Late Winter Tips: Help Your Bees Through the Home Stretch

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Okay, we're entering the home stretch of winter! There are already signs of spring for some of us, but there are still some things you can do to give your colony the best chance of being healthy this winter. While much of preparation for overwintering work is done in the late summer and fall, that doesn't mean you can’t take steps now to help your bees succeed. Below are our top 5 tips for late-winter beekeeping. Number 5 is the most important! Let us know your most important tips in the comments and we'll enter you in a free drawing.

1: Perform Winter Inspections

Every beekeeper wants to know what's going on with their bees, but winter conditions can make inspections a challenge. Ideally, you don't want to open or disturb a hive when the temperature is below 55°F (12.8°C). However, if you are concerned that the bees might not be able to access their honey stores (maybe you forgot to remove your queen excluder or left honey frames too far from the brood), you can probably get away with a quick physical inspection and making important adjustments. Just be sure to pick a time and day with the highest temperature and with no wind.

There are also ways to check on your colony and hive without opening the hive 

  • First, just listen for activity. Simply put your ear against the side wall, maybe giving it a gentle tap. Hearing a little buzzing is enough to let you know they’ve made it this far. If you’re not hearing anything, you might consider getting a stethoscope. You don’t need anything fancy. Here are three cheap ones on Amazon.
  • Second, check the entrance for blockages and clear them away. These could include snow, leaves, and dead bees. You should do this weekly.
  • You will also want to keep an eye out for signs of mice, shrews, or other unwanted visitors. For instance, you might look for gnawing or scratch marks. If you haven’t already, make sure to install a mouse guard on the opening of the hive. You can make these out of small pieces of sheet metal and a big drill bit. If you’d rather buy one, our mouse guards are available for Langstroth and Warre hives.
  • Final inspection tip: check for any unpleasant odors coming from the hive. During winter, the hive should have little to no smell. A bad smell coming from the hive could indicate a problem. While you may be concerned that you are smelling the dangerous American or European foulbrood, these are more likely to be problems after the winter, when the bees have more brood. However, if you suspect you are dealing with a case of AFB or EFB, you should consider reporting it to your local authorities so they can confirm it. American foulbrood is particularly vicious and contagious, with spores that can remain active for 40 years and make your whole neighborhood bad for bees. Bad smells in winter are more likely to be caused by a large number of dead bees, a dead mouse, or mouse urine. Given all the hard work you have put into making your hive a high quality home, you shouldn't be surprised that mice find it so alluring. Of course, they are less cleanly than bees, so you may be able to smell when they've visited the hive. What else can you do about mice? Glad you asked, read on:

2: Second Great Thing to Do for Health in the Winter: Get Your Hive off the Ground

A hive on the ground is much more vulnerable to moisture, pests, and having its entrance blocked. What's more, these problems persist or even get worse in the spring. Even when the sun has started warming the hive from above, the ground remains cold and damp for a long time. Also, as spring approaches, many pests start becoming more active. You can get your hives off the ground with bricks, or, for maximum protection against moisture and pests, put them on a stainless steel hive stand. Ours are available here. When using a hive stand, we recommend adding about 6 inches of vaseline to the bottom of your hive stand legs, as this will deter most climbing insects or hungry varmints.

           A Warre hive sitting on a Bee Built universal hive stand, raised above some vegetation. A red shed sits in the background.

        A Warre hive sitting on a Bee Built universal hive stand

3: Add Wind Protection (and Maybe Insulation)

What about dealing with an obvious winter threat, the cold? Insulating the hive is a great choice for many beeks, but how can you decide if it would be a good idea for you?

While your bees can withstand extreme low temperatures for extended periods, they do require an occasional, brief warm spell to get to their honey stores, so they can continue feeding. If winter temperatures in your area remain very low with no warm spells, insulating your hives may be a good choice. If in doubt, you should consult with your local beekeeping organization, because one climate or temperature range might be okay for one type of bee, but not for another. Local experts have local knowledge. If you live in the US or Canada, you can find your local beekeeping organization here.

One other thing to keep in mind: As Meghan Milbrath of Michigan State University's Entomology Department points out, bees heat the cluster, not the hive. Like other winter-adapted animals, the honeybee superorganism has excellent insulation, and is able to withstand subzero temperatures for extended periods by rotating bees in and out of the chilly role of forming the outer layer of the cluster. The real trouble comes from winter winds, which cool down these outer layer bees too fast, before they can rotate off duty, causing them to enter a coma state before falling and freezing. Backyard Hive makes an excellent beehive “cozy cover”, if you want to take a look. Shielding your hives from the wind is a great winter precaution. One thing to be cautious about: if you use hay bales to shield against the wind, they WILL attract mice looking to make a comfy nest, so make sure you have good critter protections in place. 

4: Reduce the Size of Your Hive’s Entrance

Another way to protect your bees from the winter winds is to “close the door a bit”. Professor and researcher, Dr. James E. Tew, recommends that "[In winter,] the entrance height should not exceed ⅜ inches [1cm]." Note that you will need to be more vigilant about keeping the entrance clear of blockages if you reduce its size.

5: Keep your Hives Dry and Ventilated

The most dangerous thing about winter is that water kills. Bees in the wild do best when there’s no chance of water dripping on them. Ice, mold, and drops of water hitting the cluster all threaten the survival of the colony. When checking for moisture problems, it will be helpful to bear in mind another tip from Dr. Tew: A little frost inside the hive can actually be a sign of good ventilation, but seeing a lot of frost, or even ice, means trouble. If your hive has a roof made of wood, you should ALWAYS be testing your roof for rot and to make sure it’s not leaking. Use a small screwdriver to probe the roof for rot. When you can, take the roof off and look for signs of water getting in. Water can also find ways in through rickety boxes that are cracked or misaligned. 

Ventilation matters: While having icy winds blowing through the hive is not good, having no ventilation can be just as bad. Without proper ventilation, moisture collects in the hive and forms condensation, causing more moisture problems for the bees. It is important to have airflow at the top and bottom of the hive. The bottom entrance serves this purpose, but it must be kept clear. As for the top, some beeks choose to prop their inner cover up slightly using twigs or rocks to create a small gap for air. Having a notch cut into the border of the inner cover can also work. If you use a Warre hive, make sure your quilt box material is dry and lofted. If you use a Langstroth hive, Bee Built sells the Bee Snug all season roof (which is on sale now). It offers the best moisture protection possible using a handsome metal roof, requires no inner cover, has thick, natural hemp insulation, and features louvered vents for great ventilation.

Okay, now you know what to do to give your colony the best chance of surviving and thriving this winter.

What other ideas do you have about overwintering? Share your knowledge with us and each other in the comments below. We’ll enter anyone who leaves a suggestion before March 15 into a drawing for a $50 gift certificate to Bee Built!

Here’s to a healthy colony this winter!

Written by Zak Garland

As an Amazon Associate, we may earn referral income from qualifying purchases.

Featured snowy hives photograph by Flickr user carlfbagge

1 comment

  • David

    My biggest tip for winter survival is ensuring a low to no varroa mite count. Efforts of mite eradication actually begin in late summer. A strong, healthy colony entering winter is much more likely to bear the strains of winter than a weak, sickly colony.

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