Overwintering preparations vary greatly depending on your local conditions—we cannot stress enough the importance of checking in with local experienced beekeepers to gain advice on what precautions are needed for your region.
Pictured: Victor's insulated Flow Hives in Michigan, USA.
Beekeepers recommend beginning to consider overwintering preparations in the autumn as the size of the colony will begin to decrease. This is due to the waning of daylight hours, as well as a reduction in the amount of incoming nectar and pollen—all factors that influence the queen to stop laying eggs. It is at this time that you want to assess the health of your hive.
As colony numbers start to decrease, the hive may become more susceptible to robbing by other bees. You may want to consider decreasing the entrance of your hive—you can buy special entrance reducers from a beekeeping supply store, or just use pieces of wood, some straw or any other suitable material.
Here is one example of how to create your own entrance reducer:
Some beekeepers strongly recommend creating a top-entrance for ventilation, or if you are prone to deep snow which may block the entrance during winter.
You may like to search on our Community Forum for more suggestions for both entrance reduction and creating a top-entrance – there has been a lot of discussion about both these topics.
With the decrease in egg laying, the brood nest will start to reduce in size. This allows for more storage of pollen and nectar, which will provide both food and internal insulation for the colony overwinter.
It’s important to make sure the colony numbers are neither too large or too small; if colony numbers are too great they may starve, while if there are not enough bees to form the right size cluster they will not be able to regulate their temperature and the colony may die from the cold.
Some common ones to look out and treat for are:
Read more about pests and diseases on our Common pests and diseases affecting European honey bee webpage.
The local conditions will dictate the preparations necessary for overwintering. We strongly recommend you check in with local experienced beekeepers.
Some factors which may influence the success of your colony to survive—and thrive—through winter are:
Some beekeepers choose to move their bees to a styrofoam hive (or a hive made from insulating materials), while others wrap solar blankets (which passively warm the hive from the heat of the sun) or insulating material around the outside of the hive.
In addition to insulating the body of the hive, it can be important to insulate the roof cavity of a hive, as heat can be lost from the top.
Some ideas for insulating a Flow Hive peaked roof are;
Often beekeepers say that it is not the cold that kills the bees, but condensation.
Condensation is a big issue in overwintering a hive—if not the biggest. It is also the most likely factor in the death of bee colonies over winter.
When the internal temperature of the hive differs significantly to the outside temperature, a moisture build up can occur. This can lead to icy, frozen bees.
The best way to avoid condensation is to make sure there is adequate ventilation.
Some beekeepers believe that creating a top-entrance will allow for better ventilation.
You may also want to consider creating a moisture quilt at the top of the hive, to make sure any moisture build up does not drip back onto the bees. These can easily be made from a tray of sawdust or wood-shavings.
Many beekeepers note that bees do not freeze in winter—they starve.
What you feed your bees overwinter is a decision that ultimately only you can make – different beekeepers will recommend different feeds. We suggest doing your own research, and consulting with local experienced beekeepers as to what food will be best for your colony.
Some beekeepers prefer to feed their bees with honey. They say this contains much more complex sugars, with trace minerals that the bees need.
If feeding your bees with honey, it is always recommended to feed them with their own honey stores, and often light-summer is suggested.
Ragna from ByBi City Bees in Norway says that many beekeepers choose to feed their bees with a sugar(sucrose)-water solution (diluted 60/40).
This can be bought ready-made, or you can mix this up yourself.
Some beekeepers prefer to feed their bees fondant (which has less water-content) over sugar-water solution.
Aside from personal preference, what you feed your bees is also dependent on where you are and what your bees have access to (if feeding their own honey stores) – we recommend checking in with local beekeepers what their recommendations are.
It is also important that the bees go into winter with a few frames of pollen. If you are running a single brood box, then 1-2 frames of pollens should suffice. If you are running a double brood box, then 3-6 frames of pollen stores is considered a good supply.
Feed your bees with supplementary pollen coming into spring if they do not have pollen stores.
The amount of supplementary feeding required will vary depending on local conditions and colony size or strength. Ragna from ByBi City Bees in Norway, says that they feed their bees with 16kg—a hive of average strength (about 1 deep-brood box sized colony) will eat this amount through winter.
Kathie from Powassan Library Bee Night in Canada says about 36-40 kg of food is needed to overwinter a double-deep brood box.
This is a region-specific question—we recommend speaking to local experienced beekeepers as to when they recommend you start, and stop, feeding.
Some beekeepers believe that wintering success has a lot to do with the colony’s ability to communicate, share, and manage populations and brood development. Sometimes two hives which are side-by-side, the same in size, with the same treatments applied, will have very different outcomes—one will survive and the other will not.
Depending on your local climate, it can be important to consider preparations necessary for your hive to over-weather, rather than overwinter. Things such as snowstorms, increase in rainfall (or flooding), and other unexpected weather are all events which you may need to consider and prepare for.
Read more on our Community Forum and connect with locals for suggestions on how to keep your bees safe and sound, no matter the weather.
You may also like to discuss your over-weathering concerns and plans with your local experienced bee mentor, as well as nearby beekeeping clubs or associations.
Get in contact and let us know of your wild or mild over-weathering experience – we would love to hear from your bees and you!