Preparation for winter depends in part on your biozone and the conditions therein. We will be discussing winter prep for the coastal Pacific Northwest, where our big concern is rain rather than deep cold.
I was fortunate that in my second year, I was handed an object lesson in the role of the beekeeper in getting a healthy colony through the winter. A couple called me in October to say they had a colony of bees in their orchard. The beekeeper had placed them there in the previous March, and had simply disappeared. All efforts to contact him had failed, and they knew that something should be done to get the bees ready for winter…what was it and could I help?
Unfortunately, there is not much you can do for bees in October. It was already too cold for an inspection and the rains had set in. If they did not have enough honey to get them through, or massive mite loads, or disease, there was literally nothing we could do to help them. I agreed to come see the bees, and was appalled. They were in the worst equipment possible: all you could say is that it was maintaining structural integrity! Cracks everywhere, paint peeling off, the bottom board looked rotted out (and was sitting on the damp ground), and the entire colony was in a single deep. No honey super, and all was covered by a warped outer cover.
Garbed in full protective gear on a misty, rainy day, I pried off the cover, threw on a grease patty (the only organic mite control I could apply so late in the year), and put the cover back on, clouds of angry guards pinging off my veil and attacking my hands. Not only was it a terrible day for opening the hive, they had been untended for months. All the hive parts were glued together, so even getting the cover off was difficult and upsetting to the bees. I wished them good luck, and told the owners I would be back in the spring, but that the bees were unlikely to survive.
To my surprise, these bees did just fine. The hive was very strong in the spring, so strong it needed to be split twice, in spite of having no beekeeper assistance for a full calendar year. Hmmmm.
I realized that I had been given a peek into pre-1985 beekeeping! A relatively mite free colony, healthy and populous, in a single deep (and, I discovered, with a feeder in the hive taking up two frame spaces!), had managed to store lots of food in their tiny space, yet the (marked) queen still had enough room to lay and had come out strong in the spring. They didn’t get feeding, they didn’t get winter protection, they had no disease or mite control, no friendly manipulations, they had terrible, crowded, drafty equipment.
And they were just fine.
I find it very, very difficult not to fuss over my bees. But this hive demonstrated that left to themselves, bees generally do just fine. Yes, the Varroa mites will eventually overwhelm them (this hive died 18 months later when mites did them in…that was the end of my treatment free approach! Varroasis is a nasty fate…) and if disease hits them, they will dwindle and die. But strong hives with lots of stores usually do well. And I was mindful of the comments of the legendary Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey, beekeeping in a climate similar to ours, that bees wrapped up for winter miss the spring weather cues and do not come out as strong as they ought. Hmmmmm.
So in the winter, when I sit at my window watching the rain, wind and snow, worrying about whether the bees are alright, I remind myself of that orphan hive and how well they did all by themselves.
That said, winter preparations typically concentrate on three things:
- that the hive is well provisioned for the winter (they only have stored honey to draw upon for sustenance and heat generation)
- that there are low-to-no Varroa mites in the hive (note that in midwinter, when brood amounts are low to zero, we can treat mites with oxalic acid dribble or vapour, allowing the hive to enter spring brood-up sans mites in the brood)
- that the bees are dry…it is not cold that kills bees, who will cluster and generate a 95F degree environment for the queen and brood, it is damp. Damp bees chill, and chilled bees cannot move to feed or to vibrate their wings to generate heat. It is top insulation and rain hats that keep hives dry here in the PacNW.
Disease, if not present in the fall, is unlikely to hit in the winter….another hmmmmmm. There is no drifting in the winter, so there is no opportunity for sick bees to come visiting and infect our hive. I am sure there is more involved…warmer cluster? Different bees (the fatter bodied winter bees)? Winter immune response? And in bee dense areas, we may want to consider putting robbing screens on all hives all year long. That might prevent drift of bees and with them, drift of pests and diseases. There is a thesis or two buried in those topics!
Bees will fly on warmish, sunny days of 12-15C or above. They take brief cleansing flights to defecate quickly and immediately return to the hive. In snowy areas you can see the dark mustard coloured bee feces on the white snow outside the hive. They also take whatever opportunity they can on warmish days to clear the dead bees out of the hive, but the beekeeper should sweep as many bees as possible out whenever the opportunity presents, as they build up on the bottom board and make a nasty mess…and can actually plug the small winter entrance shut. And bees need to fly, even in winter.
Here on the coast, bees also are able to fly on sunny winter days to gather English Ivy pollen. This gives the colonies a constant source of protein…making English Ivy another invasive beloved of beekeepers!
