Although we may not always view insects such as bees as being particularly sensitive to the cold, many bee colonies do not survive harsh winters unless their beehives are correctly cared for by their beekeepers. So how do you keep a beehive alive during winter?
To keep beehives alive during winter, you need to follow six steps:
- Provide feed and pollen
- Reconfigure your beehives
- Insulate your beehives
- Ventilate your beehives
- Secure your beehives
- Protect your beehives from pests
However, while the above steps will be discussed in detail, it is crucial to understand the physiology and nature of bees in winter. This knowledge will help you understand why it is important to inspect and monitor their well-being during colder months.
How To Keep A Beehive Alive During Winter?
As farmers, whether on a large scale or a small beehive in the back of your yard, we have a responsibility to keep the animals and insects in our care safe and healthy – no matter their end destination.
According to research, the winter of 2018 saw the largest (40%) honeybee colony deaths in 13 years. Of course, there are more reasons than just the cold for this staggering loss. However, winter was definitely a contributing factor. So, here’s what you need to do as a beekeeper to keep your bees healthy and alive during the winter months.
1. Provide Feed And Pollen
Bee clusters stay warm by expending energy by producing carbon dioxide and vibrating; this energy expenditure means that bees need to eat throughout winter to maintain these metabolic processes (hence bees go into a state of torpor, not hibernation.)
Therefore, bees will eat stored honey during the winter months to keep their energy levels consistent. Furthermore, drones will leave/be evacuated from the hive by worker bees, so the honey supply is not needlessly consumed by bees that serve little/to no purpose in a bee cluster.
However, if honey and pollen stores are low, it may be necessary to feed bees to keep them active during winter. Just bear in mind that many beekeepers consider feeding bees as a last resort, as liquid bee feed is not a perfect substitute for honey.
Therefore, bees that are fed with artificial feed may be negatively affected due to lacking the essential nutrients found in honey, and/or you may artificially be keeping a hive alive that will pass on poor genetic traits to the next generation of bees.
Feeding Bees During Fall
During fall, you may provide bees with a 2:1 sugar to the water feed, excess honey from stronger hives, or commercial grade bee feed. The bees will store this thick syrupy solution and use it in place of nectar during winter.
If you decide to make your own bee feed solution, use refined white cane sugar or beet sugar. Never use raw sugar, as this is toxic to bees.
Feed During Winter
During winter, you should install in-hive feeders and entrance feeders so that you do not have to inspect the hive and expose the bees to cold temperatures when refilling their feed.
During winter, you cannot give bees liquid feed; instead, you need to provide them with readily available energy sources such as traditional candy boards, fondants, or plain sugar.
Feeding Pollen In Winter
Although pollen is used for rearing larvae and not as a food source for adult bees, it may be necessary to provide pollen patties to your hive during winter if you fear that the bee population may dwindle too much before the start of spring.
However, you must be cautious and only opt for pollen feeding toward the end of winter if you believe it is essential. The reason is that an increased pollen source in the early winter months will result in an increased larvae population; this increase means more mouths to feed and fewer resources to go around to maintain the health of the existing colony.
2. Reconfigure Your Beehives
Before winter starts, it’s essential to consider the placement of your beehives, the well-being of your beehives, and their internal structure/space.
Positioning Your Beehives
The location of your beehives is crucial, as beehives that are not sheltered from the wind or do not receive ample sunlight are at risk of cold temperatures, making it harder for bee clusters to stay warm.
You should also place your beehives in clear, manicured spaces, as excessive vegetation beneath or around your beehive could result in increased pests, precipitation, or excess water spilling into the beehive!
If you have more than one bee colony, it may be worth combing two weaker colonies into one or introducing bees from a more robust colony into a weaker one. Be cautious when doing so, as colonies due to disease or pests will carry these problems into their new colonies.
Consequently, only combine colonies if both colonies are healthy and capable of cohabitation.
Alternatively, if you believe a colony is weak due to a queen with an unhealthy brooding pattern, you can introduce a stronger queen into the colony. When introducing a new queen, ensure that you keep the old queen alive until you are confident the new queen has been accepted (as a colony without a queen has zero chance of survival!)
Remove Unnecessary Space
Bee clusters work best when they are tightly arranged and don’t expend energy heating the entirety of the beehive but instead focus their energy on warming the cluster’s core that houses the younger bees and the queen.
Therefore, it is recommended that you remove unnecessary space and reduce the overall size of the beehive’s structure by removing empty/unused boxes from the beehive. Consider installing follower boards if you’re using a top bar hive to reduce the space.
Ensure The Food Stores Are Accessible
Although bees typically arrange their beehives and food sources with accessibility in mind during winter, there are instances where the beehive configuration is not conducive to long-term winter storage.
