honey bee management wintering

December in the apiary

Beginning in November your bees snuggle up for the hardest part of winter. Days are short and cold; nights are long and colder. With little brood to care for and nowhere to go, the bees are content to maintain a tight cluster and keep warm. On exceptionally mild days you may see a few cleansing flights or some telltale spots on the snow, otherwise you will notice nothing.

Although there is little beekeeping to do in December, you should check your hives after storms to assure that the covers are still in place and insulation has not blown away. Also, to maintain good ventilation you should check to see that hive entrances are not blocked with snow or ice.

The winter solstice marks a change for the bees. Soon after the solstice, as the days begin to get longer, the queen will start to lay more eggs. As the amount of brood increases, more food is consumed and more energy is spent in keeping the nest warm.

I use the winter solstice as a reminder to do several important things:[list icon=”check”]

  • On the first warmish day after the solstice, I peek under the lid. If the cluster is at or near the top of the highest brood box, I add hard candy with pollen substitute as a feeding supplement.
  • I estimate my need for queens, packages, and/or nucs for the following spring. The sooner you can order these the better. Some places sell out or wait-list by the end of January.
  • I make a supply of pollen patties or pollen slurry and freeze, ready to use.
  • I make a supply of wintergreen grease patties and freeze these as well.
  • I do an equipment inventory and order anything I will need in spring.
[/list] Except for those few chores, you can use December to catch up on your bee reading, make beeswax candles, and experiment with all those honey recipes you’ve collected throughout the year.


Winter hives by Public Domain Photos.


    • Hmm. There’s one in every crowd. But I have to admit I’m jealous on two counts. 1) It is really cold here and B) I have never tasted eucalyptus honey.

  • Rusty,

    A question that still puzzles me is how many dead bees in front of the hives is considered an acceptable number. I moved all of my bees under an open front shed, it is constantly shaded there, fairly dry because the bees are on 1.5 ft stand. I brush off dead bees every weekend and I think this week I got maybe 20-30 bees per 5 frame nuc, and maybe 50 per deep X medium hives. How many die, I do not know, cause some of them probably fly off, but the ones that are carried out, or crawl out without flying are about these numbers. As a reminder, I am in Auburn, WA. What’s your experience? Did you notice any acceptable dead bee trends in winter months?

    • According to Bees of the World (O’Toole and Raw) an average hive in summer loses 1000 bees per day. The number is less in winter, but there will still be a lot. I see dead bees on the landing boards every day. I consider that to be a good sign: if the cluster is still housekeeping, and still has enough population to remove the dead, the colony is doing fine. I start worrying when nothing is on the landing board because when a colony gets weak, it stops hauling the bodies out.

      The number of dead bees will vary with the size of the colony and the sub-species. A colony that was large in fall will produce a lot of bodies in the winter.

  • Rusty,

    This might encourage anyone who has windstorm damage. We got back late Thanksgiving, and early next day, heading to the barn, I was horrified to see that while we were away the goats had gotten out and knocked over a beehive! All I could imagine from where I stood was frames scattered down the hill, bees flying out in a panic, brood and queen chilled and lost. It was 40 here Thursday night.

    Luckily this is a “gummy hive” as one neighbor calls them. Although two brood boxes were upside down, the frames were still stuck tightly in them. Bees were in a large very tight cluster in one, and a smaller cluster in the other. I suited up hastily and they were really calm as I got them stacked back up (without smoke). The third brood box had no honey nor brood, so I left it off and put back their feeder rim, gave them a sugar cake, and put on the moisture quilt and covers.

    Later that day, there were contented cluster sounds from within. (Remember it’s my first year beekeeping? I want a relaxation tape of cluster sounds.)

    The only other lesson was the hay bales I had set behind each hive for windbreaks. They were old, and moldy, but the goats must have thought they had potential. It seemed in fighting over some good hay left in one, was how they knocked the hive over.

    So I filled feed sacks with waste hay from the barn floor, which they don’t bother, and used those for windbreaks instead of whole bales. And discarded a useless generalization, to wit: “Oh, goats won’t bother the beehives!” And mended another stretch of fence.

    One more catastrophe behind me! A good winter to all your readers, and thank you again!

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

  • Our coldest nights will be about 50 degrees and the days sunny and warm. How does that change the bees activities?


    Thom in Belize

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