Last winter was devastating for honeybee hives in our area – and unfortunately, we were not left unscathed. Our single hive was simply unable to survive the extreme cold of January and February and froze out.

One of our honeybees sucking up
With the absence of food sources through the winter like this dandelion – our honeybees have to rely on the honey they have stored up in the hive.

Contrary to what many people assume, honeybees do not officially hibernate – instead opting to cluster together to form a protective ball around the all important queen. As they cluster, they move and fan their wings about to increase the temperature of the hive and keep the queen safe and warm through normal winter conditions.

This year, we have decided to take a couple of extra steps with our two new hives to help them through the cold winter months.

The Bees Efforts to Prepare for Winter…

The honeybees are the real workers who prepare their own hive for winter – in fact – they are winterizing experts! By now – they have been all around the hive sealing up tiny cracks and holes with propolis – a sticky thick substance they secrete to seal out the winter.

Our bee hive last year was simply unable to survive through the bitter cold winter
Our bee hive last year was simply unable to survive through the bitter cold winter

In many ways, it is comparable to the way we fill in cracks and holes around windows and doors with caulking to keep out the elements.

They have also reduced their overwinter population by forcing a large majority of the male bees out into the cold to die.  It may sound harsh – but the male bees perform no work related duties in the hive, and are simply not needed through the winter months. (Another reason I make sure I appear busy to Mary all Winter 🙂 )

Our Normal Preparations…

As we do each fall, we insert an entrance reducer into the main hive body to keep out cold drafts and help to deter small mice or varmints that may try to rob the honey stored inside. The small 3/4″ opening still allows the bees to exit if needed – but keeps the opening to the bare minimum – protecting the hive and the bees.  Without the presence of blooming flowers – the activity slows to a crawl, so a larger opening is simply not necessary.

We left all of the honey in the bottom sections of each hive for the bees this year to help them through.
We left all of the honey in the bottom sections of each hive for the bees this year to help them through.

In fact, the bees only leave the hive through the winter months when the temperature gets beyond the 50 degree mark, taking what most beekeepers call cleansing flights. These are quick trips used by the bees to clean their hives.  Beyond those few warmer days – the bees will stay in that tight cluster awaiting the arrival of spring.

Since this is the first full year for our replacement bees – we left all of the honey on the bottom two sections in place for them to have for winter use.  The honey is what they will consume to have the energy for all of that wing flapping and temperature control.

We have also supplemented the stored honey by placing pollen patties inside the hive. They are simply an additional food source that will help them have enough stored food for the winter.  This is a practice that we did not perform in the past, but after last year, we want to give our bees every advantage we can!

Additional Protection…

Speaking of additional advantages – this year we are also taking a few extra precautionary steps to help the hive survive mother nature’s wrath.

The hive entrances will be reduced to a single 3/4 inch opening for winter - like the one on the left  hive.
The hive entrances will be reduced to a single 3/4 inch opening for winter – like the one on the left hive.

First, we are installing a wind block a foot behind the two hives to block the chilling winds that blow through from the west. We will drive in a few stakes in to the ground today and then attach a 4′ plywood sheet to help keep the winds from blowing through.

In addition to the wind block, we will also wrap our hives in 2″ foam and then cover in black plastic help to add an extra layer of insulation to the hives.  The black plastic will also help to absorb any of the sun’s winter rays and provide a little extra warm-up to the hive.

Hopefully, our winter is a bit more mild than last year’s 2nd coming of the Ice Age – but if it isn’t – at least our bees will have a better chance of making it through!

Jim and Mary – Old World Garden Farms

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15 thoughts on “Preparing The Honeybee Hives For Winter

  • November 20, 2014 at 10:50 pm
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    Sharing your apprehension of the coming cold here in Virginia. We lost 12 of 14 hives last winter. Positive thoughts!

  • November 8, 2014 at 1:53 pm
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    Be sure to allow for some way for moisture to escape from the hive. The Bee Lab at the U of Minnesota has two PDF files on how they prep hives for winter. They are available here. http://beelab.umn.edu/Resources/Free-bees/index.htm They have a small top entrance for the bees and insulating boards on the top that allow moisture to wick out. This will be especially important if you are wrapping your hives in black plastic which will not allow moisture out.

  • November 5, 2014 at 11:12 am
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    Wow! This was very interesting. I don’t have bees (hopefully one day!). I had no idea about this. If you don’t mind, I’d like to use this article as part of my homeschool lessons. I’m incorporating Homesteading in his science class.

  • November 4, 2014 at 3:08 am
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    Would hay bales stacked in a square or U shape about 3 to 4 bales high around the hives also help with winter wind insulation? You could use the hay for mulch or compost in the spring. I know here I have used rebar “stakes” and put them through the hay as I stacked it in our outside dog run around their dogiloo houses to prevent wind/cold in the winter. Has worked wonders and I spread the hay around in the spring to let it mulch into the woods.

  • November 2, 2014 at 8:14 pm
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    I have thought about trying a hive of honey bees, but I’m in ND, and I don’t know if I could keep them alive. How cold was your winter that killed your bees?

  • November 2, 2014 at 11:28 am
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    There are heaters available that you can make or buy. We don’t need them, so I have no experience with them-(I know there are pros and cons)- but here’s a link you may find useful… bushfarms.com/beenucs.htm#overwinternucs

  • November 2, 2014 at 9:18 am
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    I am not well-informed regarding bee keeping! Will the enhanced warmth of the black plastic draw the bees outside for a cleansing flight on a too cold day?

  • November 2, 2014 at 8:44 am
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    We might do a wind block, but we can’t wrap hives in OK b/c of our fluctuating temperatures. Too much condensation can occur. We plan on just putting an order in know for two more nucs just in case.

  • November 2, 2014 at 8:12 am
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    You’re doing such a good and diligent job with your bees! We are going into our 5th year as beekeepers and we’ve gotten sloppy by now. I hope the bees survive us.

  • November 2, 2014 at 7:53 am
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    Good information, thanks for sharing. Jennifer

  • November 2, 2014 at 7:52 am
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    At first I thought you may not have left them enough honey to winter on. We don’t have such severe winters here is Aussie. We also don’t leave the summer boxes on and reduce their area to live in. Must have been the severe winter

  • November 2, 2014 at 7:48 am
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    I’m still debating setting up a hive – I honestly don’t know if I can handle the extra work. We have a local coop with an active beekeepers group. An option someone suggested is that I offer to one of the beekeepers to place a hive in my yard. That way I could share small part of the harvest, but most importantly would have the pollinating efforts of the hive. I grow a lot on my 100×150 urban “acreage” and depend on the bees to work – a small backyard orchard of 10 fruit trees, 4 grape vines, 8 raspberry bushes, 5 blackberry vines, 5 gooseberry shrubs, 3 currant bushes, strawberry bed, 2 chokecherry bushes and a hedgerow of 20 aronia bushes. That’s in addition to 100 sq ft raised beds for assorted vegetables, melons, tomatoes, not to mention perennial flowerbeds, roses, hydrangea and flowering shrubs around my yard. I’ve noticed a diminishing of honey bees and actually didn’t see any at all until near end of summer. My melon early summer blossoms shriveled producing no melons until late blossoms. I saw bumble bees, wasps but virtually no honey bees. Last winter was devastating to bees in my area as well.

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