If you notice that food stores such as honey are not easily accessible to the bee cluster, you should rearrange the beehive by placing the honey frames and either side of the bee cluster and on top of the bee cluster.
Rearranging the honey frames allows the bee cluster to move together in one direction, whereby they all have access to their food supply.
3. Insulate Your Beehives
The decision to insulate beehives is dependent on the weather conditions in your jurisdiction and whether insulation is necessary to allow a bee cluster to retain temperatures between 94F and 97F.
Before we discuss insulation techniques and procedures, we need to first explore the arguments against insulation:
Arguments Against Beehive Insulation
The first argument against insulation is that the artificial heating of beehives results in increased bee activity and more relaxed bee clusters. Therefore, bees are less likely to enter a state of torpor, instead opting for different activities and overconsumption of food stocks.
As a result of this increased activity and consumption, colonies without foragers or spring flowers cannot produce food during the winter, meaning bee colonies are at risk of starvation toward the end of winter.
However, although there is some truth to this argument, reports of bee cluster starvation typically involve ample food stocks that bee clusters cannot reach, as the cold temperatures mean uninsulated colonies have less mobility than insulated colonies.
Consequently, the starvation argument is unlikely to come to fruition, provided the bee colony has prepared for winter during fall and/or you assist the colony with periodic supplies of pollen and bee feed.
A second argument against insulation is that it will confuse bees and stop them from monitoring their behavior to the outside temperatures.
Namely, that insulation will result in bees not being aware of warm winter days to conduct cleansing flights, or warm bees will exit the beehive during cold winter days, thinking the weather outside the hive matches the internal temperature.
However, this is a misunderstanding of how insulation improves temperature maintenance, and it doesn’t add/reduce internal temperatures. Furthermore, because bees have sought natural insulation for thousands of years, they can judge the outside temperature accurately, regardless of the internal temperature of the beehive.
Using Covers To Insulate Beehives
Although there are various types and brands of beehive covers, each with its own distinct features, the standard beehive cover placements are inner covers and top covers.
Inner beehive covers are insulated covers typically made from foam and wood. The foam protects the heat of the beehive, while the wooden frame of the cover keeps the foam structure sturdy and rigid.
When installing an insulated beehive cover, make sure the size and quality of the inner cover are adequate to support a top cover. Furthermore, you should install an inner cover that has both top and bottom entrances if your beehives are in an area prone to snowfall.
An insulated top cover replaces the usual telescoping of a beehive and is typically made from wood, foam, vinyl, and/or plastic. Top covers made with wood and foam should be accompanied by metal sheeting on the cover’s exterior to improve waterproofing.
If you decide to make your covers instead of buying them from a reputable dealer, you should construct your covers with PIR foam, with a width of 10mm wider than the size of the beehive you intend to cover.
Using Wraps To Insulate Beehives
Wraps are some of the most convenient and economical methods of insulating beehives, provided they are coupled with a telescoping top cover to provide all-around insulation.
Insulation wraps are typically made from lightweight materials such as cloth or fabric, thus making them breathable and flexible enough to meet the shape and size of most beehives. However, it is advisable that wraps be applied to beehives with a layer of insulation foam inserted between two waterproof wraps.
Insulation wraps are easy to store, care for, and install on beehives using materials such as Velcro to keep the wraps secured throughout the harsh winter months.
However, if you live in an area that experiences high winds, you should consider installing a wooden frame with a 1cm x 1cm cross-section along the side of the wraps to keep them secured. It is advisable to use stainless steel nails or screws to hold wooden frames in place, taking care not to pierce too much of the wrap’s service area.
When installing wraps, just make sure to do so with the assistance of others or under the guise of a professional beekeeper; this is because poorly wrapped beehives are at risk of increased moisture and freezing.
Furthermore, a moisture build-up can result in a dangerous amount of mold or mildew growth within a humid beehive.
Using Heaters To Insulate Beehives
If you live in an area with severe winters, you may need to improve insulation via heaters and artificial heat generation. One of the best options is to use electric heaters with a protective mesh over their elements to prevent direct contact with the beehive or the bees.
Regardless of the heater used, makes sure that it has a thermostat installed so that you can accurately monitor the heat produced subject to changing weather conditions. A thermostat is essential, as overheating or underheating a beehive can devastate a colony.
Furthermore, you should invest in a generator or a heater that runs off solar energy to ensure temperature maintenance even in the event of a loss of power or an electrical surge.
Using Insulation Boxes In Beehives
Insulation boxes are a simple yet effective method of improving insulation while drawing out any excess moisture.
Simply place a shallow box with a breathable bottom on top of the colony, and fill the container with dry, organic material such as leaves or twigs.
Periodically replace the organic material with new, drier material so that the absorption of moisture does not spread to the beehive.
