from the Canadian Honey Council's Hivelights...

Honey Combing - Wintering Your Bees

by Ron Miksha



It's November. Not too late to haul your eight hundred colonies into the basement. Stack them away from the windows and furnace, perhaps in the billiard room. Push your billiard table against the wall. Carry the eight hundred hives through the kitchen, down the stairs. Pile the hives atop each other, leave some space between the rows. Keep the basement dark. Heat turned down - but not off! Put blackened cardboard over the windows. Or dump gravel against the side of the house, totally burying the windows. Except for one window. Smash the glass out and put in a small sliding door so you can control wintertime ventilation.

This may be a dramatic wintering scheme, surely one to make you popular with everyone in the house. But that's the way folks have wintered their hives for hundreds of years in many parts of North America and Europe. When your grandmother hosted a bridge party, she may have led guests down the stairs to the wine cellar and all the visitors took turns 'Oh-ing and Ah-ing' at the stacks of hives.

Preparing bees for winter is surely the least thankful and most tedious of the beekeeper's chores. It's hard work, all done in dreary anticipation of the gale-force winds and frigid arctic blasts that will come in a few weeks. Wintering costs money - you feed the hives, you wrap insulation around them. Perhaps you move them. You know you'll lose at least a few colonies - what would a beekeeper's spring be like if you didn't have wet, smelly, mouldy bee carcasses rotting in your combs?

You want your bees to survive. Particularly so you don't have to deal with the nasty combs of dead bees. So, you have to consider - what kills bees during the winter? Smarter beekeepers than I will tell you the culprits are disease, starvation, failing queens, wet hives, and something called dwindling. Let's examine these killers.

Disease: Some claim that nosema and mites are serious wintering threats. I suggest that you paint one of your trucks white and put big red crosses on the front and sides. Then stock antibiotics and poisons. Oxytet-25 and Terramycin (to prevent European and American Foulbrood), Fumidil-B (to prevent Nosema), Apistan (to control Varroa mites), Menthol crystals (just because it smells good), grease paddies (to control HTM), Formic acid (to kill everything but the bees) strychnine (to control skunks), chlordane (to kill ants), and rat poison. After a visit by your bee medi-van, you really don't have to worry about diseases.

Starvation: Some time ago, we figured out that bees need feed (honey) to eat during the winter. Apparently they use the stuff to stave off starvation. Some people claim bees need 150 pounds of the stuff, others say 14 pounds will suffice. I have no idea. You may consider leaving 14 pounds. That's two solid deep frames of honey. If all your bees starve over winter, try going to three combs the next year. After a few more years of experimentation, you may arrive at a minimal number of frames of honey to leave in your hives. Or you could just plug the hives full of feed in the fall on the theory that once the investment is made, it will repay dividends year after year.

Failing Queens: No one wants to be a failure, not even a queen bee. So it is much more merciful to squish her in the fall and save her the embarrassment of failing. Develop a system to replace your queens every other year and this won't be a great problem.

Wet Hives: You will recognize wet-hive syndrome if you find yourself wading through a marsh to reach the beeyard. Keep the hives high and dry. Out of the trout lake. A south-facing hillside would be nice, even if fish are scarce there.

Dwindling: I'm not sure I know what this is. But you can save yourself a lot of grief if you do your dwindling in the fall. Assess the hives. Consider doubling up the poorest ones. If you throw the weakest eight hives together, you'll get one good hive which may winter while the eight sloths will not. Of course, be sure the bee medi-van has been around first, you don't want to mix diseases all over the apiary.

These are the basics of wintering bees. You'll find more material in any good beekeeping book. Even in some of the bad ones. This is the least you need to know, but I have two more thoughts on wintering. If you don't intend to use the basement this year, you'll probably be wintering outside. Here are my equipment recommendations.

Leave an upper entrance. Think of the hive as a live animal, not as a collection of bugs. Your creature needs to expel the exhaust created by turning honey into heat, carbon dioxide, and water vapour. The carbon dioxide is heavy, it sinks and should leak out the bottom entrance which you've seriously reduced to keep mice, rats, cattle and small children out of the hive. But lots of folks neglect installing an upper entrance. This entrance is not so much to let bees fly when the snow piles seven metres high. The upper entrance is the water vapour exhaust channel. Without it, your bees may get soggy when the stuff they exhale rises towards the cover, freezes into ice, then melts back down on the cluster.

The other suggestion is a winter wrap. Here regional experimentation is a necessity. Ask successful neighbouring beekeepers for advice. Black wrapping paper keeps the hive dry and deflects the winter winds. It may also absorb sunlight and help warm the hive on cold, but sunny, days. Insulation is important. Too much insulation is a big mistake. You need to know your climate and not dress up the hives too much if sunny spring days are a regular event. Bees generate heat by shivering their flight muscles. They raise the outside cluster temperature to 10 degrees Celsius, the inner cluster from 20 to 36. Any day the hive interior reaches 5 to 10 Celsius, the bees can loosen their cluster and shuffle over to new, unused honey patches.

A final consideration is timing. Wrap late, else you may warm the hives, resulting in excessive honey consumption. And unwrap late. A friend - one of those thousand colony operators in north Saskatchewan - forgot a yard one spring. On July first, a farmer called, asked if perhaps the beekeeper should come by and uncover the hives as bees were hanging out on the black wrapping paper. Turns out they were the best colonies the guy owned that year!

Good luck and happy wintering!


Calgary, Alberta, Canada
November 2003


August 2000: Honey Combing - the Fundamentals

November 2000: Honey Combing - Bear Trouble and Honey Getting

February 2001: Honey Combing - Bee Equipment

August 2001: Honey Combing - Selling your Gold

February 2002: Honey Combing - In the Digital Age

May 2002: Honey Combing - Making Queens

November 2003: Honey Combing - Wintering Your Bees


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