There are as many approaches to winter hive configuration as there are beekeepers. What you do is determined by your philosophy, your budget and the time you have at hand. Assuming we have fed up the hives such that they have winter stores (which are minimal in our area…I would think 20-30 pounds is adequate, although I try to leave 50 or more), the winter hive configuration is all about keeping the bees dry and warm.
To that end, I strive to get the following in place before the days consistently cool down to 10C:
- the bees are slightly crowded, most colonies are stuffed into single deeps.
- there is capped honey on the shoulders of lots of the frames in those deeps.
- there is a candy board over the deep, I fill mine with 8-10 lb of damp white sugar…note the sugar/candy board will absorb moisture.
- there is a Krabby Patty (note you can put some protein patty into the Krabby Patty bag, too) in the candy board
- over the candy board is an eke containing a batt of R20 insulation in a transparent plastic bag (which lets you see if the R20 is wet and needs replacing) to retain the cluster heat
- over the R20-batt-in-a-box is the inner cover
- over the inner cover is the outer cover
- a sheet of plywood roughly 3′ x 3′ or slightly larger sits on top of the stack as a rain hat
- a concrete block is on the rain hat to hold all together in high winds (strap down entire hive in exposed locations)
- the hives should be sheltered from strong winds
Wrapping is not recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Apiculturalist. But many local beekeepers wrap, and in various ways. Some group the hives in stands of 4, such that their exterior walls abut, sharing heat. Some wrap in tarpaper, some in styrofoam sheets. Many prefer to use the Bee Cozy. It is cheap, fast to slip on, works well, stores easily and is durable..IF YOU MAKE SURE THE VENT HOLE IS NOT LETTING IN THE RAIN!! In very windy locations wrapping the hive top to ground in Reflectix is another excellent approach.
I have found no wrapping is best for me. I focus on that top insulation and rain hat.
It is worth noting that there is a wide disparity between different beekeepers and their overwintering statistics. National averages run at about 35% loss per winter, and that statistic is drawn from a wide pool of beekeepers, large and small. Many beekeepers lose more. Many backyard beekeepers have little or no loss. And the overwintering statistic does not reflect the reports from commercial beekeepers, who report losing 10% of their queens every month during the summer (commercial pollination operators).
There has been little or no research to back my own surmise, which is that winter losses are catastrophic in commercial operations due to the bees entering winter in weakened condition after a summer on the pollination circuit: constant disruption, suppression of colony size, field spray exposures and lots of prophylactic medication for mites and diseases, queen issues. In the pollination fields they are largely limited to a single pollen as their protein source, often of inferior quality for bee nutrition, and the reduced vitellogenin levels that result from poor nutrition take some time to reverse. Thes factors can have a critical, weakening effect on the production of the all-important winter bees, the longevity of the remaining summer bees, let alone the effects on the queen of sub-par nutrition. There is a well documented link between poor nutrition and infection with disease. I suspect poor nutrition also reduces the ability of the colony to purge Varroa-infested larvae.
Finally, disrupted colonies are denied the ability to garner winter stores and to store them effectively. Bees take time in the fall to put the honey and pollen where they will need it in the winter. With poor levels of stores on hand, and no time to sort them out, a colony’s chance of overwintering is slim.
You can experiment with a Baffle Box (my term), where you place a shallow super as the lowest box in the hive during a nectar flow. In the shallow super are wood frames, empty of foundation. Into that space, the bees are welcome to build comb as they like it:
The idea is that this lowest box will act as covered verandah, providing a wind/rain baffle and giving the bees extra room to hang out as do slatted racks.
The one problem with the Baffle Box may be the propensity of the queen to be in it. A great alternative is to use a slatted rack:
In our area, we have relatively mild winters. The bees do not need a huge amount of honey to meet their needs. And they really don’t require significant amounts of their stores until they begin to ramp up brood rearing in January and February. Although I leave a sugar board on even well provisioned hives, it will not usually draw the bees’ attention until they begin to brood up, and hives can starve in March as they run through all their winter stores rearing the first spring brood. You may have hefted the hives in January and found them heavy, but be surprised to find them full of dead, starved bees in March. That sugar board, inspected regularly, can tell you a lot about your hives’ stores. If they are up on the brick feasting, and it’s beginning to disappear, they are starving and need another sugar top up ASAP.
Once the Big Leaf Maples bloom, the bees are safe….but until that day, keeping the bees fed is the job of the beekeeper.
