Your whole bee year comes down to this: getting the bees through the winter.
It doesn’t matter if you got lots of honey, or caught tons of swarms, or split your hives six ways from Sunday.
To paraphrase Randy Oliver, if you don’t get your bees through winter, you are not keeping bees…you are just buying bees every spring.
And worse, you are now part of the bee problem, not part of the bee solution.
To prepare a bee colony for winter, the following points are critical:
- the colony must have a fertile queen
- the colony must be a decent size so they can form a warm winter cluster
- the colony must have successfully raised a good crop of healthy winter bees
- the colony must have good amounts of capped honey and pollen in the hive
- the colony must be disease free and as mite free as possible
- the colony must be kept dry
- the colony must have some ventilation/insulation to prevent condensation forming on a cold inner cover and dripping down onto the cluster
- the colony must be out of or protected from wind, which strips warmth out of the cluster
- the colony entrance must remain clear of dead bees so live bees can take cleansing flights
- the colony must not blow over (strap it down if necessary)
- in our rainy climate a 3′ x 3′ board put on top of the outer cover will act as a rain hat, strap or weight it down well against winter winds.
There are various ways of accomplishing these ends. They are, principally:
- don’t strip too much honey out of the hives in the late summer…leave them lots, you can always harvest in spring: you can also feed in August/September to bring up winter weight, and leave them emergency rations above the cluster…note that in some areas, fall honeys are poor as overwintering food ie. they granulate quickly in the comb and/or have high levels of solids (which is a problem when you are a bee and have to wait for sunny warm days for bathroom breaks!)
- keep the hive slightly crowded so the bees can heat the cluster as efficiently as possible
- put on a ventilated quilt box, BELOW the inner cover or insulate heavily above the inner cover
- put a mite counting sheet and/or extra bottom insulation in so the screened bottom board is not completely open (consider creating a dead air space below the bottom board)
- put a rain hat on the hive, or make sure if you are in snow that the bees have a clear entrance
- make sure you have done your late summer mite control
Generally, you want to concentrate on hive health and queen-rightness in late summer, to enable top quality winter bees to be laid and raised. You want to feed up the hive in fall to ensure they have lots of stores.
A sugar brick or Krabby Patty positioned on the top bars, over the cluster but under the quilt box, provides emergency rations. To leave a higher volume of those rations, build a shallow (3″ high) super, staple 1/4″ grid wire on as a floor, lay one sheet of newspaper on that floor, and fill the entire thing with dampened sugar. Am alternate config: put an in-hive feeder filled with dampened sugar over the inner cover, and then insulate over that, heavily. Whatever form your emergency rations take, replace when necessary.
Your hive is only safe when the nectar and pollen sources come online in the spring. Locally that is the bloom of the Big Leaf Maples (Oregon Maples), which is some time in very early April, depending on the weather.
Until then, the bees are depending on you to step in if they are starving. Check those emergency stores regularly, and feed syrup when days are consistently over 10C.