Winterizing Bee Hives, Year One

It’s a warm, sunny day in late October, the sort of day that does justice to everyone who proclaims fall as their favorite season.

Last week, in contrast, it rained. And rained. And rained. The wind blew, the skies were dark. Thoughts were of winter, and warm soup, and thick sweaters.

Through it all, the bees in our two hives seem to be taking things in stride. Last week they were tucked in, zipping out only when the skies cleared long enough for them to take cleansing flights (because they’re intelligent creatures, they don’t like to defecate in their hives) and maybe poke around a bit. Today, though, they’re out and about, hauling pollen with urgency.

Honeybees reduce their numbers in preparation for winter, and the kind we keep–Carniolians–are especially dramatic about it. (And, apparently, equally dramatic in building up their numbers in spring, hence their propensity to swarm.) They reduce their cluster size for obvious, if rather draconian, reasons: fewer mouths to feed during the winter.

During the spring and summer, worker bees live for about six weeks, cycling through the rotation of hive maintenance tasks, eventually ending their lives as forager bees. The bees that go into the winter cluster, though, must make it through the cold spell–until late February or so around here–when there’s no brood produced to replace them.

It therefore behooves the beekeeper to see that these winter bees are well cared for throughout their life cycle: eggs produced by a healthy queen, tended by healthy nurse bees, and fed a rich and plentiful diet even before they hatch. As with so many things in beekeeping, this requires preparing far in advance.

To refresh, all honeybees start out as eggs laid by a single queen, who’s previously mated and has all the sperm she’ll ever need stored in her abdomen. She can lay either fertilized eggs, which will become female bees, or unfertilized eggs, which will become the male drones. All bees spend 3 days as eggs, then progress to the larval stage. Whether destined to be queens, workers, or drones, the larvae exist as what’s known as “uncapped brood” for the first few days. All developing larvae are then capped with wax, at which point we talk about “capped brood.” Unmated, virgin queens emerge around day 16 (all the more reason to be vigilant about regular hive inspections in the spring and early summer!), while workers take 21 days and drones 24 days.

There’s been some debate on the local bee forums about when the so-called “winter bees” are produced in the hive, but the upshot is that beekeepers need to be planning at least three weeks in advance for pretty much any stage of beekeeping.

All season long, we’ve worked off our rudimentary knowledge of honeybee biology and their life cycle, keeping meticulous records of our hive inspections and other interventions. Our hope is that our detailed record-keeping will atone, somewhat, for our lack of experience. It’s one thing to know the science at an intellectual level, keeping an eye out for queen cells and healthy brood and tracking larval development and mites and all the rest. It’s another to have the sort of intuitive understanding of what these things mean in the larger picture of successful hive management that only comes with multiple seasons of observation.

Today, I observed a flurry of bee activity around one of our hives, engaged in what looked like orientation flights. These are when bees first leave the hive and take a series of short flights to, you guessed it, orient themselves to their surroundings. These recently hatched bees come from eggs that were laid about three weeks ago, so anything that adversely affected their development over the past few weeks will, in turn, carry over to the bees that we’re expecting to live for the next 4-5 months.

No pressure.

From what we’ve gathered, the basics for getting bees through the long, wet winters of our climate involve, primarily, keeping them fed and keeping them dry.

Here’s what we’ve done–and what we still need to do.

  • We’ve done our fall mite treatments–we tested, and the mite levels were above the treatment threshold, so we put in Apivar strips in early September and removed them in early- to mid-October, per package instructions.
  • We’ve guarded, as best we can, against wasp predation and robbing by other honeybees.
  • As the weather has gotten cooler and yellow jacket activity has–sort of–died down, we switched out the robbing screens for entrance reducers to help conserve heat in the hive.
  • We’ve added insulated hive tops.
  • We didn’t end up doing any supplemental feeding, primarily because both hives seemed relatively well provisioned; there simply wasn’t much room in there in September for them to store more food. The figure people give for getting bees through the winter in Whatcom County is at least 55 pounds of stored honey, along with pollen. If they’re light at the end of summer, as can happen with a dearth and the resulting lack of nectar and pollen, they won’t have enough stored food to make it through winter. We’re hoping that not feeding won’t turn out to be a new-bee mistake on our part.
  • We still need to get rain covers on. Most people put up some kind of extended roof structure that provides eaves and keeps rain away from the hive.
  • We’re planning to add bee cozies. You can make them, but given our work schedules and our small apiary size, we’re going to wimp out and buy them. Besides, it’s been a good month since we’ve spent money on our bees.
  • We need to double-check that frames are still arranged in a brood down, food up pattern. It’s what the bees naturally prefer, and it lets the cluster move up into their stored food reserves over the winter.
  • We need to reduce hives from three boxes to two, which helps the bees conserve heat.
  • We need to check ventilation and figure out if we’re going to add any sort of interior insulation. We’ve heard mixed reviews on the topic of interior insulation, but the ventilation is absolutely necessary. Without it, moisture from the air will condense on the hive cover, then drip back down on the bee cluster as cold water. Not conducive to hive survival.

It seems, from the chatter on the forums, that our timing is a bit out of sync with that of other beekeepers, but that’s been the case throughout the season.  We’re going off of what we’ve observed in our hives–and hoping that our guesses are relatively well educated.

And of course if our bees make it through winter, there’s always our long, cold, damp spring to worry about, and then swarming, and then honey production.

With that, I’m headed outside to tackle my garden to-do list.


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