What happens to the bees over-winter? Putting the bees to bed.

The beekeepers year is pretty much over once the honey has been extracted, the bees have been fed sugar syrup and treated for varroa mite. Now it is a matter of good housekeeping to give the bees the best chance of surviving into the next year and to encourage early build-up of the colony.

The hive is checked again on a warm day in October to make sure that there is still a queen and there is no evidence of disease before packing the bees up for the winter months ahead. Once the last flowering plants, such as ivy, no longer have a nectar supply then the bees stop the foraging flights and entrance activity in the hive drastically reduces, with only occasional flights for toileting purposes.

The colony itself is shrinking in preparation for the winter months ahead with the remaining 20,000 workers living for 5 months or so in order to cluster around the queen and maintain the hive temperature. This number will decline even further, maybe as few as 10,000, before the queen starts laying again in February with the bees emerging as adults in time to coincide with the start of the spring flowers and spring nectar flow.

The October checks are also to assess that there are adequate stores of honey in the hive to feed the remaining bees over the next few months, as well as a good supply of pollen for feeding to the young and encourage early brood rearing in February.

Hives are undamaged and soundHives preparing for winterThe crown board is propped upFeed holes in the crown board are coveredMouse guard fitted over the hive entrance

The hives themselves need to be sound and undamaged. Back in the summer any holes in the hive would have been heavily guarded and just used as an additional entrance or exit, but now the bees are beginning to cluster this will be left unguarded and leave the hive open to robbing, particularly by wasps. It will also let in the cold and wet. Bees are far more likely to be killed by the damp then by the cold. The hives should be sloped slightly forward to allow the bottom board to drain (obviously not a problem if you are using a mesh floor!) and the entrance should be faced away, or at least protected from, the prevailing wind. The crown board is propped on two corners with matchsticks or similar size twigs and the feed holes (or porter escape holes) are covered, this is to prevent too much condensation building up in the hive. The warm moist air rises to the crown board and is pushed out of the top of the hive, rather than condensing on the crown board which can then lead to the outside frames becoming mouldy or even to the death of the colony.

The roof is then replaced and the hive can either be strapped (but the straps will weather and perish and will definitely not be suitable for moving the hives later on – they are bound to fail at the most inconvenient moment) or use the traditional method by placing a brick on top to avoid the roof being blown off in strong winds – if the apiary is in a very windy location then use two bricks!

The hives attract attention from several unwanted visitors over the winter months when other food sources are scarce. The hives are very inviting to mice, they offer a warm, dry shelter with honey on tap and the mouse is unlikely to be evicted by the bees until the spring by which time the damage to the comb has been dome. A thin strip of metal with 9mm holes is pinned over the entrance as a mouse guard (check there are no mice in there before attaching it). I have tried to align the bottom set of holes with the hive floor to make it easier for the bees to carry out their hive duties and eject any debris and dead bees before it is removed in spring.

Woodpecker protectionLittle entrance activity in NovemberHives now ready for winter

If green woodpeckers are known to nest locally the hive is wrapped in chicken wire with a 13mm mesh or alternatively strips of plastic sheeting are placed over the hive (this prevents the woodpeckers from getting a grip on the hive). Apparently beekeepers who have had no history of problems at an apiary site for many many years with the woodpeckers being present then find one learns a trick and they break and enter the hives, damaging the brood boxes and destroying the frames, comb and colony very quickly.

Occasional visits to monitor the entrance activity and check the hives have not been ‘nudged’ by deer or badgers are useful. The bees are then left to their own devices until spring. Some beekeepers feed a fondant candy to supplement the honey at the end of December (a form of Christmas offering) and others treat the hive using a weak solution of oxalic acid in sugar syrup. This does not affect the bees but helps to attack the varroa mite and removes their ability to ‘cling on’ to the bees. This should only be administered to the hive when there is no brood present (as it will not affect mite sealed into the brood) and there is no honey in the hive that will later be extracted for human consumption.

In the event of a heavy snow fall the hive entrance should be cleared to allow a free flow of air and the light shielded away from the entrance or else there is a risk of the bees flying and becoming chilled and unable to return to the hives.

Finally the hives components not being used over winter should be cleaned and stored. Supers and brood boxes should be scorched internally to kill any parasites and eggs buried in the woodwork. This is also a good time to repair and treat the boxes. The comb should be stored, either wet or dry, so that it is not accessible to wax moths. Sheets of newspaper placed between each super helps. The wax moth lay their eggs of the wax and when hatched feed on the cocoons of the bees so they are most likely to occur in the stored brood comb. A healthy colony of bees will not tolerate wax moth in the hive but the pose a threat to your stored comb.

Finally time to relax and wait for that warm day in early spring where you get to see if all those preparations for the winter have paid off and your colonies have survived the British winter – good luck!


One response to this post.

  1. […] overwintering in colder climates, honeybees will form a cluster in the hive and strong colonies survive quite […]


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