Preparing Honey Bees for Winter
Best Practices for Winterizing Beehives in the Fall
Reading Time: 5 minutes
It seems like just yesterday I was making spring splits and unpacking honey supers. Now, I look outside and see red and brown maple leaves on my patio and the hot morning coffee is just a bit cozier in the crisp, early air. Where did the summer so quickly run off to?
The truth is, in Colorado, if you haven’t been preparing your bees for winter for a while now, you’re behind the 8-ball. Still, it’s important to understand what winterizing beehives look like for a backyard beekeeper like you and I.
In my world, preparing bees for surviving the Colorado winter began months ago. So I’ll start there:
For my beekeeper brain, spring begins when the dandelions and early spring fruit trees blossom. The bees who have successfully overwintered are now able to gather groceries from the environment when it’s warm enough to forage. This could be as early as March or April.
This is when my winter preparations begin. I’m getting into hives and making sure they have a healthy queen with a solid laying pattern. I’m also assessing their food situation and providing supplemental feed, if necessary, by way of sugar syrup and/or pollen substitute patties. Ultimately, my goal is to support the colonies in growth so, when the nectar flow of summer arrives, they are primed to collect as much of it as possible.
A mentor once shared a mantra with me that has stuck in my head. “Queen-right by July 4th.”
By the beginning of July my goal is to have all my colonies happy, healthy, and booming in population. If they aren’t, I’m considering combining them with my strong colonies or, if they are particularly unwell, limiting the resources I offer them and letting them go their own way.
If I’ve done a good job from spring to now, all my colonies are rocking and rolling by July, as they were this year. They’ve all got honey supers on and have received at least one summer mite treatment.
In Colorado we generally have two strong nectar flows; a big one in summer, and a smaller one toward fall. The general rule of thumb where I live is to make sure each hive weighs around 100 pounds by November, when the dearth has really set in.
My top priority as a beekeeper is to actually keep bees. Second to that is harvesting honey. So, I remove honey supers the third or fourth week in August, depending on my schedule.
This has two benefits. First, it means my bees get the full benefit of the fall nectar flow. Rather than packing my supers with that nectar they keep it in their brood chamber where it’s easily accessible during the dearth and cold to come. Second, it gives me a large fall window in which to minimize the presence of varroa mites.
There are two kinds of worker bees in a hive, depending on the time of year. They are summer bees and winter bees. Winter bees have substantially larger fat bodies to help them live longer. This is of great benefit since the colony has limited (or no) ability to raise more brood during the cold winter months.
Varroa mites feed on fat bodies. As you can imagine, keeping the varroa population as low as possible during the winter is critical. But there’s more to the story.
Where I live, my bees begin raising the “winter bees” around September/October. So, by pulling my supers toward the end of August, I have the opportunity to seriously knock down the varroa population right before the bees begin raising their super-fat winter sisters.
Of note, occasionally a colony will abscond in the fall. I’ve seen it as late as November in Colorado. Where I live, a colony that swarms or absconds this time of year is doomed. There simply isn’t enough time to build a new nest, raise enough bees, and collect enough food to make it through the winter.
So why do they do it?
Varroa. A colony with too much varroa come fall will decide their current home is no longer hospitable so they leave to look for a better place to live. It’s a catch-22. Stay, and they won’t survive the varroa. Leave, and they won’t survive the winter.
So here’s my plea to you – please properly manage your varroa population.
Now that my supers are off and my varroa treatments are going, I begin monitoring the weight of my hives. I don’t have a scale but I do have several years of experience so I simply lift the back of the hive with one hand and get a pretty good idea of if it is heavy “enough” or not.
If it isn’t, I begin to feed them sugar syrup.
In some ways, fall feeding is one of the most important responsibilities of a beekeeper. More often than not, bees don’t die because of the winter cold, they die because there wasn’t enough food in the hive. They need those simple carbohydrates to shiver to keep themselves warm.
If I have a colony that needs to be fed, I’ll feed them sugar syrup until either they have stored enough for winter, or it’s too cold to continue doing so. If you find it’s too cold to continue feeding sugar syrup and your bees still need supplemental food, you can consider fondant or a sugar board for inside the hive.
If I’m feeding my bees I continue to do so as long as the ambient temperature won’t freeze the sugar syrup.
Sometime in October or November, depending on weather and what I’m seeing around the hive, I reduce the size of the entrance to the hive. The population of the colony has been slowly shrinking for a couple months now and the wasps and other bees in the area are getting desperate for food. Shrinking the size of the entrance with an entrance reducer means a small space to defend against opportunists.
We get some big temperature swings this time of year in Colorado. It could be 80 degrees on a particularly warm day and 40 degrees that night. When I see the overnight lows consistently dipping below about 40 I think seriously about closing up the screened bottom board in my hives.
When the daily high temperature starts to dip below around 50, I wrap my hives with a Bee Cozy for the winter. I implement one important alteration, though. When bees cluster in the winter they produce a bunch of heat and evaporation. Those water droplets rise with the warmth coming off the cluster and collect at the top of the hive. Far enough away from the cluster the water cools and even approaches freezing. When there’s enough water up there it drips down on the cluster, freezing and killing the bees it hits.
To minimize this condensation issue, I prop up the front of my outer cover and create a gap for airflow. This allows much – or all – of that wet air off the cluster to actually escape the hive and minimizes water collection within. It seems a bit counterintuitive to have a gap for air at the top of your hive but I’ve done this for the last few years and haven’t lost a winter colony in over 3 years now.
At this point, I’ve done all I can for my bees and it’s typically gotten too cold to intervene with the hives.
I’ll spend the next few months reading the latest research on bees and beekeeping and, from time to time, gently placing a stethoscope on the outside of a hive to listen to gentle hum of the cluster.
When I’m lucky, I’ll be home on a particularly warm winter day to watch them all come out on their “cleansing flights.”
Then, just before I know it, as quickly as winter came, spring will appear and I’ll be right back it, supporting my bees in getting ready for next year’s winter slumber.