Preparing your hives for cold weather

Much like us, bees prefer to spend winter snuggling up for warmth, staying indoors, and eating as much as they can. But they can’t do that without adequate food, a warm hive, and protection from the elements.

That’s where you come in. Although beekeepers don’t need to do as much during the winter, it’s important to prepare your bees well ahead of time, so they’ll be able to cope with the colder weather. That means checking and prepping hives, feeding extra honey or sugar if needed, and treating for disease.

The more you prepare, the less you’ll need to intervene during winter itself. It is possible to open hives to feed or treat for disease during cold or wet weather, but it’s definitely not the best option for you or your bees.

Here’s our winter readiness guide:

Inspect and assess

Beekeeping is all about being observant and taking notes, and winter is no different. Mid-autumn is a good time to assess your hives and make notes about each one. How much honey do they have? Is the population thriving or flagging? What does the brood pattern look like? Any signs of disease? Any damage to the hive itself?

These notes will be the basis of your winter prep plan. The more thorough you are in checking and recording the state of your hives, the better prepared you’ll be.

Combine, reduce, rearrange

Once you’ve assessed your hives, you’re ready to make changes. Rearrange each hive so brood frames are clustered together, with honey frames at either end. Remove any queen excluders so the bees can move around freely.

Remove empty frames and boxes to reduce the size of the hive in general, and reduce the number of entrances – smaller hives with fewer entrances are easier to keep warm and defend against invaders. This is also a good time to cut back vegetation around the hives to prevent insects and other invaders getting in.

If you have a small, weak colony, consider combining it with a larger, stronger one before winter to increase its chance of survival.

Food supplies and disease prevention

Your colony won’t survive the winter if it doesn’t have enough honey. Check each hive for honey frames to make sure it has adequate supplies. General guidelines for New Zealand say that a hive in the Auckland area will need around six full frames of honey for winter, while those in colder climates may need more.

If a hive doesn’t have enough honey, you need to bring in reserved honey or supplement with sugar water to tide them over. But don’t feed with pollen at this stage – this could lead to an early increase in population, which will then require more supplemental feeding.

This is also the time to test for diseases such as Varroa mites, and treat if needed. The colony will be weaker and more vulnerable over winter, so it’s best to treat early.

Keeping your bees cosy

During winter, your hives will need to protect your bees from the elements. Depending on your location, this could mean extreme cold, high winds, or torrential rain and dampness.

If you’re in a cold climate, an inner cover or insulation board can help keep the colony warm. In windy areas, or if your hives are in a particularly windy spot, you can secure lids with weights, shield ventilation holes with boards, and even create a windbreak with hay bales or vegetation. In rainy, damp areas, you can add a rain cover to prevent water from entering the hive.

Wherever you are and whatever the climate, ventilation is essential. Ventilation holes or a slotted bottom board allow air to circulate, preventing dampness, mildew, and the build up of pathogens. Of course, they will also allow some heat to escape, but this is balanced out by the benefits.

Keep up the checks

After the hard work of preparing for winter, it’s tempting to just let your bees be until spring. But it’s important to keep checking throughout the cold season. This is particularly true at the end of winter and beginning of spring – bees are most likely to run out of honey and starve at this stage.

Do a hive check once a month over winter, preferably on a warm, sunny day. You don’t want to open the hive and expose the colony for long, but you can do a quick check of food supplies, brush debris or dead bees from entrances, and assess general hive health. If you live near your hives and you’re worried about losses you could always check your hives without opening them – watch for flight paths, check pollen being brought in, and top up feeders if needed. As spring approaches, you can watch for activity and supplement with pollen if needed.

When your hives are rearranged, fed, and weatherproofed, your bees will have the best chance at surviving the winter. And – like them – you’ll probably be ready to snuggle up and rest as well.

Want to know more about winter hive preparation? Talk to the team at Ecrotek.