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    How to winterize your beehive

    Authored by Hannah Mather of Hannah's Honeycomb

    A successful overwintered hive depends on careful year-round management. Don’t wait until fall to begin to prepare your hive.

    Bee nutrition

    Honey bees must have enough food stores to last them through the winter. Each colony needs around 60 pounds of honey left in their hive. It’s important not to over-harvest honey from hives, especially when they’re in their first year.

    Supplemental feeding for bees

    Honey alone is sometimes not enough, and beekeepers need to supplement feed. In spring, feed bees a 1:1 sugar to water ratio (light syrup). In fall, feed a 2:1 sugar to water (heavy syrup). When temperatures drop below freezing, you can make a fondant or sugar patty. These sugar combinations provide bees with their needed carbohydrates. To provide more protein, a pollen patty can be given as well.

    Mite control for hives

    Varroa mites are a leading cause of colony weakening and loss. It’s important to stay on top of them throughout the season to give your bees the best chance for success. The two main methods used for mite testing uses alcohol or powdered sugar, and several treatment options depending on your needs and time of year.

    Begin testing late May and at least every 2 months throughout the summer. Mite numbers tend to peak late summer and can cause colonies to collapse heading into winter if not treated.

    Powdered sugar method (adapted from University of Minnesota Bee Lab) 

    Materials:

    • Mason jar with ring lid 
    • Powdered sugar
    • Hardware cloth (to fit under lid of jar) 
    • A white bowl or tub

    Instructions for this method can be found here:

    1. Find your queen bee, put the frame that she’s on to the side
    2. Shake bees from a frame with open brood (*without queen!*) into your white tub 
    3. Scoop bees from the white tub into your mason jar. You need approximately 300 bees or 100 ml
    4. Seal with the screened lid  
    5. Measure 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and press through the screened lid
    6. Roll the jar gently until all bees are covered with powdered sugar 
    7. Leave in shade for 2 minutes
    8. Hold jar upside down over the white tub (with screened lid still on) and shake vigorously for at least 1 minute 
    9. The dislodged mites will be at the bottom of the white tub. You can add some water to dissolve the sugar if needed
    10. Count mites (small brown ovals) 
    11. Divide this number by 3 to give you your mite count per 100 bees
    12. Return the sugar covered bees to the colony (they’ll be cleaned off by other worker bees) 

    Treatments for Varroa Mites

    Common treatment options include:

    • Apivar
    • Apiguard 
    • Oxalic acid vaporization
    • Formic acid 

    Whichever method you use, make sure it is not done when you have honey supers on. The label is the law, follow instructions carefully. 

    Beehive moisture control

    Honey bees do a great job maintaining temperature and humidity throughout the year, but it can get a little trickier in the winter. Contrary to common belief, its not the cold that usually kills a colony, but an accumulation of moisture. Bees cluster together for warmth when the temperatures drop, and the warm air they produce rises to the top of the hive. Once this warm air reaches cool surfaces, condensation occurs, and moisture can drip back down into the cluster making it difficult for the bees to continue regulating. They’ll then consume more resources trying to warm up, which can lead to starvation when those run out.

    To combat this, beekeepers use a few different strategies. It may take you a few seasons to find the right combination that works for your setup and bees. Quilt boxes and moisture boards are the most popular methods of moisture control. You can purchase them, modify a box you already have, or make one from scratch. They are often filled with materials such as shavings with ventilation added and placed above the brood boxes.

    Insulation for beehives

    Insulating hives is important. Insulation helps reduce the amount of honey your bees need to consume throughout the winter for maintaining temperature within the hive. It also helps to protect them from fluctuating temperatures in our increasingly less predictable climates. You can use insulated inner covers, insulated top cover and/or wraps. Whatever you choose, make sure you leave an entrance accessible to the bees as they still need to come and go and circulate air.

    Wind block

    Blocking wind is another way to help your hives regulate their temperature throughout the winter. This can be done by placing your hives in a protected area, adding a fence or even using hay bales.

    Hive entrances

    Even when its cold, bees need access to the entrances as they need to relieve themselves and remove deceased bees. They also need fresh air coming in to circulate. When it snows, remember the bees as you do your shoveling and be sure to clear any snow from your hives that may be blocking their entrances.

    Final thoughts

    The amount of winter prep you need to do for your bees will depend on your climate, as well as your hive’s strength and resources going into the winter. Be willing to adapt your plan and respond accordingly. If this is your first winter, don’t be discouraged if things don’t work out, you’re in good company. Try to stay optimistic and use the opportunity to analyze where things went wrong so you can better prepare for the next year.

    Hannah is a beekeeper, horticulturist and pollinator advocate. She's passionate about sharing stories of our bee friends and their relationship to the environment. Learn more about Hannah or follow her on Instagram for more insect-size stories.