As fall draws to a close and winter approaches, it’s time to think about how you’re going to winterize your bees. Bees are pretty hardy (they manage to do just fine in the wild without us), and some more temperate areas may not need to do anything at all. But if you live someplace like northern Ohio that almost always bottoms out near or below zero during the winters, then it might not be a bad idea to give them a little help.
That being said, take it with a grain of salt from me. I’ve had bees for the past two winters, and neither hive survived, so I can’t claim to be an expert. Both winters, they were doing fine well into the new year. The first time, the hive got toppled (likely by one of the dogs, but also possibly a polar bear). Last year, we had a late visit in March from the polar vortex that may have done them in. But, I didn’t do anything to winterize the first two years, so I’m going to give it a shot this winter and see if I have any better success.
A Few Steps to Winterize Bees
Bees don’t hibernate in the sense that we think of hibernation. Yes, they slow down a lot and don’t leave the hive until it warms up, but they’re still active. In fact, they all huddle up into a big mass around the queen, and that cluster, remarkably, stays somewhere in the range of 95 degrees all winter long. Pretty amazing, really.
To winterize bees, it boils down to a few key issues:
Don’t Starve Them
It’s tempting to take all the honey that they produce at the end of the season, but that’s a quick route to a winter kill. Though they do slow, bees eat all throughout the winter, and they’ll need upwards of 60-100 pounds of honey to make it to spring. I always leave a full hive body’s worth (8-10) of capped frames. Of course, if they don’t make it, you get the honey anyway.
Let the Hive Breathe
The next consideration is ventilation. While the bees will keep themselves warm, you know what happens when warm and cold meet: condensation. And when that condensation forms on the ceiling of the hive, it can drip back down into the bee cluster. Not good. To alleviate the moisture issue, prop up the front of the hive top just a bit (1/4″ – 1/2″ is fine) with a stick or other small implement. This leaves enough of a gap for some of the warm air to escape.
Drafty Houses are No Good
Finally, it’s nice to offer a little extra draft protection. You know how much those bitterly cold winter winds suck, and it’s no different for your bees. But while it’s an inconvenience for us, it can be deadly to the hive.
- Use an entrance reducer so the front door isn’t wide open.
- If you have a screened bottom, put a little burlap or other insulating material in the gap to eliminate the cold drafts from below.
- Give them a wind block. If there are no trees or shrubs around, a piece of burlap between two stakes will be enough to break the wind enough.
- It may not be necessary in milder climes, but in colder areas you can wrap the hive body in roofing (tar) paper. Not only will it cover up any drafty spaces, but it will also soak up some extra heat on those rare days that the sun shows up. Just don’t button it up too tightly (and definitely don’t cover the entrance!) – they still need to breathe.
Your hive should ideally be facing roughly southeast to take advantage of whatever solar assistance they can get. And don’t clear the snow off – it’s actually is a remarkably good insulator!
So even though your bees are pretty tough chicks (yes, females are all that’s left; the males are unceremoniously shoved out to die in the fall), you can do a few things to give them a leg up and help them get off to a faster start when the spring thaw finally does come!