Winter is the hardest time for this beekeeper. Gone is the happy busy traffic at the summer hive entrance. The hives are frosted, and still. They look empty.
Are the bees still alive?
In the depths of winter there is nothing you can do to help the bees. You have to trust that your winter prep is going to pay off, and they will make it to spring.
That winter prep starts the summer before.
Once the honey flow is over in your area (June on the rainy Pacific Northwest coast, when the blackberries fall out of bloom), and you have taken your honey harvest, you are likely feeding your bees. There is a long floral/nectar dearth here between the end of blackberries and the thinner bloom of fall asters. Typically, local beekeepers harvest the blackberry honey, treat for mites, feed syrup and protein patties during the late summer dearth, and leave any further honey flows for the bees to winter on.
If you are fortunate, your bees have within easy flight range mature, watered, flower-filled gardens or fields of fireweed and clovers. They will forage for every drop of available local nectar. Monitor the amount of open nectar in the hive frames and when it starts to drop (or disappears), feed.
Feeding includes pollen/protein patties. Bees need complete nutrition to keep their immune systems primed, to keep raising healthy, hardy new bees, and to brood up the late summer crop of winter bees: bees with fat filled bodies, and an altered hemolymph (blood) profile, made to last long months in the winter cluster.
Feeding also keeps the colony at peak population in spite of nectar dearths, because strong hives can repel the hungry late-summer robbers.
Robbing and starvation are the bane of late summer. So keep an eye on the food situation, keep your colonies strong, and either reduce entrances or put on robbing screens if the wasps or nearby colonies get pushy. They are all desperate for food and on the hunt for easy pickin’s.
But as for winter prep, there are as many theories out there as beekeepers.
Everyone agrees on three things. You colonies must enter the winter with:
~ as free as possible of Varroa mites.
What does well provisioned mean? Well, the colder and longer the winter you face, the more honey and pollen stores the bees need on board. So most of us feed up the bees (with white sugar syrup and protein patties) from late August on to build those winter stores.
Most beekeepers also medicate for Nosema by adding Fumagillin-B to at least one of the fall feeds. That practice is under review, so each beekeeper must weigh the pros and cons for themselves.
I like to see honey on the “shoulders” (top outside corners) of most of the frames in the hive. To get the bees though the winter cold, leave a medium super full of capped honey on top of that. Top up with emergency rations (fondant, sugar or Krabby Patties ) on the top bars, over the cluster.
Bees can reach feed above them pretty easily, traveling up and down in the warm column of air that rises off the cluster. Feed off to the side can be hard for them to reach in cold weather.
Generally they are only going to need their emergency feed once the queen begins to lay in earnest, in January/February/March. Lots of colonies starve late in the winter, just before our first nectar flow (maples in early-mid March), trying to raise the new spring brood. So keep your emergency rations on until the maple nectar starts flowing.
But what do you do to protect them from the weather?
The most important consideration is protection from the winter wind. Face hives away from the direction of the prevailing winds, so cold air is not blowing into the doorway. Small as that winter entry is, it can funnel wind straight into the hive (note that in snowy areas, the bees are only given a small upper entry…no need for the bottom entry at all in winter). A slatted rack can help baffle the wind and keep the lower part of the cluster out of the draughts.
Try to keep the whole hive both in the sun and out of direct winds. When that is not possible, provide wind baffles.
Second to wind protection, put on a vented quilt box. This is a medium super, with a burlap floor stapled on, and filled with wood chips (hamster bedding). It goes directly over the top super of the colony. The warm column of moist air coming off the cluster percolates up and through the burlap and wood chips, which absorb the excess moisture. That way, cold condensation does not drip back down onto the bees.
Wet bees are chilled bees and chilled bees die quickly.
To prevent bees from propolizing the burlap floor to the frames below, use a screen shim: a 2″ high “super” with 1/8″ screen stapled to one side. If you place the screen side up, you can lift the quilt box, peek at your emergency rations and see if the bees need more. They will, particularly in late winter/early spring, really go for those rations on sunny days, and you will be able to gauge the strength of the colony by observing the numbers of bees on the fondant/Krabby Patties.
You can wrap. Some beekeepers use roofing (tar) paper. It is inexpensive and you just staple it in place. Some (including me) use Bee Cosies, insulated tubes that slip on over the hive. Some make custom boxes of foam insulation board. Close off the screened bottom boards if you have those, and consider putting a piece of foam insulation board under the bottom board. These measures help stabilize the interior temperature of the hive and should help the bees minimize their energy expenditure.
But. I have twice run out of time to properly winterize one of my hives in an outyard. Both times, those colonies came through the winter strong and healthy. No wrap, no quilt box, nothing but lots of bees, honey and stores on board. Our winter is rainy, wet, and long. But these hives were wind sheltered and in full sun. It reminded me that good mite-free populations, wind protection and stores on board are probably all that is needed here on the west coast.
Most beekeepers here also put on a rain hat…a 3′ x 3′ piece of plywood strapped down or weighted down against the wind, to give the hive a bit of shelter from direct rains.
To monitor the cluster location and size, you can use an infrared camera .
Prep well in late summer. Keep your hive populous and well fed to raise healthy winter bees. Defend against robbers. Treat for mites. Insulate and wrap as you see fit.
And wish the girls luck, ’cause baby it’s cold out there!