and due to the effects it has on hive ecology and honey bee immunity – you can see our other article on feral honey bee survivability or our other blog articles.
The last step would be preparing their home to go through winter – again – many people do many different things – some wrap their home with some type of blanket or other gadgets. We don’t do that – we don’t mess with their home – here is why.
The honey bees will start preparing for winter at the start of the season – so we make sure their entrance is not too big and not too large year-round. If you have a reversible bottom – we just reverse it and leave it like that year-round – or we put an entrance reducer and leave it like that all year.
Our hives are already 2 feet off the ground year-round – and they are placed fairly closer together already on pallets or cinder blocks.
“Studies have demonstrated that such protective wraps are not necessary and colonies not protected survive as well as protected colonies”Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping By Dewey M. Caron – Page 213
The ONLY thing we may do is if it’s going to be a bad winter is place a windbreaker (if one is not there already), and perhaps we may place them closer together for warmth – but research suggests drifting increases colony death – so we tend to try to protect them from winter winds only.
We don’t have a ventilation hole up top or an upper entrance, and we do not wrap our hives. Keep in mind – that if you DO wrap your hives, you may want a ventilation hole up top. Keep in mind warm air escapes the vent whole or top entrances – which makes it harder for the honey bees to equalize.
One thing we do (since we do not have a vent hole on top) is add dry sugar on top of the inner cover(under the telescoping top) – this is two-fold – it absorbs any excess moisture and provides some emergency feed.
So winterizing is pretty straightforward – once you have their home and hive setup the only question you have to ask is, do they have enough food? If yes – they are winterized…
- Honey Bee Biology: Chapter 13