Preparing for Winter in Your Apiary

Preparing your bees for winter is not complicated or difficult but still many beekeepers overlook many of the little jobs that need to be done and even some of the bigger jobs.

  1. Placing your hives.
  2. Tidy up the area around the hives.
  3. Check that your bees will have enough food.
  4. Apply Mouse Guards to the hive entrances.
  5. Secure the hives against storms.
  6. Insulate your hives.
  7. Tilt your hives.
  8. Replace the Varroa Tray
  9. Check the likelihood of flooding.
  10. Use the downtime to prepare for spring.

Placing Your Hives

Usually when a beginner beekeeper places their first hives it is done in late spring or early summer when they have acquired their first “box of bees” or have been promised bees by a friend. So they may be thinking about the welfare of the bees, but only in the context of getting their first jars of honey and keeping their bees away from the kids and so on.

They are unlikely to consider how things will change during the winter. Access to your hives may be difficult if the lovely big field they were in suddenly turns into a swamp after a few weeks of rain. You should of course consider this when choosing a location and the land-owner will most likely have this information. If this is likely to happen, it does not necessarily mean that you need to locate somewhere else, but you may need to place your hives nearer to the entrance or use a jeep or other vehicle that can handle the mud etc.

Large Animals

If your hives are on a farm where there are large animals such as cattle or horses, you will have to take into account the fact that the farmer may move them around in the winter for feeding or shelter during extreme weather. If they are likely to resident in “your” field, or even passing through, they may be a threat to your hives and you should discuss this with the farmer/landowner. Hive placement is discussed in another article here.

Moving Your Hives

Moving your bees should be avoided if possible during winter, but if you must, you must. So, you have to move your hives, but if that is the case it should be done in advance, i.e. before the cold weather of winter starts and should be done carefully, so as not to disturb the bees too much. Ideally if you can enlist the help of someone with a tractor, who can raise the hive in one piece, after sealing the bees inside, who can then carry them to their new location or at least place them on or into your transport, van or trailer.

The advantage of moving the hive in one piece is the reduced likelihood of cracking the propolis seal that the bees have coated the inside of the hive with. This is how they seal cracks to keep out drafts e.g. between the boxes. It takes bees several days to return to normal after a hive inspection, so you can imagine the disturbance they will have when you open and disassemble the hive to reassemble it in your van and then do the same again when you reach your destination. There is of course less disturbance if you have already reduced your have to a single brood box for the winter. It will still take two to lift it into your van.

Tidy up the Area Around the Hives

It may surprise you to know that the area around the hives can pose a threat to your bees. If you have placed the hives under a tree as a shelter from strong sun in the summer, you will now need to consider the possibility of falling branches or even the tree coming down.

Stand at a spot where you can see all of or most of your apiary and the field or yard it is in and scan the area. Check to see if there are any loose items that may blow around in high winds and strike the hives. These might include branches, rubbish, empty fertilizer bags, bicycles, children’s toys and much more. This debris can be blown against a hive and either damage it or shift some of the boxes exposing the bees to the elements. Some beekeepers avoid placing their hives under trees altogether so that the drips after rain do not disturb them.

If there is damage to the gate, fence or wall surrounding your apiary, it should be repaired as this damage may allow access to large animals that could bump your hives or the damaged parts may blow around and hit your hives.

Check That Your Bees will Have Enough Food

You may think that a shortage of food is hardly a problem for bees. You would be wrong. Bees can really only find food during the spring and summer. When the Ivy is no longer in bloom, there will be precious little available for the bees. So, if you took all their honey (not recommended), you will have to feed them a substitute. There are many feeds available to beekeepers from suppliers today, with pollen and pollen substitutes and vitamins etc. Of course, their natural food, honey is the best thing for them, so it is better to leave them enough honey to get them through to spring. But the amount they need will vary depending on conditions, so you will need to keep an eye on them and heft the hives from time to time through the winter to see if they to be fed.

Mouse Guards

Strange as it seems to beginner beekeepers, it is not only the large animals that you need to watch out for attacking or damaging your hives. Mice find occupied hive an ideal overwintering spot and happily move in to them, even building a nest on the floor of the hive. There they have an easy source of food and they are shelter from the weather and are even kept warm by the heat from the colony of bees.