4. Ventilate Your Beehives
Closely linked to insulation is the need to keep beehives properly ventilated; this is a difficult balancing act to achieve, as ventilation requires natural airflow through a beehive, resulting in cool air entering the hive.
However, ventilation is essential to offset the build-up of moisture caused by increased temperatures in a beehive and carbon dioxide production by a bee cluster.
Furthermore, ventilation is needed to remove carbon dioxide and introduce fresh oxygen into a beehive.
Therefore, when insulating a beehive, ensure that the material used on covers/wraps does not suffocate the bees and is sufficiently lightweight/aerated. Furthermore, ensure the beehive is secured while still having exit and entry points (see below for further details.)
Finally, you must regularly check the exit and entry points of the hive should you need to remove any debris such as dead bees, snow, or a build-up of plant residue.
5. Secure Your Beehives
Before winter starts, you must inspect the beehive’s structural integrity and perform any necessary repairs to prevent weather damage to the beehive during winter:
Secure The Beehive’s Placement
Make sure your beehive has a stable base so that it is not blown over or at risk of tilting (such as a beehive that is positioned on muddy or uneven ground.)
Methods of securing a beehive’s position include tying down the hive with ropes and ratchet straps or placing bricks on top of the hive/by the hive’s legs to keep the structure in place. Alternatively, you can choose to construct beehives on a permanent base, such as concrete blocks/.
Ensure Your Hive Is Water Tight
Water or excess moisture entering a beehive can prove devastating to the structural integrity of the beehive and the well-being of the bee cluster; therefore, you must inspect the roof and sides of the beehive, looking for any notable cracks or holes.
Should you find any, you should use waterproof filler to fix them or replace them entirely, particularly if the damage to the beehive is a result of rot or excess moisture.
If you’re using any screened boards, replace them with solid boards or close them up with secure insulation (see above.)
Construct A Windbreak
If your hives are in a windy location and no amount of relocation can protect them from the wind, you may need to construct or place a wind barrier near the hive.
Regardless of the windbreak used, just make sure it is not a fully enclosed space, as this will block the exit and entry of forager bees during warm winter days and into spring.
6. Protect Your Beehives From Pests
Although ventilation is essential, you must ensure that your hive’s exit and entry points are not large enough for pests such as yellow jackets or mice to enter the hive. You should also limit the number of exit and entry points so that a bee colony does not have multiple points to defend.
Furthermore, before winter begins, it is vital to inspect the colony for Varroa Mites. If you find large, unmanageable quantities of Varroa Mites, you may need to resort to the use of pesticides as a last resort before winter begins.
Why Do Bees Need To Be Protected In Winter?
Although bees are hardy animals that thrive in different climates across the globe, they are susceptible to changing weather patterns, particularly when exposed to sub-zero temperatures during the winter months.
Sadly, managed beehives have been known to decrease by over 30% across the winter months in the United States of America (while wild hives report even higher numbers). Consequently, even the most experienced beekeepers need to prepare for winter, as the natural order will always result in increased bee fatalities in winter.
What Do Bees Do During Winter?
Fortunately, the job of beekeepers is not to constantly monitor bees during the winter months to keep them safe (as one might do for domesticated pets.) Instead, beekeepers simply need to assist bees in helping them capitalize on their natural survival instincts and colony management.
At the end of summer, bee colonies stop producing forager bees and replace them with worker bees. The purpose of worker bees is that they are a large variant of bees that live longer than foragers and can generate heat to insulate the brood and the queen during the winter months.
As a result of this natural hive management and winter preparation, you need to monitor your hives closely to make sure the colony reduces the number of foragers being produced and instead prepares for winter by substituting them with workers.
One of the best methods to determine if the hive is successfully preparing for winter is to inspect the exit and entry of bees from the hive during fall. If at least ten bees enter the hive every minute, this is a sign that pollen is being collected and the queen is laying eggs.
To further determine the preparation of the hive, you should inspect the hive and determine if the bees are making a cluster starting at the bottom of the hive. A cluster of bees will gradually increase by approximately 1mm a day until winter begins, whereafter they go into a state of torpor.
Torpor is similar to hibernation, whereby bees seldom leave the hive and remain in a large cluster protecting the queen. The bee cluster should be approximately the size of a soccer ball and maintain a consistent heat between 94F and 97F to keep the brood/queen warm.
A cluster of bees has an outer layer of older bees known as the mantel, while the inner core has younger bees. Consequently, as winter progresses, the older bees will likely die, allowing the younger bees to keep the queen/brood alive toward the end of winter, whereby they will usually begin hive activities at the start of summer.
In conclusion, although the loss of bees during the winter is a natural process, all efforts should be made to reduce the damages suffered by a bee colony by investing in essential beehive management and consistent monitoring.
Remember that while you cannot control the outcome of a beehive through the winter months, preparations before winter will significantly improve a colony’s chance of survival!