Knowing how to keep honeybees alive and healthy throughout the winter is crucial for sustainable beekeeping. The bees do this pretty well on their own, but you have to do your part as their landlord to keep the hive in good shape and to prep them for the cold months ahead. These tips for overwintering honeybees can help you to reduce your chance of winter losses.
5 Things You Should Know About Overwintering Honeybees
I lost a hive or two in my first couple of years of beekeeping because the learning curve was much larger than I had anticipated. It has been 8 years since I started my first hive and I now want to share some of the things I have learned throughout my time as a beekeeper with you.
Today we will be talking about preparing honeybees for the cold winter months.
Tips for Preparing Honeybees for Winter
1. How Do You Feed Honeybees in the Winter?
It isn’t necessary to feed bees in the spring, summer, and fall if there are plenty of flowers in bloom for them to collect pollen & nectar from.
However, when the flowers and foliage die off in the late fall and winter seasons, you might need to supplement the diet of your bees.
Your bees hopefully stored up enough honey to keep the colony well-fed throughout the winter, but offering a feeding supplement helps to increase their chances of survival.
Many beekeepers (including myself) prefer natural beekeeping which simply means that we let the bees take care of themselves without much intervention, BUT if the honey stores look to be on the low end I will offer sugar to help them out a bit.
If you notice low food stores during your fall hive inspection, you might want to offer a pollen patty to help the bees produce more honey before the really cold weather sets in.
If honey is still low going into winter, you can add sugar cakes or dry sugar to the top of the hive or in a feeding shim
- Sugar cakes work well as emergency feed for overwintering honeybees. You can make them at home with this recipe. Place a sheet of newspaper on top of the frames of the top super or on the inner cover and put the sugar cakes on top of that. The bees will eat through the newspaper and grab the sugar that they need.
- Dry sugar is also a good emergency feed. Add a feeding shim or an empty honey super on top of the hive, lay a sheet of newspaper down, and pour dry sugar on top. This feeds the bees and can help to regulate the moisture inside the hive. You can sprinkle a pollen substitute in with the sugar if you like.
**Do not feed sugar water or sugar syrup in the winter as the liquid can affect the humidity in the hive and cause issues with freezing.
2. How Much Honey Should You Leave for the Bees?
When preparing honeybees for winter, it is vitally important that you leave enough honey in the hive for the bees to eat throughout the season. The last thing that a beekeeper wants is a starving colony.
The amount of honey needed to feed bees throughout the winter varies from region to region. Consider where you live, the length of winter, and the extreme low temperatures when you are extracting honey.
Keep records of how much honey you extract each season to determine which hives are the most efficient.
A Good rule of thumb:
- Warmer states (southern U.S) ~ 40 pounds of honey (a shallow super)
- Colder states (northern U.S) ~80 pounds of honey (a deep super)
- Happy Medium states ~ 60 pounds of honey (a medium super)
3. How Do You Keep a Honeybee Colony Strong Over the Winter?
You should check your hives periodically for pests and diseases that might wipe out or weaken a colony. You should also check that the bees are filling the brood box and that the honeycombs are filling properly.
I typically perform hive inspections once in the spring and once in the fall. In between those inspections, I watch the bee activity just outside the hive entrance. Most of the time if something is wrong inside the hive it is obvious from outside the hive.
What to check for during late fall hive inspection:
- Hive Beetles
- Varroa Mites
- Tracheal Mites
- Wax Moths
- Clean Bottom Board
- Clean Entrance
- Sufficient Honey Production
- Brood- There may not be much this time of year, but you should find some.
4. What are the Best Ways to Weatherproof and Winterize a Hive?
Honeybees instinctively huddle together in clusters to keep themselves and the queen warm during the winter, but there are multiple things that you can do to help them out.
These are some measures that you can take to keep your bees safe from the cold weather and predators:
- Add entrance reducers to reduce the amount of cold air that can enter the hive. I make my own with hardware cloth.
- Install mouse guards. Mice like to make nests in beehives during the winter because they can stay warm and find food inside. The bees are busy trying to stay warm in the winter so they can’t guard the entrance well. A mouse guard can do this job for them. You can buy a mouse guard or make one with hardware cloth.