So, to keep them out you should apply a mouse guard, which is a metal or strong plastic strip that covers the entrance block their access. This strip has a series of small holes that are only big enough to allow bees to enter and exit. This is needed because when weather permits the bees will fly out for cleansing flights. (i.e. they go to the toilet)

The mouse guard should be attached over the entrance before the winter or at least before the mice move in.

Secure the Hives Against Storms.

This is a little different from number two above. Ireland is in recent times being hit by ever stronger storms, and due to global warming, this is likely to continue and even get worse. Therefore you will need to ensure that your hive does not blow down or even blow away. Your hive should be strapped to the stand on which it lives and ideally this should be well anchored to the ground. Don’t underestimate the power of a strong wind. If your hives are in an exposed location with no walls, fences or hedges etc. to shelter them from the worst of the wind they can be blown down.

A little preparation is all it takes. You can get hive straps from most beekeeping suppliers.

Insulate Your Hives?

Most beekeepers in Ireland do not insulate their hives, but others always do. In general the weather in Ireland does not get cold enough for hive insulation to be required. However, we do occasionally drop to -16°C, which may cause problems for your bees especially if it is accompanied by a wind.

Snow Covered Hives in WinterBees tend to survive these conditions quite nicely in the wild, but conditions are different in your hive from the locations that bees tend to choose in the wild. Wild bees’ natural hive location is a hollow tree or a wall. Hollow trees give fare more insulation from the elements than a wooden hive where the wood is only about half or three quarters of an inch thick.

Currently experts differ on this, but some now say that should not need to cluster in the winter as they usually do to keep warm and that they should remain active. If the bees are active, they will need more food to sustain these activities. When they have to huddle together to keep warm in a state of semi-hibernation they will use less. So as mentioned earlier, heft your hive from time to time to see if it is getting too light and they need feeding.

Tilt Your Hives

One of the worst things for your bees in the winter is dampness or condensation dripping onto them from the roof above. A handy of preventing this is to put a small wedge under the back of your hive tilting it up slightly at the back. This is so that instead of dripping straight down and wetting the bees it runs toward the front of the hive and down the front wall and out. It should be only a very slight tilt.

Replace the Varroa Tray

By this we mean the white panel under the wire mesh of your hive floor. This panel is standard on most hives today and used for checking the mite drop in your hive so that you will know if you need to treat for them. There is no open space in the hollow tree allowing cold winds to blow through the hive, so it makes sense to keep the bottom of your hive closed through the winter. It will make the bees more comfortable. They may will survive the winter with an open floor, but why put them through that hardship.

Check the Likelihood of Flooding.

From time to time areas of land can flood. This might be caused by rain or by nearby rivers and lakes bursting their banks. It may only happen every so many years or even once in a lifetime but this is something that you should enquire about when placing your hives and maybe even be prepared for if there is a chance of it happening.

Use the Downtime to Prepare for Spring

There is on the face of it little for the beekeeper to do in the winter. The bees have been set up for the winter and now all a beekeeper can do it wait for spring and check the hives occasionally to see if they are safe and fed.

But there is more. You can use the time to read beekeeping books and learn more about this topic. We are all always learning.

You can prepare all your equipment for spring. Typically in the early years beekeepers leave everything until the last minute. They suddenly realise that spring is upon them and they bees need their attention and that they are not ready. They rush around trying to gather up their bits and pieces and curse the long delivery times of the suppliers. (not long but it feels that way when you are in a hurry) Eventually they learn that they should have done all this in the winter and that they can start their beekeeping season relaxed and ready.

The Winter Jobs

  • Clean your old equipment.
  • Repair or replace your broken boxes.
  • Assemble your replacement frames.
  • Assemble new hives.
  • Order in what you are likely to need. (order early to avoid disappointment)
  • Go through your colony records and see what you might do differently in the coming year.

Attend your association meetings and learn from the more experienced beekeepers and give others the benefit of your experience… and consume lots of tea and cake.