This post will be the first of a series of posts to come entitled Types of Hives, Benefits and Drawbacks. The series will go into much greater detail on how each type of hive is suited towards different climates.
In this post however, we will focus more on the challenges that bees face during the winter months, how to over come them, when it is time to start prepping for Spring, and what steps should be taken at the end of Winter to ensure survival until there are flowers blooming.
Seeing as I am in Colorado, this post is going to be mostly geared towards people in climates that have good hard winters. For these climates, it is almost always better to use a Langstroth Hive. They allow the beekeeper many more options for giving the bees support in the winter. If you are using Top Bar, Cathedral, or Warre, or Basket Hive, there will be certain troubles from winter that are more difficult to overcome than if you were using a Langstroth.
So, why do bees die off in the winter?
As you may know, the average worker bee will only live for 30-45 days. This is obviously not long enough to live all the way through Winter – so bees do a sort of hibernation to conserve energy. The bees that were born in September and October must do everything they can to survive the harsh cold snaps so they can keep the queen alive and help raise the first bees born in the Spring.
There are three main things that can cause a hive to die in the winter: starvation, freezing, and susceptibility to disease. The first two are actually somewhat linked together…
When the cold starts to really set in, the bees will cluster (form into a ball) around the queen. As the outer bees get cold, they circulate to the inside of the cluster for warmth, constantly switching places so that only few bees die of exposure (and certainly not the Queen)!
The bees also are not able to go out and forage for food in the Winter months, and so they live solely on their honey storage in the cells for energy. As they uncap and suck the honey out of the combs, the bees need to move the cluster around the hive to access more honey.
In a hard cold snap, the bees wont be able to even move their cluster an inch, and if they run out of honey where they are at in the hive, they could starve with honey still in the comb literally right next to the cluster.
Like any living thing, the cold also presents a weakened immune system and a decreased ability to fight off diseases that may have crept into the hive in the Summer. Taking proper care of your hives and monitoring their heath closely in the summer can do a lot to prevent the spread of disease, and die off in the Winter.
If you’ve taken proper care of your hives in the Late Summer and Early Fall months, left enough honey for the winter, and ensured good hygiene of the bees – you’ve already done a great job in getting the ready for Winter.
One thing you can do to help the bees survive the cold January and February Months, is to wrap the hive in 3/4 inch foam insulation. Ive seen this keep bees warm enough to survive the Winter in high elevations where there are long winters and low food supply – and it also may help get them through hard cold snaps that happen for weeks at a time.
The trouble with the foam insulation is that there is a possibility condensation could build up between the insulation and the hive causing too much moisture and actually cool the hive down more. If you use foam insulation, take the time to check the hive on warm days and make sure the insulation is dry, and still well secured to the hive. Also, the foam insulation is only necessary in the coldest of months – after February comes and goes, it will be time to take the foam back off.
Another good thing to do, if you are concerned about the bees not having enough food to get through the Winter is add some extra food to the hive. This can most effectively done by filling a mason jar with simple syrup, putting VERY SMALL holes in the lid, and then turning the jar over – sitting directly over the opening of the inner cover. Another (empty) deep will be need to be added to shelter the jar, with the lid of the hive covering the empty deep.
The placement of the jar is crucial – sitting it directly over the cluster. This way, when it gets too cold for the bees to move to get more honey, they can draw off the 1/2 gallon or so of simple syrup that is directly above them. This method also provides a nice boost in the Early Spring when bees start to become active but there are not many flowers yet in bloom for food.
All in all, there is nothing better than a strong, healthy hive of bees for getting through Cold Winters. Many beekeepers will put too much effort into making sure their bees get through winter – and one could say this is akin to coddling a child. I have seen many, many, many hives that are several years old completely untouched by man.
The bees know what they are doing, and if you have a strong hive they shouldn’t need help at all.
If you have concerns about whether or not your bees will make it through the winter, by all means, provide some assistance for the girls. But know that (unless you are at a high altitude) if you end up needing to help the bees through every single winter, you’re not doing yourself – or the bees – any favors.
Beekeeping is a great hobby, but the purpose of keeping bees is for keeping bees – raising good, hardy bees that can endure our current environments and proliferate – spreading their good genes.