Prepare your hives 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.

  • Remove empty bee boxes. Make the space inside the hive commensurate with the size of the colony. If necessary, reduce the hive volume with follower boards, especially in a top-bar hive. A proper interior size is less drafty and less likely to harbor intruders.
  • Check for a laying queen. You should see at least some brood in your hive. If you don’t, order a queen as soon as possible.
  • Check for colony size and combine small ones. Come spring it is better to have one live colony than two dead ones.
  • Check for honey stores. If your hives are too light, it’s time to start feeding with a vengeance.
  • Assure 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 if you haven’t already. It’s time for mice and other small creatures to find a snug and warm overwintering place—one filled with honey is especially attractive.

- Consider using a mouse guard over the entrance, such as #4 hardware cloth.

- All ventilation ports should be covered with smaller screening to keep out other freeloaders.

  • Remove weedy vegetation from the base of the hive. Vegetation is a convenient hiding place for creatures who may want to move into the hive and it can be used like an entrance ramp or stepladder.
  • Use an inner cover under your outer cover for greater insulation.
  • Put a slatted rack in your hive if you don’t already have one. The slatted rack adds space between the bottom of the cluster and the drafty hive opening.
  • Put a wintergreen grease patty in each hive. Grease patties won’t control a large mite infestation, but they can slow the increase of mites during the winter months.
  • If you live in a rainy area:

- Make sure your lids keep out the rain. Make any needed repairs now.

- Consider adding a rain shelter over your hive.

  • If wintertime moisture is a problem in your hives, add a moisture quilt above the brood boxes.
  • 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.

- Consider using a ventilated inner cover and/or a ventilated gabled roof to keep the hive dry inside.

  • If high winds are a problem:

- You may consider adding a skirt around the base of your hive to reduce drafts. Although you want adequate ventilation, you don’t want a wind tunnel.

- Secure your lids with heavy stones or tie-downs.

- You may want to shield upper ventilation holes from side winds.

- Consider providing a windbreak, such as bales of straw.

  • If extreme cold is a problem:

- Consider wrapping your hives with insulation or tar paper . . . but, again, don’t forget the ventilation.

- Consider using a skirt, as for high winds.

  • If winter flooding is a problem, move the hives to higher ground now while the weather is still dry.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

With the sun low in the sky, this photo of mason jar feeders reminds me of the season. Courtesy of Herb Lester Apiaries.
With the sun low in the sky, this photo of mason jar feeders reminds me of the season. Courtesy of Herb Lester Apiaries.

Comments

Mark Luterra
Reply

I’ve been meaning to make moisture quilts since reading your post last year, and finally got around to it last weekend. As it happened I needed some hive-top feeder boards at the same time so decided to combine the functions. I’m rather happy with how they turned out and will be interested to see how the bees do with them. I call them my four-in-one spacers, ventilated covers, feeder boards, and moisture quilts.

The frame is made of 1×4′s with four 1″ holes drilled near the top for vents. 1/4″ up from the bottom I nailed 1×1′s all the way around the inside, with a 1×6 across the center also 1/4″ up from the bottom. This leaves two rectangular openings roughly 6″ by 13.5″, over which I stapled 1/8″ hardware cloth. The hardware cloth is ~1 1/8″ above the top bars, leaving room for pollen patties, grease patties, fondant, etc. The bottom of the the 1×1′s and 1×6 is only 3/8″ above the top bars, which I’m hoping is small enough to minimize bridge comb between them. The 1×6 has a round hole cut in the center the size of a wide-mouth jar lid.

With an empty super on top below the outer cover and half-gallon inverted jars inside, I can use them for feeding syrup. With the feeder hole plugged, they are screened inner covers. With the feeder hole plugged and filled with 2″ of cedar chips, they are moisture quilts.

A few possible concerns:
1. When used as feeders they allow a fair amount of light to reach the top of the hive, as the side holes are not covered by the outer cover. I’m not sure how that will affect the bees.
2. I covered the side holes with 1/2″ hardware cloth to keep out mice but allow bees through so as not to trap bees inside. That seems to be working so far, but I’m wondering if it could encourage robbing by allowing foreign bees access to the top of the hive, even if they can’t actually get in there.
3. The 1 1/8″ space below the screen could be filled with burr comb, though I’m hoping they will avoid drawing comb from the screen.

Anyway, thanks for the inspiration, and I’ll let you know how they work for their multiple purposes.

Mark

Rusty
Reply
Nancy
Reply

Rusty,
Gosh! I am sure I speak for many other readers in saying thank you for this comprehensive checklist.

