Experienced beekeepers know next year’s beekeeping season starts in August. After honey has been harvested in the first or second week of August, work begins to prepare the bees for the upcoming winter months.
There are four key aspects to winter prep that help ensure the survival of your colony through the winter. They are: 1) low mite count, for healthy, disease-free bees, 2) well fed colony with plenty of food reserves, 3) strong laying queen to create winter bees, and 4) properly prepared hive to help with temperature and moisture control.
1) Low Mite Count Requires Active Mite Management
August is a critical time for mite management. As the bee population begins to decreases, mite population is increasing and, if not controlled, the result leads to unhealthy winter bees unable to survive the winter months ahead. The chart below demonstrates the typical build-up of bee population and mite population if the mites are not controlled.
For more in-depth information about Mite Management you can start your research with this club produced article.
A well fed colony with plenty of food reserves
As responsible beekeepers we need to remember the reason honeybee’s forage and store honey is for winter survival. In Northeast Wisconsin, an estimated reserve of 80 – 100 pounds of honey is needed for the winter cluster to survive the winter.
Fall Feeding – Not only is it important to feed your colony to ensure proper stores, but it is also important to keep your queen laying. The eggs she lays in August and early September will become the winter bees that can survive the next six months. After removing the honey supers, around mid August, feed 2:1 sugar syrup, which will help to keep the queen laying and assist the bees to continue making and capping honey. Depending on the amount of honey the bees have stored you should consider removing the sugar syrup in late September or early October, in Northeast Wisconsin.
Winter Feeding – Once the temperatures fall below 52 degrees Fahrenheit, the bees will cluster and stop taking the sugar syrup as if knowing time has run out. On a warmer day in December if you feel your hive might be light on stores, place a sugar cake above the brood next for emergency food later in the winter.
A strong laying queen to create winter bees
Colonies need a healthy queen with a good brood pattern, as a good queen will allow the colony to have a large population of healthy bees. If your queen is not up to par, you may have time to replace her in early August with a purchased mated queen.
A proper quantity of bees
Big clusters winter much better than small clusters, as they are better able to thermo-regulate the colony temperature. The larger size also allows the cluster to stay in contact with food stores more readily; they occupy more space and so can more easily move up into additional stores. If you find you have a weaker hive or worse yet, queen-less in September, it is the time to cut your losses and combine them with a stronger colony.
Step to get your hive ready
- Take Losses in the Fall – Combine weak hives into one stronger hive early in fall to give them the best chance of making it through the winter.
- Tilt Hive Slightly Forward – this should be done year round but is really critical in winter. If melting snow is allowed to run into the hive the bees have trouble keeping the humidity in the hive at the proper level.
- Add an Insulated Top Cover – the insulated top cover helps with heat loss.
- Insulate or Wrap Hive – helps with heat loss and the wrap minimizes wind getting in the cracks.
- Create a Wind Block – can be a hedge or shrub row, hay bales, or a wind screen placed on the side of the hive facing the prevailing winds.
- Add a Mouse Guard or Entrance Reducer– do this before it gets too cold (mid October?) or you might be too late. Mice like the nice warm hive. The smaller entrance helps keeping cold gusts of wind from entering the hive.
- Remove Queen Excluder – if you are using a queen excluder early September is a good time to remove it. The winter cluster will NOT move above the queen excluder and leave the queen behind. They will stay with the queen, keeping her warm until they starve.
- Keep Entrance Free From Snow – the bees need to be able to leave the hive on a warmer day to remove dead bees and to take cleansing flights. Also, some air flow is required for the bees to properly regulate humidity in the hive.
- Consider Adding an Upper Entrance – this can help with humidity and air flow.
Two Bees and a Podcast by Jamie Ellis is an excellent podcast in general and Episode 50 talks about insulating your hive and overwintering bees.