So our objective in fall is to feed heavily until the daily temperature begins to approach 10C (feeding 2:1 syrup, which gives off less water vapour as it is cured, and is slower to spoil than 1:1 syrup, and which the bees tend to store rather than eat). In our fall inspections we want to see full frames of honey in the frames adjacent to the outside walls of the hive…in all deeps. And we want to see honey stores on the “shoulders” of all or most of the interior frames. In addition, many leave the colony a full shallow of capped honey in addition to that sugar board. They really can’t go into winter with enough honey!
If they come out with extra in the spring, you can harvest that honey once the maples are blooming. If it is sugar syrup honey from the fall, feed it back to the bees.
Research increasingly points to issues with adding things to bee syrup feeds: most additives just cause trouble, but many beekeepers still like to augment their syrup feeds, ie adding a pinch of Rooster Booster (vitamins, electrolytes and lactobacillus to mimic nectar more closely) to the syrup, or a small splash of Honey B Healthy (feed stimulant), essential oils (in particular thymol,…although my experience with thymol is the bees hate the stuff!).
I have tried all these…but I think the bees do best on plain old white sugar syrup. Honestly! The one thing I do is add some Nosevit to the fall and spring feeds, once per those two seasons, as a local citizen science study showed Nosevit was the only additive that helped reduce Nosema levels in overwintering hives. It is expensive, but maybe your club will buy a big bottle to share out!
I feed in a Rapid Feeder, which allows in-hive feeding but does not require opening up the colony…an important consideration as the days get colder and the bees get cranky and prone to robbing. There is a smaller, nuc size available as well.
We have seen in the student apiary how wasp colonies, reaching peak populations in late summer, can suddenly turn from being occasional scavengers of dead bees in the beeyard to ravening hordes constantly seeking entry into the hives. A determined assault by a large wasp colony can decimate a hive in a day or two; they will simply keep returning to plunder the brood and honey stores until there is nothing and not a single bee left. This fate is common in late summer and early fall, and usually is a sign the hive is too small/has a big mite load/is weak for some reason….maybe too much late season splitting.
To control wasp predation we installed robbing screens on all the hives, which prevent robbing by other honey bee colonies as well, and we set multiple wasp traps. So far the most effective are the Rescue traps, baited with a yellowjacket pheromone. We have now filled about 8 traps with hundreds of yellowjackets and the difference in the beeyard is remarkable. We have barely detectable levels of yellowjackets now. So don’t listen to the naysayers who say traps can’t possibly get all the wasps in your area…they don’t need to! They just need to weaken the nearby wasp colonies.
But wasp control starts in the early spring…March in our location. If you set out wasp traps very early in the year, you will trap the overwintered queens, and prevent the colonies from starting up in your area. You can also set out imitation wasp nests, available in dollar stores and hardware stores:
Because wasps are territorial, any queen seeing this in the beeyard will fly on further to seek a nest site…no point competing for resources with the (supposed) already established colony.
There are two other sorts of robbing…robbing by other honey bee colonies, which is a constant problem in bee dense areas, and robbing by human beings. We have been fortunate that no one has driven into the beeyard and taken our hives or honey supers. But it does happen. To help prevent robbing of equipment and bees I brand all my boxes and frames with my name and telephone number. While this will not stop a determined thief, I hope seeing the information will prick their conscience. Admittedly, that would be a small target! But the lesson is there, if they can learn it.
One of the reasons theft is on the rise is the rising cost of honey bees themselves. Just in the last five years, the price of bees has doubled, driven by the high rate of bee loss in winter, and the difficulty in controlling Varroa and the foulbroods. When every colony sitting in a field represents $500 worth of bees, $250+ worth of equipment, and possibly hundreds of dollars of honey (not to mention the cost of skillful beekeeping and medications and feed applied)…the temptation is overwhelming.
Beekeeping is an expensive business to get into, presents serious risk, demands a hard-won skill set, and offers fairly thin returns. It is a grind. Hence the proliferation of theft, particularly as pollination fees rise. They have risen steadily over the last few years thanks to the ever-shrinking number of overwintered hives. In Canada, if a hive fails to overwinter, there is not enough time to build up new ones to meet early spring pollination demands. Because there are never enough pollination hives now to meet pollination needs, the pollination hive standards have fallen (used to be they wanted 10 frames of bees per hive, now 5 is enough, but does not command top fees) and the price of pollination rentals has soared.
This is all bad news for bees! The temptation for commercial operations is to push the bees’ reproductive rate through the roof, which puts bees on the thin edge; stressed out, forced and prone to disease, parasites and queen loss.
