Winter Beekeeping: Taking care of beehives in winter
Keeping your bees cosy in cold weather
Winter is a natural rest time for bees. After building up their honey stores through spring and summer, they’re ready to hole up in the hive and stay out of the cold and rain.
Winter can be a rest time for beekeepers too. If you weatherproof your hives, make sure they’re in a good position and feed your bees extra if needed, you should be able to get them through with minimal hive checks. Although winter is well underway now, it’s not too late to sort out your hives and help them thrive.
Although some parts of Australia are lucky enough to have mild, dry winters, other areas experience very low temperatures, high winds, storms, flooding, frosts, and snow. Your level of weatherproofing depends on where you live – although it’s always good to keep an eye on the forecast in case your region gets an unexpected cold snap or winter storm.
Here’s how to care for your bee hives through the winter – wherever you are:
Find the best spot for your bees
In summer, shade is a boon for beehives – in winter, the opposite is true. Move your hives so they’re in full sun for as much of the day as possible. If you can, find a position that’s sheltered from the wind as well. Trees, hedges, and buildings can all help protect your hives from the prevailing winds, and help keep them warm and dry too.
Protect your bees against the elements
Like us, bees prefer to be warm and dry during winter. Weatherproofing your hives can help protect them from cold temperatures, wind, and heavy rain.
Keep your hives cosy by adding solid bottom boards, if you don’t already have them. Reduce hive entrances to minimise the amount of cold wind entering the hive – without preventing your bees from getting in and out. If you live in a particularly chilly area, consider using a hive cover as well – this is a plastic, padded tube that slips over your hive to add another layer of protection against wind and cold.
For wind and storms, weigh down the hive lid with bricks or stones and add slanted boards to protect hive entrances and ventilation holes.
Speaking of ventilation – it’s an important consideration too. You want your hive to be warm, but not damp and stuffy, as this can lead to mildew and disease. If you think your bees aren’t getting enough fresh air, add a couple of small ventilation holes near the top of the hive, on the vertical lip of your lid to avoid any rain getting into the hive.
Packing down for winter
Bees use a lot of energy to heat and clean the hive, so packing hives down for winter by reducing their physical size can make it easier for them to maintain warmth through winter. This means removing empty frames and boxes and reducing the number of hive entrances. You can also rearrange the inside of the hive to maximise efficiency. In autumn, you should have left enough honey stores in your hives to get them through winter.Position these honey-laden frames at either end of your brood box, with brood frames clustered together in the middle.
Although it’s more complicated, you could also think about combining a smaller, weaker colony with a stronger one to increase its chances of getting through the winter.
Feeding bees in Winter
Keeping your bees well-fed is probably your most important job during winter. Your hive can be as warm and dry as possible, but if your bees don’t have enough food they won’t survive.
When you harvest your honey towards the end of autumn (or summer if you live in a particularly cold area!), you need to leave enough to keep your bees fed through the winter. In Australia, an average colony needs around 8 frames – or roughly 18kgs of honey – to keep it going. Of course, this depends on where you live – in colder areas, more frames may be needed.
If your bees don’t have enough honey in storage, or if their honey stores shrink more quickly than you expect, you may need to supplement their food to help them survive. Depending on your preferences and systems, this could mean using honey reserved from a previous season, or feeding with sugar water. Don’t feed with pollen supplements at this stage – pollen can trigger a population increase, which could mean you need to supplement with even more feed.
Check and change
Although you should minimise hive checks during winter, you shouldn’t ignore your bees altogether – even if getting outside isn’t that appealing.
Check your hives at least once a month during winter, preferably on a warm, dry day. Lift the lid briefly to check food stores, look for dampness or mildew, assess hive health, and sweep dead bees, twigs, or leaves from entrances. If you notice that food supplies are low or see signs of disease, or a queenless hive, you will be able to supplement or treat before it’s too late.
Towards the end of winter, watch for bees leaving and re-entering the hive – they should start collecting pollen early as they gear up for spring. If you’re concerned about the low level of activity, supplement with pollen to help them start the season on a strong footing.
Get ready for SPRING!
The best way to use your spare time in Winter is to prepare for the busiest time of year for bees and beekeepers - Spring! Identify any boxes, lids, bottom boards, queen excluders or other equipment that might need to be replaced when the weather warms up. Coming into spring, as long as it is warm enough, you will also then make room in the brood box for more brood by extracting the honey in your brood box that kept the bees warm through winter…
But more about Beekeeping Prep For Spring next month!
It’s all about being prepared
If you keep a good eye on your hives, make sure they’re weatherproofed, properly positioned and well-fed, your bees should make it through the winter without much trouble. As with almost anything with beekeeping, it’s all about being aware, and being prepared.
Looking for winter beekeeping supplies or advice? Talk to the experts at Ecrotek.