Putting Your Bees to Bed for Winter
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. Kelley’s
offers a great communal feeder, item #14, when used with our 5 lb glass
jars (item #211-E) 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 simplistic and effective.
Although I suggest that you feed, 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
• 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 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.