What Do Beekeepers Do in Winter?

After we hosted a seminar called “Is Beekeeping for Me?,” I have decided that yes indeed it is. There is a lot of work to do BEFORE spring comes to get ready to launch my own hive(s).

That lead me to ask the question, ‘what do beekeepers do during the winter?’ There are three main aspects of this: maintaining bee environment, equipment preparation and learning all you can through networking.

Years ago, beekeepers could expect the majority of their hives to survive the winter and be ready to keep going when the weather warmed up. This is no longer the case. Since 1987, with the introduction of the Varroa mite and the diseases that they vector, beekeepers have seen a steady decline in the yearly survival of their hives. Sometimes to the tune of a 75% loss for large scale operations and complete losses for small backyard keepers. This can be truly disheartening, but educating yourself on what to expect helps a lot!

Of course, we have three whole colonies of bees sitting in the bee yard (we hope) surviving the winter – is there anything we can do to help?

  • Our efforts began with testing and treating for mites throughout the season, but especially in the fall when mite populations explode among honeybee hives.
  • Ensure that they have enough honey stores in fall to help them survive.
  • We make sure the covers are closed all of the way and weighted down.
  • Install a mouse excluder – we don’t need anyone besides the bees deciding to make our hives their home. This can be in the form of a piece of wood reducing the entrance to the hive or a piece of screen that will allow the bees to come and go on nice days, but no one else.
Screen excluder on hive at Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens.
  • Some people use different methods to help keep down moisture in the hives. Bees can survive the cold, but not if they are wet too. The moisture also promotes fungal and bacterial growth.
  • As winter proceeds, their honey stores will be used up and it is necessary to feed them so they don’t die of starvation.
  • We don’t open the hives any more than is necessary, to allow the bees to keep as warm as possible.

January 8th, the morning of our hive building workshop, Elly and I decided to venture to the Whiting Forest Hives and take a peak. It was a relatively sunny and not super cold day. We hadn’t visited them since the weather turned cold and we frankly needed to find out if they were still alive.

On the way out there she said to me, ‘they are probably all dead’. Even knowing what I know about their chances, this was a bit of a shock to the system. So I didn’t have my hopes up for sure. We took out the mouse excluder and swept out the entrance with a pencil. Some dead bees, but that is natural. I have good news…ALL HIVES WERE ALIVE (so far). That news was even sweeter considering Elly set my expectations so low.

Living bees in hive.

Hive equipment is usually made of wood with maybe some plastic frames or foundation. Even if painted properly and well cared for, these pieces do not last forever. Most keepers will repair old and prepare new equipment to get ready for the upcoming season. Photos from our Hive Building Workshop in January shows new beekeepers building their first hive parts.

By no means do I feel ready to venture out on my own with this project, so it helps to begin networking with other beekeepers. The local beekeeping associations are GREAT resources for new and veteran beekeepers to pick up tips, broaden their perspectives and begin to learn from others. The January meeting of the Saginaw Valley Beekeepers was filled with information about resources for hive components, who was going to have bees for sale in the spring and even how people’s hives were faring so far this winter.

Attending classes/lectures is also a good way to increase your knowledge for the upcoming season. We are hosting researcher, Dr. Kirsten Traynor for a lecture on Varroa: Biology, Control and Virus Transmission on Monday, March 2nd. There are still a few tickets left! Register at dowgardens.org/varroa-mite-lecture

That said, we know we are not out of the woods as far as survival of the Whiting Forest hives goes. As I learned from some networking, it isn’t uncommon for hives to survive well into the winter and then die off (usually from starvation). With the good news that they were all still alive, we needed to think about feeding them soon.  

The next edition will address winter feeding of bees.