Preparing Honeybees for Winter

Winter will soon be upon us here in northwest Washington State.  That can mean endless days of rain, or, as predicted in this year, lots of snow.  I personally hope for rain.  The beekeeper in me hopes for snow.

Snow covered beehives at Brookfield Farm, Washington

Light Snow in Winter of 2009

Snow means the bees will go into cluster.  They will form a “ball”, an expression that always amuses me. This “ball” is broken by 5 to 7 vertical frames, on which the bees cluster.  They seem to make it work.

As I understand it, the workers circulate from the center of the cluster – where the queen is – to the outside of the cluster on a continuous basis.  This allows the cluster to average 92 degrees Fahrenheit.  The center of the cluster is warmer.  The outer edges are colder.  As long as the cluster remains large enough to maintain a 92 degree average, and can reach honey, or bee candy in an emergency, they will probably survive.

Snow is warm.  It cocoons the hive.  Temperatures are easier to maintain.  Feeding drops to a minimal level.  No eggs are laid.  Rain is warm and wet.  Wet is a bee killer.  They can’t get dry.  Their temperature drops.  The cluster no longer averages 92 degrees.  They don’t slow down on eating.  They eat their stores.  Their numbers dwindle.  They die.  Rain’s a real bummer, and in the Pacific Northwest rainwater finds the tiniest cracks and gets into the hive (and your house, and your truck and your barn and your tractor – sorry a bit of a digression).

I believe in preparing for the worst: lots of rain and high winds that will drive the water into the hive.  So what follows is what I’m doing to protect my bees as much as I can.  It breaks down into the following:

1) Leave them enough food.

2) Put the mouse guard on.

3) Balance the hives or merge them.

4) Feed, feed, feed.

5) Wrap them up and put a hat on them.


1) Leave them enough food: 50 pounds of honey is what they say a hive needs to get through the winter.  I don’t carry a scale around.  Some beekeepers do – bless their souls.  When my bees were all Russian stock they were happy to get though winter in 2 westerns (medium boxes).  I only use westerns.  I can’t lift a deep.  But I open breed.  My queens buzzed off and met some of our local guys (Italians, Minnesota Hygienics, and Feral bees all live or are kept here) and their children and subsequent queens are no longer pure Russian.  Russians over-winter in small clusters.  They don’t each much.  Everyone else chows down.  So these days I leave 3 boxes.  Usually the bottom one has at least 3 or more frames of brood in it when I pull the honey.  The upper boxes usually have 8 to 10 frames of honey or nearly sealed honey.  Younger hives, which don’t have that amount of stores, are given frames of honey from larger hives.

2) Mice love hives in winter.  What’s there not to love?  The hive is warm, dry, and has tons of food.  Of course the mice stress the bees, distroy the combs, and usually kill the hive.   Mouse guards can be wood strips with a small entrance cut in them; hardware cloth jammed into the hive entrace to reduce the opening, metal with ¼ inch holes stapled across the front, or, in my case, ½ inch hardware cloth on a wooden frame.

Wood & Wire Mouse Guards at bees' entrance

Mouse Guards On Hives

The frame runs the entire length of the hive entrance, but reduces the openings though which the bees travel to around ¼ inch.  This has worked well for me.  But whatever you choose, get them on before the mice start searching for a home.

3) Balance or merge hives: A hive that seems nearly strong enough to get though the winter can be given brood and nurse bees from strong, overpopulated hives. This should give them enough workers to get through the winter.  How to determine a hive’s strength falls into the realm of “experience”, also known as having killed hives in the past.

Personally, I merge hives.  If I have a weak hive and a nuc with a good queen, I put the good nuc on top of the weak hive with a piece of pierced newspaper in between.  In a week I’ve a stronger hive and I take away what’s left of the newspaper.  I’ve read the queen in the top box wins the resulting queen battle.  I figure the stronger queen has the upper hand, or leg in her case.  One could find the weak queen and kill it before the merge.  This would be good.  This would require time, something I don’t have.  I do always make nucs.  It disrupts the varroa mites and gives me good, if small hives when I need them.  When I don’t need them I over winter them on top of stronger hives.  There’s nothing like under-floor heating in the winter.  My home should have it.

4) Feed, feed, feed.  I’m taking their food away.  I’ve got to give them something back.  I feed a cane-sugar syrup which is about 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, supplemented by spearmint, lemon grass and thyme essential oils.  Honey is better.  If I left them all their honey, I’d be out of business.  I don’t need pets; I need an income.  The essential oils seem to help my bees with varroa and nosema. At least my bees survive when they get the oils and die when they don’t (Yes, I tried that as an experiment: no oils = dead hives).  Hive top feeders are, in my mind, the best.  I’ve friends who use others.  I use a low-budget version hive top feeder that I’ll chat about another time.

Having said the above, the most amazing hive I’ve seen in this area was an Italian hive whose keeper harvested honey in the spring.  If you’re keeping a home hive, I’d really suggest harvesting honey in the spring when the nectar is flowing.  You will have left your bees their food for the winter, and what you now harvest will soon be replaced.  Please note: the person who kept that hive did not depend on honey as a source of income.

5) Wrap them and give them a hat: I put roofing tarpaper around each of my hives.  It’s

Beehive winter hat being constructed in the late summer

Tar Paper Beehive Hat Being Made

held in place with pushpins.  This has held in gale-force winds.  I then make them a hat.  The hat is of the same roofing tarpaper.  Fold it like you’re wrapping a present on all but the bottom. I staple the edges.

How to make a winter beehive cover at Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, Washington

Folding & Stapling a Beehive Cover

Again this holds in high winds. I cut out an area for the upper entrance, and put colored tape around it so the bees can locate it.  After all, once wrapped, the hives all look alike: executioner hives I call them.  I’ll do a more detailed blog on wrapping soon.  And then I give them another hat (I’m obsessive): this is a square of roofing “felt” – asphalt rolls of roofing that you can find at any building store.  On top of this I put a big rock.  We have really strong winds and rain.

Then I hope.  I hope the queen does not die in the winter.  I hope the bees do not supercede the queen before drones fly in the spring.  I hope they have enough honey.  I hope I gave them enough feed.  I hope they have enough bees to keep warm.  I hope they don’t get any disease that will kill them.  I hope they make it to spring.  Hope springs eternal in a beekeeper’s breast.





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