For an object lesson in the modern fate of bees, watch the luminously filmed More Than Honey. I watched the portion of the film dealing with winter prep in a commercial pollination apiary with horror, and realized my own backyard, honey-only pet bees were the luckiest bees alive. However inept my beekeeping, it is better for the bees than the apocalyptic rapine and pillage that is now commercial beekeeping, where bees experience a fate similar to that of battery hens.
That fate is, in my opinion, an abrogation of our responsibility as stewards of the bees. And it can’t do much for the commercial beekeeper either. While there are ethical commercial beekeepers, who strive to work with the bees’ natural rhythms and instincts, the larger operations are often completely unsentimental. That sort of beekeeping is not a pretty job, and no one who knows bees can feel comfortable with keeping them in such a fashion. It is profitable, but it is wrong. And ultimately it is unsustainable.
Honey Processing and Packaging
On a day in late summer you will decide the time is right to harvest your honey crop. When is a complex decision. You can wait until the fall nectar flow ends (there is a small one in typical, non-drought years here on the coast, particularly in urban neighbourhoods with watered gardens and/or Japanese Knotweed in the byways!). You can pull it off in July, so that you can treat your hives for mites before the winter brood is being laid and raised. You can wait until spring and the maple bloom to take the honey off the hives.
My decision this year was driven by two factors:
- in this drought year I felt the hives would find little or no feed in late summer, and the small hives in particular would need feeding to get up to winter weight…not wanting to mix sugar syrup “honey” with my good wildflower honey, I wanted the honey off before feeding began (and before late summer mite treatments).
- the hive stacks were getting too tall for me to pull the supers off! Even with a stepladder it was a huge chore moving the boxes off colonies of 2 or 3 deeps plus 2 or 3 honey supers. Madness! And that was preventing me from inspecting as much as I feel is wise. In late summer I am on the watch for unexpected queen loss, and the foulbroods….there is little or no time to recover if these conditions are found.
Essential equipment is:
- a honey bucket fitted with a honey gate
2. a filter…you can buy a filter that fits in the top of a gated honey bucket
and/or you can use a ladies’ knee high stocking rubber banded to the honey gate!
3. you can open the gate and let the filtered honey flow into jars…you get pretty good at filling without drips! Or you can fill into a jug and pour out from that, wiping the rim of your jars carefully before putting on a lid.
Small processing jobs can be done via Linda Tillman’s wonderful Crush and Strain method.
The reason crush and strain is not more popular is the emphasis honey producers have historically placed on keeping over the winter stores of drawn comb. Giving the bees drawn comb in the following season means they do not have to create comb in which to store honey, which increases honey production by about 10%.
But recently, bee scientists have been advising us to force the bees to make new comb every year, principally in the brood nest, such that eggs are not laid and reared in pesticide contaminated comb. Increasingly, we suspect sub-lethal levels of contaminants in brood comb are having long term effects on bees and compromising bee health and survival.
In this scenario, you should harvest as much of your comb as possible, melt it down for reuse, and get the bees to draw new comb yearly, if you like. So keeping drawn comb has become less important.
Note as well that if you brush your new foundation with a thickish layer of beeswax, the bees will draw that out almost as rapidly as they do wax foundation. This makes for a great trade-off between saving the bees the time and calorie expense of drawing all new comb, and the practice of keeping drawn comb from year to year. Your own wax will be relatively low on contaminants….but it can be hard to generate enough. Most bee supply outlets sell bulk beeswax.
Once you get more hives, you may want to invest in an uncapping knife or plane, or the wonderful Simple Harmony uncapper (which I have and LOVE) and an extractor. And make a lot of bee friends who will come over and help you process! It is a huge, sticky, hot chore that must be done in a bee-proof room or garage. Making it a party helps a lot.
Note that warm honey extracts much more quickly and thoroughly than room temperature honey. You can use your imagination (I converted a small powder room and enclosed shower as my honey warming cupboard, complete with a thermostatically controlled heater, using an electronic cooking thermometer to monitor temperature) or buy a commercial warming cupboard. Honey at 90F extracts very quickly and filters quickly too.
British beekeepers often furnish the honey supers with drone foundation (which in their area is sized to fit shallow honey supers). Drone cells are larger and extract much, much more quickly than worker foundation. Alas I find my bees hate to draw and fill drone comb…
You can also send your honey frames out for processing. Most large honey operations will extract your honey for a fee. You may or may not get your wax cappings and comb back.
