One of the many challenges you are facing as a beekeeper is to keep your bees alive and well during the winter period. For you who live in warmer areas, it would be easier than for us in colder areas, but never the less you have to take several steps to ensure your colony survival during the winter period
Here are tips on what should you do to prepare your hives and bees for winter.
During the winter period, bees are constricted in their hive and they feed on the honey they stored during the blooming period. Depending on the area you live amount of honey can vary.
According to the experienced beekeeper for very cold areas hive should have up to 80-90 pounds of honey and for warm parts – 35 pounds should be enough. If you are not sure what is the right amount for your hive ask local experienced bee-keeper for advice, they know the best because they had many years to test the best amount.
If you find your hives during winter with a low amount of honey and winter is not over soon you should provide supplemental nutrition. For the winter period, you should try fondant or candy board (you can also seek advice from local experienced beekeeper for the best nutrition)
Do not feed bees with pollen during winter
Do not feed the bees with liquid syrup because they will not eat it when the temperature is low
Combs full of honey inside the beehives in winter increases the colony’s survival chances.
Control the Hive Moisture
Moisture in the hive is natural but too much of it can cause a lot of problems for the hive. Moist conditions are breeding ground for molds, fungi and different type of bacteria that will hurt your colony.
You have to make sure your hive is well ventilated and if needed make additional holes on the top and bottom of the hive. Also, screens are helpful and allow the air to flow naturally and remove moist and also protect the hive from intruders such as wasps and bees from other colonies
Also, you can put wood shadings on the bottom and canvas that will collect the moist and prevent it to affect the bees.
Candy boards are also recommended by experience beekeepers because beside providing food source helps with moist by absorbing it.
The trouble with moist during the cold season with low temperature is that moist collected on the top bar can condense into water drops that fall on the bees and it can freeze them to death when the temperatures are below zero.
During cold days bees form the cluster to warm each other and protect from freezing. During warmer days some of the bees leave the cluster and if freezing temperatures strike fast they are not able to get back to cluster on time and can freeze to death.
You can prevent this by isolating your hives with insulators that you can order online such as Beehive Cozy Cover but you can use roofing felt, hive quilt or even use polystyrene (styrofoam) hives.
An important tip when isolating: Make sure you keep clear entrance and ventilation holes.
Ventilation is crucial to remove excess heat that can cause condensation This way you will avoid collecting moisture that causes mold and also prevents water drops that can even drown your bees
The strength of the colony is something you check during the entire year, that way you can spot the problems on time and prevent it to keep the colony strong and thriving. This is important because In case your colony is weak most likely it will not make it through the winter.
I have found that one of the ways to check the hive strength is to look at the brood pattern. If the majority of cells are capped look for breaks in the pattern (empty cells) that is an indication that larvae are not healthy and worker bees had to remove it so you get an empty cell in the pattern. Too much empty cell is an indication of virus infection or other diseases and the colony will not be able to survive the winter.
Another indicator is the amount of pollen stored, a strong hive will have a good amount of pollen that is crucial for nutrition and keeping the healthy colony.
The number of bees is a strong indicator if you have a strong colony, there should be a lot of working bees inside and outside the hive. Like a busy factory during working hours.
In case your hives are not protected by nature barrier you should think about setting up the fence. It is important to help your hive maintain a steady temperature that can be affected by wind.
The easiest way to protect the hives is to set up a privacy fence that is not expensive and easy to install. Or if you would like to make a natural protection plant like Arborvitae (Thuja) but you have to prepare and plant when the season is right.
Important Guidelines for Wind Barrier Setup
· Hight – make your fence is taller than the hive at least 1 foot
· Placement – position the fence 6 feet behind the hive, wind can blow from different directions and if the fence is to close to the hive wind will bounce back through the bottom off the hive and affect the temperature inside
· Tilt the top of the fence away from the hive to make the winds that blow in the opposite direction to go over the barrier and away, this way you reduce wind turbulence
Most common diseases that affect the colony are varroa mites, small hive and wax moths. In case you have trouble with any of mentioned above your colony is in trouble and you should apply Integrated Pest Management.
Checking larvae will give you enough information about colony condition.
Young larvae in good health will be white colored, covered with Royal Jelly and forming a ‘’C’’ shape. In case they have a diferent color or shape it is a sign that the colony is infected.
Wax moths and beetles will attack the colony that is already weak and they will use empty cells to move in and breed to take over the rest of the honey bees colony.
So far the best way to save the colony is to start the IPM treatment mentioned above.
A lot of experienced barkeepers are suggesting to replace your combs every 2-3 years. Main reasons for that are pesticides and herbicides that are collecting in the old combs and affecting the colony. So replacing old ones you will reduce the negative effect on the brood and young larvae.
Important note: Replacing comb frames should be done slowly few at the time during the active season. Order of replacing is also important and you should remove every second frame because it allows bees to adapt easier. Also, remove only half of the frames in one year and note the year and exact frames that were changed.
Clear the Hive Entrance
During winter especially when snowing check the hive entrances. In case the entrance is covered with snow make sure to clean it because even during the winter bees have to be able to leave the hive safely. This is also important because to free the ways for ventilation purposes. This way bees can maintain a dry hive with a steady temperature.
Protect the Hive from Mice
During winter mice can be a big problem because they always look for a good place to move in and make a nest. The nest is built by a piece of the hive and even comb all good building material.
So you can imagine what kind of damage they can make by there sharp teeth. The best protection against them is mouse guard that you can buy in every bee-keeping store or you can make it from wire mesh.
Winter Hive Inspection
Checking hive during winter is important to find out if the bees have enough food or they are dealing with any type of disease.
Opening the hive during winter can destroy the colony you should wait for the warmer days (above 40 degrees F). Then quickly open the lid and check:
Food level – to add food supplement if needed
Moisture – in case of too much moisture to increase ventilation
Hive debris – if you find it on the bottom of the hive you either have mite infestation or it is too cold for the bees to reach the food storage so urgent feeding bees is in order.
White crumbs on the bottom that looks like sea salt – is a sign that bees need more wax to cap the newly hatched larvae (queens do that sometimes during winter)
Outside the hive you can find dead bees, this is normal for winter period because in the summer season colony can have up to 40,000 bees and in the end of winter season it can drop down to 1/4 of that size.
A good way to check the hive without opening it is to tap on the side of the hive and wait for the response. A strong buzzing sound is should be an indicator that all is good with the colony.