Question: the master beekeeper at our local club said that if you see the bees still bringing in pollen, it means they are still raising brood. Agree or disagree? Does pollen store over winter? Don’t they need it in January when they start raising spring brood?

I just figured if there was pollen, they’d gather it regardless. Our goldenrod is near done, but they’re on the wild asters now. Thanks!

Nan

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

This is a subject that a lot of people are quite certain about, and I am less certain about. It could be that since the brood rearing season corresponds so closely with the pollen season, people have gotten this idea. I’ve definitely seen queenless colonies gather pollen and very late season collecting of pollen. Personally, I think bees will collect pollen if they can find it and if it’s warm enough to fly.

The bees need pollen whenever they are raising brood. They save it overwinter mixed with honey or covered with honey; this is what is referred to as bee bread or ambrosia. Sometimes it gets moldy by spring and sometimes it doesn’t. Colonies that are short on pollen come spring can benefit from pollen supplements or substitutes until they can once again find pollen on their own. Pollen is the main source of all the amino acids used to build protein and so is essential for brood development.

Cindi
Reply

Great reminders, Rusty, and timely – as always.

This post brought up a couple of questions. I use screened bottom and inner boards. As such I do encircle the hives with bales of hay to prevent the wind from whipping up. I have used a 1/2″ shim with an opening at the top of the hive for an entrance all summer. On top of the shim I placed my screened IB. Is there anything wrong that? I’m wondering if that might be too airy? Also, do you leave slatted racks on all year long?

Rusty
Reply

Cindi,

I use slatted racks all year long. Once a year I scape them clean and put them right back.

I don’t like using an upper entrance in winter because the bees can’t guard it like they do in the summer . . . you never know who might move in. I don’t think the extra airiness is an issue, especially as you are using screens.

Beech Johnson
Reply

Rusty: do enjoy your depth of insight and timely comments! Concur totally on Vd article – was thinking the same thing (turn up the moisture – no way!) Put on Apilife VAR 21 days ago and am still counting 200 Vd/day on bb. Any suggestions? Is it too cold to do FGMO fogger here in Maine w/ 30 – 55 degree F night/day temp range 2cold to fog? Beech

Rusty
Reply

I don’t know anything about temperature and fogging with FGMO. I do know that FGMO has been falling out of favor with many beekeepers over the last 7-8 years, although some people still use it. I’ve often heard that FGMO is more a lifestyle than a treatment because it works similar to the way powdered sugar works: the bees groom it off and, in so during, remove some of the mites. As such, it must be used with a screened bottom board and it most be done very frequently. Many people mix it with thymol and, in those cases, it is probably the thymol reducing the mite load more than the mineral oil. Those who have used it successfully usually combine it with drone trapping, small cell, splitting, and powdered sugar in a multifaceted IPM program.

To skirt the temperature issue, you could dust your bees with powdered sugar a couple times a week and see if your mite count drops. Two hundred/day after 21 days of thymol treatments doesn’t sound good.

Rui
Reply

Dear Rusty,

Thank you for a very informative website. I have been following it with a great deal interest.

Can you please clarify whether you leave your screened inner covers on in winter when you add the quilts? If so how does that work? Your screened inner covers with the shims should be enough to whisk away the moisture in winter (but also the heat). I am under the impression you have screened inner covers in the summer but replace them with quilts in the winter as these absorb moisture but retain heat. Is my assumption correct?

Once again many thanks for sharing your knowledge on this wonderful world of beekeeping.

Rusty
Reply

Rui,

Yes, you got it right. Screened inner covers in summer and moisture quilts in winter.

Frank Thomas
Reply

Went to bed last night in West Michigan with a temp of 4 degrees F. Woke up this morning to -9 degrees F. Yes negative!

Thankfully with your advice Rusty, last weekend I added a medium super of honey to each colony with a paper plate size piece of candy on the top bars. The clusters were already at the tops of the double deeps.

I also added another layer of tar paper wrap since I added height to the stacks. I have a quilt box with almost 3″ of cedar shavings on each colony with the telescoping cover over that. The tele covers had ice on each one so I scrapped that off the covers and put a 1/2″ piece of foam insulation on top of each one.

I’m glad I did all that last week with these temps today and they are continuing for the next few days.

One question though. I have a wine cork sized hole in the front of each medium for a top entrance. With these temps I put a cork in the holes and wrapped over them. Is that the right thing to do? There is plenty of ventilation with the moisture quilts on top and I have a few holes in the bottom boards too. Once temps get consistently back in the high 20′s I will open the holes back up and cut a hole in the wrap.

Does that sound like the right thing to do and at the right temps?

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Frank,

That sounds fine. It is probably not critical that you closed the holes, but it certainly won’t hurt.

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