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Wintering bees


The optimum condition for a colony going into winter is:

1. The colony should have a young queen and plenty of bees

2. Stores should be sufficient to last until the spring flowers arrive,

3. It should be disease free and protected from pests and predators, and

4. The bees should be in a sound, waterproof hive so that they are dry, preferably on stands with good air circulation around them, and, situated in a dry, warm, unexposed apiary.

Is that all, you ask? Well, it sounds a lot but there are practical steps the beekeeper can take to help the bees through the winter. It goes without saying that a YOUNG QUEEN is less likely to die or become a drone breeder, but more importantly, the younger the queen is, the later in the season she will lay, which means more bees that don’t have to live as long under winter conditions. And the more bees emerging at this time of the year the better as it will be the surviving bees that will resume foraging and house bees duties in the spring.

Sufficient Stores

The old adage that ‘bees never freeze to death, they only starve to death’, is very true, so it is vitally important that we provide sufficient stores for them to last until spring. The bees should be fed with sugar syrup (mix 2lb of sugar with 1 pint of hot water) about the 1st or 2nd week of September. There are various types of feeders for doing this (check suppliers catalogues). It is very important to pour a small amount of syrup down the feed hole in the crown board so that the bees know it is there, as sugar syrup has no smell that the bees can recognise.

How much syrup do we have to feed? Well, this will be different for each colony so first of all open up each hive and assess its stores by eye and then decide. If you bear in mind that 1 B.S. brood frame, full on both sides, has about 5lb of honey, and that Ted Hooper recommends 40-45lb of stores, you should be able to work out how much syrup is needed. And if you are still not sure you can do what I do – feed syrup until they stop taking it down, on the premise that the bees know best. It is best to feed the bees in the evening, so that darkness will help quell the excitement, and to feed all your colonies at the same time, as this will help to reduce the likelihood of robbing.

Lift your hive and get to know its weight when stores are plentiful so that you can take action if it you feel it weighing a lot less during winter. If it does, DON’T feed with more syrup, as the excess moisture can easily cause dysentery/nosema in weak colonies. Instead, you can place a block of candy or bakers fondant (available in supermarkets) over the feed hole. I place the fondant in a margarine tub from which I cut out a small hole with a strip of queen excluder on the inside. This allows the bees into the tub but when the temperature rises when brood rearing begins, the queen excluder prevents the melted fondant from falling into the hive in a sticky mess.

Your bees will normally collect sufficient pollen for winter but if one of your colonies looks short you can insert a frame of pollen from a bountiful colony. And you can help the bees by planting flowers which are good sources of early and late pollen: hazel and willow for spring, and Michaelmass daisy and ivy for autumn.

On a practical point, I suggest one thing you do, after any honey has been taken off, is to treat your colonies with apistan for varroa. You can buy this from suppliers and you insert 2 strips into the brood box and leave it there for a minimum of 6 weeks and no more than seven, otherwise the mites can become resistant to it.

Mice are a problem in the winter. If they get into your hive while the bees are clustering, the bees will leave them alone, and they will eat and remove comb, and can lead to the demise of a colony. So fit mouse guards over the entrance now and leave in place till the spring.

Other predators include badgers and the way to keep them out of your apiary is to erect a strong wire fence, sunk at least 2 feet into the ground. Wasps can also be a problem as they try and get into the hive to rob the honey. An easy way to deal with this is to sink a jam jar filled with sugar syrup or runny jam into the ground – this will catch lots more wasps than it does honey bees.

Sound, waterproof hives, good air circulation, in a dry, warm, unexposed apiary

Make sure your hives are waterproof and there are no holes in them. Although bees do not freeze to death due to low temperatures, they can die off due to cold winds, so it is especially important to protect the hives from northerly and easterly winds – if necessary build a wind break! During winter, the honey bee colony adopts 3 mechanisms to ensure its survival down to very low temperatures. These are,

1. Clustering,

2. Generating metabolic heat by micro vibration of indirect flight muscles,

3. Ensuring the nest is draught free by use of propolis

It is number 3 that can cause a dilemma for beekeepers, because if the bees proplise any cracks to reduce draughts, what degree of ventilation should we provide in the hive over the winter? – the experts can’t agree! Ventilation is always necessary in order to expel CO2 and this is true also in winter. Here are some of the options for ventilating your hive,

1. Open mesh floor with or without floor insert,

2. Raising the crown board by inserting a matchstick under each corner

3. Crown board completely removed

4. Feed hole in crown board left open

5. Having differing sizes of roof ventilation holes

I suggest that you read as much as you can about ventilation and then experiment, before deciding on what technique you are happy with.

Something else to consider is insulation. Many beekeepers place additional insulation under the hive roof for winter, e.g. polystyrene, loft insulation rolls, but others do not – again experiment and do what suits you.

Snow can be a problem for the bees because if it settles around the hive it can give the bees a false sense of brightness which can cause them to leave the hive on a cleansing flight, and this can prove fatal at low temperatures. If snow does settle around your hive then simply place a piece of wood over the entrance so that it is kept in the dark and that should prevent the bees from flying.

If your bees are in more than one box and you have a queen excluder between them, please remember to remove the queen excluder, otherwise the queen can get left in the lower box if the cluster moves above, and that will be the end of her!

Finally, tie down the hive or place a large brick on the roof, and then, leave them alone during winter. It won’t be long before the first sunny day in February, when your heart will be gladdened as you see the girls bringing in the first of the season’s pollen – a sure sign that the queen is present and has resumed laying.

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