How you prepare your hives for winter depends on where you live, so some of the suggestions below may not apply to you. Nevertheless, the list may give you some ideas. Although the calendar still shows September, those long, dark, cold days of winter are just around the corner. It’s time to get busy.
If a hive feels light in the fall, you should start feeding liquid sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to one part water) as soon as possible. My opinion is that it doesn’t hurt to feed sugar proactively. I sometimes give sugar as soon as the weather gets cold. In this way, they eat both honey and sugar simultaneously throughout the winter, and the honey supply lasts longer. I think this is better than having them eat only honey, and then only sugar because honey contains essential nutrients. In any case, check the hives on the occasional dry and sunny day. Move frames of honey closer to the cluster, if possible, or add feed if necessary. Do not be lulled into thinking that they have “made it” just because the temperatures are warming in the spring.
If you don’t have extra honey from your own apiary to feed the bees, the next best thing is sugar syrup made from granulated sugar. We offer a great community feeder, when used with our 5-lb. glass jars will provide enough syrup for your bee yard to help get those colonies ready to overwinter. The syrup used in fall and winter should be at a 2:1 ratio, that’s a proportion of two parts sugar to one part water by either weight or volume.
Also, you may want to add a mold inhibitor. If the temperatures in your area are going to be below 50°F; it is best to use homemade fondant, candy boards, or granulated sugar (mountain camp method) rather than syrup. Because table sugar lacks the micronutrients found in honey, you can add a feeding stimulant with essential oils such as Honey-B-Healthy or Pro Health to give them some added nourishment. You might also consider adding a pollen patty. I use the mountain camp method to feed light hives through winter because it is very simple and effective.
Although I suggest that you feed your bees, you never want to feed bees honey that comes from an unknown source. Honey can contain the spores of diseases such as American Foul Brood. Also, never feed bees sugar with additives. Brown sugar contains molasses, powdered sugar often contains cornstarch, and commercial fondant may contain flavorings and/or colorings. Any of these “extras” could cause honey bee dysentery. Although many beekeepers use high-fructose corn syrup, be aware that some corn syrup may contain hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF)—especially if it is old or has gotten warm. HMF is poisonous to bees.
During winter, moisture can build up inside a hive that is not properly ventilated. They can tolerate the cold, but being wet and cold is a death sentence. Provide ventilation for your hives: air must be able to come in through the bottom and out through the top. Consider using a screened bottom board all winter long, as well as the vented super. I usually place straw in between my inner cover and outer cover, in the space provided by the vented super. This helps insulate but still allows air flow and absorbs moisture.
Here are some other things you’ll need to have done before you put your bees to bed for the winter.
- Treat for mites, hive beetles, and diseases if necessary
- Put grease patties in each hive. They won’t control a large tracheal mite infestation, but they can slow the increase of mites during the winter months
- Remove any empty boxes. Reduce the hive area with follower boards if you are using a top-bar hive. A proper interior size is less drafty and less likely to harbor intruders
- Check for a healthy, fertile queen. You should see at least some brood in your hive. If you don’t, order a queen as soon as possible or combine the queenless colony with a strong colony
- Combine small, weak colonies with stronger ones. Come spring it is better to have one live colony than two dead ones
- Make sure that the honey frames are in the right place, that is, they should be on both sides of the cluster and above it in a Langstroth hive.
- Move frames around if necessary. In a top-bar hive, put the cluster at one end of the hive and put the honey frames next to the cluster on the other side. This way, the colony can move laterally in one direction to find food
- Reduce hive entrances and consider using mouse guards. It’s time for mice and other small creatures to find a snug and warm overwintering place—one filled with honey is especially attractive
- Remove weeds from around the base of the hive. This can be a convenient hiding place for creatures who may want to move into the hive
- Use an inner cover under your outer cover for greater insulation
- If your boxes, bottom boards, and covers are in ill repair, fix them now
- Secure your outer covers
- Consider providing a windbreak, such as bales of straw
- If extreme cold is a problem, consider wrapping your hives with insulation or tar paper, and DON’T FORGET VENTILATION
- If winter flooding is a problem, move the hives to higher ground now while the weather is still dry
Your hives should now be prepared for the winter. Don’t forget to tuck the girls in and read them a bedtime story…mine like “Bee”auty and the Beast.