Ultimately, your honey will wind up filtered and jarred. Honeys will eventually crystallize, some slower, some faster; it all depends upon the proportions of sugars from the floral sources the bees used. But honey that is properly cured to that magic 18% or less of water content (check with an inexpensive refractometer) will not go bad (moister honey will ferment…although technically, moist honey is not proper honey but partially cured nectar). Any honey that crystallizes can be gently rewarmed until the crystals melt….a yogurt maker is useful for this task.
Commercial honeys are super filtered and pasteurized…not to make them any safer, but to keep them resistant to crystallization. Alas this processing affects the flavour profile. Raw, lightly filtered, unheated honeys have more complex and subtle flavour notes. And I have had many allergy sufferers assure me that daily intake of a local honey reduces their incidence of hayfever.
The most precious of the hive products is, IMHO, beeswax. It is easy to get the bees to produce more honey or baby bees than they need. Relatively easy to garner some of their pollen and propolis. But getting bees to make extra wax…not so easy! So most of your beeswax will come from the cappings you remove during honey processing. The rest will come from the scrapings of burr comb you garner during inspections (you can amass a surprising amount over the season), and comb you sacrifice. If a comb is drawn badly it is better to scrape the frame clean, rewax and hope the bees do a better job next time, because once they draw a comb wonky or spotty, it stays that way…and just makes your life more complicated. The best comb is drawn during a nectar flow, either actual or produced by feeding syrup. Combs drawn in a dearth are often incomplete or deformed. Get rid of them!
At present I use all my saved beeswax to rewax bare foundation. But most beekeepers hope for enough to make candles, and many are now making salves and cosmetic products with their own wax. It can be sold to bulk suppliers as well.
Processing wax is pretty messy, particularly if you are melting down brood comb, which contains layers of old cocoons and probably larvae and bees. You are left with a huge amount of solids, commonly called “slumgum”. Generally raw wax is simmered in water, and when cooled the wax forms a cake on top of the water. Then the wax is gently re-melted and filtered before use. In a small operation rendering brood comb is just not worth it. You get a big mess and hardly any wax!
You will want to render comb/old wax in equipment purpose purchased for the wax processing line, and be mindful that wherever you do this, wax drips will abound. So drop cloths and sheets are essential. Most of us set up a corner of the garage…use the kitchen and you will earn the wrath of the cook!
It is important in wax processing to remember that wax is highly flammable. Open flame heat is not wise. Exercise the most extreme caution!
I use an inverter hotplate for safety.
Planning for the Next Season
By the end of summer we are thinking ahead to winter prep and how to get the maximum number of our colonies through until spring…and since overwintered colonies are usually extremely vigourous, “like Ferrari engines” as one of my mentors said, we need to plan ahead for what to do as the spring colonies explode with brood and gather swarm energy (in this warm year swarms were prepped and flying in early April…the logical outcome of a warm winter).
Your preferred method of swarm control will dictate the equipment necessary: you have all winter to get it ready. If you plan to do splits, you will need extra hive setups, including lots of frames ready to go. If you are selling bees, you will need nuc boxes and frames.
This is the time to plan next season’s goals and think about numbers of colonies and siting, whether you will do queen replacements next season, or work to bring in some interesting genetic endowments via new queens. Are you going to raise your own queens or buy them? Can you do some targeted succession sowings of bee forage?
And you’ll need a marking pen in next year’s colour! Will You Raise Good Bees? White, Yellow, Red, Green, Blue is the rotation. 2021 will be a White year.
Winter Mite Control
Because we cannot open the hives for full inspections in the winter, we are limited in winter mite control methods. The most effective is oxalic acid, which is applied on or close to Midwinter’s Day, December 21st. At this time, the amount of brood in the hive will be at a minimum (if there is any at all), and all mites will be phoretic (on the bodies of adult bees). Oxalic acid is either applied as a dribble or a vapour, allowing the bees to go into the spring brood-up with low mite levels, producing healthy new summer bees as the long lived winter bees finally start to die.
The other method of mite control is to leave a grease patty on the hives over the winter. This controls for both tracheal and varroa mites, but not well. I no longer bother with that method, but I focus on that midwinter oxalic acid vapour treatment. If you do anything, do that!
Here endeth the Apprentice Beekeeper lessons!
Final Exam Preparation
To prepare for the final exam, read the links in the exam prep page. The exam will be open book/open computer, multiple choice, and we’ll mark them after writing. Red licorice will be provided to sustain optimal brain function. After a discussion you may, if necessary, re-write the exam as many times as you like to score 90%, which earns you a pass and a certificate of completion. And a chocolate bar!
Those wishing to have a BCHPA certified exam, I can do that for you too.