- Close screened bottom boards or switch to solid bottom boards.
- When overwintering honeybees, you will want to remove all honey supers except one. Bees do better in the winter if they have less space to keep warm. Be sure that the super you leave has enough honey for them and remove the rest.
- Coat the outside of the hive with Tung Oil to repel water…This is not necessary if the hive is painted.
- Add a Quilt Box to minimize moisture in the hive.
- In very cold climates with cold winters, it might be necessary to wrap the hives in tar paper or a wool wrap.
5. When is it Okay to Open a Bee Hive in the Winter?
To open or not to open…that is the question…
Opening a hive when it is cold outside causes the bees to expend more energy in an attempt to warm themselves and the queen. It is important to know when it is safe to open the hive to lessen any negative effects on the colony.
The inside of the hive should be about 90 degrees F. The bees do a good job of maintaining this temperature by vibrating their wings rapidly to create heat.
When you open the hive, you break the propolis seal that the bees created to keep the cold air out and they have to expend extra energy to warm the hive back up.
- Do not open the hive when the temperature is 55 degrees or below if there is no obvious issue. Perform inspections and prepare your bees for winter before the temperatures drop.
- If the bees are starving or you notice dead bees, open the hive to diagnose, feed, and/or treat them, but do this quickly.
Now you can get started with your honeybee hive management prep for the winter!
I wouldn’t dare give you my suggestions for overwintering honeybees without giving you quality resources to apply those suggestions!
Go through this list of beekeeping resources (books, courses, products for the hive, DIY tutorials, etc.) to see what will work best for you and your hives!
Hive Management Resources
- Backyard Beekeeper– This is the perfect book to get you started if you are new to beekeeping! I keep this one in my home library to reference throughout the year.
- Hive Management: A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers (Storey’s Down-To-Earth Guides)-This is a great book to reference for seasonal hive management.
- BeekThinking Overwintering Series– I LOVE BeeThinking videos! Check out their overwintering video series!
- My Favorite Beekeeping Books– a list of 17 beekeeping books that are excellent reference guides!
- Apiary Record Keeping– The Livestock Management Planner has Apiary Record sheets tucked inside.
Beekeeping DIY Tutorials
- How to Make Sugar Water to feed your bees when the outside temperature is above freezing.
- Sugar Cake/Sugar Board Tutorial to feed your honeybees in the winter when it is too cold for liquid feed
- DIY Hive Entrance Reducer and Mouse Guard to keep mice and other pests out of the hive.
- How to Make a Quilt Box to help keep your bees warm inside the hive.
Honeybee Hive Management Supplies and Tools
- Hive Beetle Trap– Hive beetles can cause honeybee colonies to starve or to abandon their hive altogether (the first option is most feasible in the winter). Using traps can lower the number of adult beetles that can lay eggs within your hives. You can read more about hive beetles treatment and prevention on the Carolina Honeybees website.
- 100% Tung Oil to waterproof the walls of the hive
- Entrance Reducer– to keep harmful pests out of the hive and reduce drafts
- Mouse Guard– to keep mice and other small animals from entering the beehive
- Smoker– This is a MUST HAVE item for beekeeping at any time of year! The smoker is used to calm bees when you are checking the hive.
- Solid Bottom Board– This one is debated among beekeepers. Some like to use their screened bottom board year-round to reduce the moisture level in the hive. Others prefer to use a solid bottom board during the winter to decrease the cold air and pests that enter the hive. I suggest trying solid and screened bottom boards to see what will work best for you and you’re hives. I personally use a solid bottom board when overwintering honeybees.
- 15 Essential Beekeeping Tools & Supplies– the tools and supplies that I use to care for my honey bees.
More Beekeeping Information
- 6 Common Honeybee Pests to Watch For
- How to Extract Honey from Beehives
- 9 Things to Know Before You Catch a Wild Bee Swarm
- The Honeybee Record Book
None of these listed resources are more valuable than tapping into your local beekeeping association and finding a seasoned beekeeper to serve as your mentor.
If you need information on finding a local beekeeping association, search online or call your county’s extension agent. That should point you in the right direction!