We're still sipping ice cold drinks and sticking our feet in the kiddie pool to cool off, but it's time to start thinking about winter. Preparing your bees for 4-6 months of cold weather has to start as soon as the summer nectar flow ends. Below, I'll share our late-summer considerations and tasks to get our bees safely settled in before the snow flies.
There are 5 things every colony needs in order to survive winter and make a healthy rebound come spring:
To have a healthy queen and viable population
To be mite-free
To have enough food
To be well insulated and ventilated
Here are some details and to-dos to ensure that your colony has everything they need.
Healthy Queen & Viable Population
The health of your queen is critical to surviving winter. In the next couple months, she will transition from laying summer workers to laying winter bees who will live longer and support the queen until she starts laying new summer workers next spring.
How old is your queen?
Has she been laying consistently all year?
Does she appear damaged?
Do you have any brood disease?
By mid-August, there is no longer time to let your bees raise themselves a new queen, but there is still plenty of time to purchase and introduce a mated queen.
As far as population, it is FAR more important that you bees are healthy than anything else. If you are worried about a low population, there are two things you can do.
Combine those bees with another, stronger hive (See this post)
Put them in a smaller hive (we overwinter successfully in nuc boxes, BUT the cause of the low population must be resolved!)
TIP: You can prolong summer bee production and shorten the amount of time your winter bees need to survive by feeding 1:1 syrup in late summer and early fall!
Deal with your Mites
You can find a more detailed blog post about mite management here: https://www.rushingriverapiaries.com/post/i-might-have-mites
Do some mite tests. If your mite load is greater than 3% (9 mites on 300 bees), then your colony has a very low change of surviving winter.
The critical piece when it comes to winter preparations is the timing of your mite treatment. Earlier is better, and I encourage you to have your mite treatment of choice in hand before you pull your honey supers off.
You need to know how long your treatment will take. Some of them (especially Apivar) stays on for 42 days and starting late can mean that it's too cold to open your hives to remove it.
I have to admit that we are not very scientific when it comes to how much honey is 'enough'. We do not harvest any honey from our brood boxes, and we feed in fall. We want our brood boxes to go into winter feeling "like a box of rocks" (I think the credit for this perfect description goes to Bob Bonnie).
If you have a box that is light, you can either remove it (a MUCH better option than leaving empty space on your hive!) or feed until it gets heavy.
Your bees will stop taking liquid feed when daytime temps are no longer consistently above 10ºC/50ºF.
If you are still concerned about the amount of food stores in your hive, you can add a sugar board or fondant. Here is our recipe for a sugar board. Depending on your local weather, you can also plan to add emergency food as needed to your hive on a warm day in early spring. We know that we will get a warm day in late February or early March when we could add food so we no longer start out with sugar boards on our hives.
You also want to see lots of bee bread (colourful pollen that looks wet) in your hive. If you don't have two full sheets of bee bread, then you will want to feed some pollen supplement through the fall as the hive is raising its winter bees, and then again in spring as summer bee production ramps up again.
Insulation and Ventilation
Finally we are getting to the thing that most people are thinking of when they are talking about winterizing hives. But please believe me when I tell you that all the insulation in the world can't save your hive if the conditions above are not met first.
In our area, beekeepers use three different materials to winterize:
Hot water tank wrap (in the photo on the left)
NOD Bee Cozies (in the photo at the top of this post)
2" Blue Foam Insulation (we do not use this one)
We have had good success with hot water tank wrap and bee cozies and currently wrap half of our hives in each. We do not use the blue foam insulation, mainly because of the problem of storing so much of it! All three will help achieve the same goal: to prevent wild temperature fluctuations in your hives.
(I will write a separate post on choosing winter insulation since there is a lot to say!)
No matter which one you choose, you want to make sure that the bees have an entrance open at all times. We use small top and bottom entrances through the winter to allow some ventilation and so that the bees can use the top entrance in the event that the bottom is blocked by snow.
It is also important to insulate the top of your hive really well. Here, the goal is to keep the inner cover warm so that the moisture in the hive doesn't condense against it and rain down on your bees. We use a medium honey super on top of our inner cover as an attic and fill it with insulation.
Here is a video from last year when we wrapped our hives:
Now it's time to pat yourself on the back, put your feet up, pour yourself a nice cup of tea with honey and cross those fingers! By the time you wrap your hives, you've done all you could for your bees and now you just need to wait until spring to hear that glorious buzz again!
Download and print the checklist below to keep track of the many late-summer tasks that will give your bees the best shot at making it through winter.