Beekeeping Through The Winter

As the days are getting cooler and the snow begins to fall, you may have noticed the number of honeybees you see are slim to none. Unlike bumblebees, honeybees don’t hibernate. So how do they get through the cold winter months and what does beekeeping throughout the winter look like?

How Do Honeybees Prepare For Winter?

When the temperature starts to drop below 15°C it’s a sign to the bees that winter is coming. Their main priority is to make sure that they have enough food reserves. They will need to gather enough nectar and pollen to last them the entire winter as they won’t be able to collect food again until temperatures start rising again in early spring.

To ensure the colony’s survival throughout the winter, the majority of the males (also called drones) will be kicked out of the colony in September, they consume too much food and have no benefit to the colony other than mating purposes, which is unnecessary during the winter. The females (aka: worker bees) will remain in the colony and take care of the queen. During the spring and summer worker bees live around 40-45 days, but winter worker bees are physiologically different, and can live up to nine months! The queen lays special ‘winter bee’ eggs in preparation for the winter ahead. These winter bees live long enough to care for her during the cold winter months. It’s the job of the worker bees to keep the queen warm and healthy as she’s the only one that can lay eggs and replenish the colony again in the spring.

It’s Winter… Now What?

The food supply is gathered, but the biggest task is yet to come. They have to retain heat inside their hive to survive. To do this, they cluster together with the queen in the middle and vibrate. This vibration creates heat and takes a lot of their energy, they refuel on the honey they’ve stored over the past summer. This is also the reason why we don’t extract honey from our hives during the winter. The bees need all they can get!

Did you happen to spot a lonely bee out and about during the winter? This is possible as they will sometimes leave their hive for a cleansing flight if the weather allows it. During this flight they will relieve themselves from poop that they have been holding, sometimes for over a month!

What Can Beekeepers Do To Help?

Just because we’re not extracting honey during the winter, that doesn’t mean the beekeeping stops. As beekeepers we can do a little extra to maximize the survival rates of our bees throughout the winter. 

You might think that most bees die because of starvation, but you’re wrong. Most of them die due to illness or pests. Beekeeping is a tricky hobby that has you up against many battles. especially during the winter. We treat our bees multiple times throughout the year for Varroa Mites using organic acids. When we reduce the mite populations in our hives, we also reduce the potential viral load on our bees. When bees don’t have mites, they’re better able to fight off other issues they could be faced with.

An example of a common issue is Nosema, a fungal spore. This can be a tricky illness to detect and can often leave us with a pile of dead bees and no visible signs that our bees were even sick. To prevent the bees from getting this fungal spore we use a tree bark extract that helps strengthen their gut. We feed this to them through a sugar syrup. All of these ‘treatments’ take place starting in the middle of August, right before the colony is getting ready to prepare for winter. I know it sounds early, but this is when winter preparation begins.

Other than the above we also ensure we have strong vibrant colonies going into winter. If our colonies aren’t strong enough then we merge them together. To keep the colonies strong, we make sure they have a good food supply (both nectar and pollen) to get them though the winter, and to help them build up in the spring.

Some extra steps we take to keep our bees happy and healthy have to do with their hives. Our colonies are tilted so the back of the colony is raised, and water can run out the front door. We also have ventilation in the top of the hive so that heat and moisture can rise up from the colony and escape, and not get trapped and drip onto the bees. Lastly, throughout the winter we check on our bees regularly to make sure their entrance is open and clean, and when it does snow, we make sure they can get out if needed.

As you see there are a lot of extra things that we can do to make the bees more comfortable throughout the winter months. And while it might take some extra time and preparation, it’s all worth it when we have strong and healthy colonies in the spring.

How Can You Help Bees Through Winter?

During the winter months the bees are safely hidden inside their hives, but they do need your help during the months in which they collect the nectar they need to sustain them throughout the winter. The best way to help honeybees is to make sure that they have a bountiful harvest. How can you help? When you select plants for your garden this year, consider if they are pollinator friendly. The ideal honeybee garden contains a variety of plants that bloom throughout different seasons. Another way you can help is to plant flowers with a longer blooming period, like Clover or Lavender. This will ensure the bees have a consistent food supply. To help you create a pollinator paradise, we put together a list of bee friendly flowers. See it here.