When the sun is shining and the days are long, it can be tough to think about winter. For bees though, winter preparations began in spring. As a beekeeper, you will want to begin preparing now. Why? Over 44% of honeybee colonies didn't survive the U.S. winter last year. Some areas saw losses of over 65%. This is why overwintering is such a crucial subject to all beekeepers. Bees work hard to keep warm and ration food stores in cold months. As beekeepers, it's important to help make these processes be as seamless as possible.
So what exactly is overwintering? The term encapsulates multiple systems and processes. Essentially, overwintering is helping bees prepare their hives for the harsh, cold months to come. We're located in the Pacific Northwest, so we'll be using this region as an example, but it will be important to remember that all timelines and practices we provide are completely dependent on your climate. We always encourage connecting with other beekeepers in your area to learn more about overwintering in your specific region.
Let's start with what our bees are up to right now. During mid-to-late summer months, the queen and worker bees scale back brood production. In a way, they're doing math! They will maintain the optimal amount of brood for the overwintering cluster to generate heat that can survive on their available honey stores.
It's important to remember that no bee is created equal. The brood-to-honey-store ratio is variable due to the climate the bee strain (or breed) has adapted to. For example, Italian bees have large brood clusters since Mediterranean climates have short winters. When Italian bees are kept in cold climates, they often eat through their honey stores too quickly and don't survive the winter.
When you conduct your mid or late summer hive inspections, you'll want to make sure your bees are slowing brood production and storing more honey. If they're not, you'll need to consider some of the techniques we go over in this series to aid in their survival.
Another point to start considering is keeping your bees warm throughout the often chilly late summer nights. As a rule, when the temperature drops below 55 degrees (f), do not break the propolis seal on your hive. Your bees created this seal for insulation. Breaking it allows cool drafts into the hive that make it much harder for them to keep warm. This is why you need to be setting your hive up for winter before the temperature drops, ideally in August.
We'll be covering a series of important topics in more depth in the weeks to come. These topics include:
In addition to this blog series, we will release corresponding videos for each topic that show these overwintering processes in action. The videos will feature our staff entomologist and Education Coordinator, Rebekah, who is a proud beekeeper and ready to teach you the very best overwintering practices. You can check those out on either our Vimeo or Youtube channel.
Welcome to our Overwintering Series, and bring on the winter!
Preparing to winterize your hive can be a daunting task, even for an experienced beekeeper.
If you’re working with Langstroth and Warre hives, you’ll want to remove surplus boxes that could potentially become dead space for cold air, robbing valuable heat from clustered bees during winter months. Also, if you’re using screened bottom boards, closing ventilation inserts will help to trap heat inside the hive. Bees expend an incredible amount of energy over the course of the winter to maintain a consistent 90-degree temperature inside of their clusters. Help them conserve as much energy as possible is crucial.
At the same time, it is also important to create a way for any excessive moisture to leave your hive. Because bees generate heat with the beating of their wings, that heat will rise and form condensation when it mixes with the cold air at the top of the hive. While some condensation is important — offering bees an important water source when they can’t leave the hive and offering insulation — excess moisture can become a challenge for colonies who are already struggling. However, condensation tends to get a needlessly bad rap, but as Dr. Thomas Seeley has cited, bees in natural cavities have a warm, somewhat moist environment in the winter months.
Moisture enters the hive a number of ways. Leaks in the hive roof, between rickety boxes or inadequate ventilation are potential issues to pay close attention to. When working with a Warre hive, ensure that your quilt box material is dry and lofted in order to allow for proper ventilation. If you have a Langstroth hive, you might want to consider propping the inner cover up slightly to allow for excess moisture to be released.
If you live in the extreme north and feel there may be a need to add batting to the exterior of your Langstroth or Warre hive to fend off the encroaching cold, consider wrapping your hive with tar paper or a heavy construction paper. If you’re working with a top bar hive, consider filling cavity space with straw, hay, or even an old woolen blanket to create a thermal barrier. However, be careful of over insulting. Too much insulation could block the heat of the sun. An overly warm hive could also increase bee activity, which would then increase honey consumption. David Heaf points out that the minimal use of honey stores occurs at 41 degrees Fahrenheit. “Either side of this temperature honey consumption arises.” (Heaf 83)
Having a wind barrier or wind break is also something to consider when preparing your beehives for a long winter. Bales of hay provide a nice natural way to limit the impact that icy winds can have on a hive. Be careful though! Michael Bush points out in his Practical Beekeeper series that hay bales are nothing more than “a mouse nest waiting to happen.” (Bush 421)
With all hive types; helping bees protect their stores is crucial going as move into the colder months. Mice, wasps, and even other bees can be predators looking to invade your hive. Preventative measures like mouse guards and entrance reducers can help restrict larger predators from entering the hive, as well as allow your bees to mount a formidable defense by limiting critical pathways to honey stores. Additionally, ensuring that boxes with larger stores of honey are not at ground level is also another good way of helping bees defend what they worked so hard making all spring and summer.
If you have been using a queen excluder during the spring and summer months, removing that tool is strongly encouraged during the winterizing process. Bees will migrate throughout the hive during the winter months as they continue to utilize honey stores. By removing the queen excluder, this ensures that the colony will not have to make the tough decision of following the food, or keeping the queen warm. Ultimately, it allows for more flexibility to let the bees do what they would naturally do.
Some final best practices that beekeepers should consider are periodic visual inspections throughout the course of the fall and winter months. However, avoid upsetting the hive during the winter. Opening or disturbing the hive could put a significant amount of stress on the colony, causing bees to rapidly deplete their food stores in a way they might not otherwise. A beekeeper may want to invest in a stethoscope to listen to your bees without disturbing the hive. Also, keep an eye out for signs that predators have been trying to access the hive. Lastly, pay attention to the hive entrance and make sure that the front door is not blocked by dead bees or debris, restricting access to vitally important airflow.
Few of our beekeeping supplies can seem as perplexing to new beekeepers as the 8-way bee escape. On its own, the yellow plastic bee escape hardly looks intuitive (is it a hummingbird feeder? A water trough? A Frisbee?). Once mounted to a Langstroth inner cover or other exit board, however, the bee escape board becomes a beautifully simple honey-harvesting tool.
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As busy beekeeping equipment suppliers and hive builders, own beekeeping adventures often happen in the early hours. With the morning sun soaring upwards, two of our staff beekeepers and I packed coffee and breakfast out to our apiary. We wanted to check up on a few hives, and we used the opportunity to field test our new Rauchboy Smokers. The smokers recently arrived from Germany, and we're excited to become one of the only US retailers to offer the Rauchboy.
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They've been a long time in the making, but we finally finished the first batch of cedar Langstroth hives. They are constructed from the same wonderful kiln dried Western Red Cedar used on the rest of our hives. Boxes available in shallow, medium and deep in both 8-frame and 10-frame configurations. Cedar hive kits with a roof, inner cover and either solid or screened bottom are also available. All hives boxes and cedar hive kits include FREE SHIPPING to the contiguous 48 states!
Cedar Hive Kit with Medium Boxes - Starting At $144.99
Deep Box - Starting at $36.99
Medium Box - Starting at $32.99
Shallow Box - Starting at $29.99