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6 Tips to Winterize Your Hive So Your Bees Thrive

A lone bee looking over the snow-covered ground, missing the heat in the hive.

winterized hive with bee

A lone bee looking over the snow-covered ground, missing the heat of the hive.

In Wisconsin, the seasonal changes can be dramatic not just for us, but for our insect companions as well. These weather extremes can affect their very survival and it’s vital to start planning how you will winterize your hive well in advance to ensure your bees have the best chance at survival.

Many beekeepers even say winterizing starts in the summer season – the end of July into August. But it’s not too late to start thinking about winter now!

Here are five of the most important tips to start your winterizing process.

Honey stores are a sign of hive health

Bees prefer honey as a food source. It provides them with much-needed carbohydrates for energy. Ideally, your hive will enter the fall season with ample honey available. This honey supply is essential to carry them into early spring when flowers have yet to bloom, but the hive becomes active again and requires nutrition to go about their daily activities. 

Our philosophy of beekeeping is to always do what is best for the bees. As such, we recommend leaving the honey in the fall and only harvesting what is leftover in spring when the bees are able to replenish the supply themselves. This way, you ensure the bees have the nutrition they thrive on. 

Honey is nutritionally denser than table sugar and while you can feed your bees a sugar solution in a bind, it’s best they have access to everything honey brings to the table. Here is a recipe we recommend if feeding is necessary to supplement your bees’ diet.  

Too much moisture can harm your hive

Bees can survive with a certain amount of moisture in their immediate environment, however, too much moisture can be a detriment to their survival. 

As a beekeeper, you will want to make sure the conditions in the hive are right to prevent excess moisture buildup. If there is too much moisture in the hive, it can cause the buildup of mold, which causes stress to the bees and too much moisture can even directly kill off portions of your bee population. 

Fortunately, there are ways to keep your hive dry. 

Ventilation is key to optimal moisture balance 

You may think that keeping the hive insulated would be a higher priority, but bee behavior is the reason we care so much about ventilation.

Bees don’t hibernate during colder months, but rather cluster together for warmth. While they cluster, they do something special: they relax their flight muscles from their wings and flex the muscles, which creates heat. This keeps the bees warm but also has the potential to create condensation.

It’s imperative this condensation can evaporate, otherwise, it can rise to the top of the hive and drop back down onto the bees. Unfortunately, this can be fatal.  

Our hives come with ventilation holes to make sure your bees can breathe easy in the winter months. Yes, bees are breathing creatures. They take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide as a byproduct of their respiration just like us!

What this means is if the hive is not properly ventilated, the bees are susceptible to carbon dioxide poisoning. 

One other pointer: if we do get a hefty snowstorm (or five like last year), make sure you clear the snow away from the hive so the ventilation holes are not occluded. 

Insulate your hive, but not too much 

Winterized beepod

Beepods decked out in their winterizing garb.

As mentioned before, ventilation is a bit more of a priority than insulation, but you definitely don’t want your bees to be too cold. 

While bees naturally behave in ways that create heat for themselves, our northern climate is still difficult for them to endure, especially when we have exceptionally cold days. 

We don’t want to sacrifice ventilation in the name of insulation, so a simple cover over the top of the hive is enough to help insulate your hive. You can check out our Beerito Wrap, which is part of our Winterizing Kit to do the trick. 

Keep mice (and other pests) out to keep your bees healthy

Mice also want to stay warm and a beehive is a perfect vacation for them from the chilly outdoor air. Did you know bees can bring the internal temperature in the hive cluster to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or even higher! 

While a warm hive might make for a happy mouse, it can stress out your bee population; mice can eat the comb, defecate, and generally cause a lot of stress for your bees. 

You can utilize the mouse guards that come in our Winterizing Kit, or if in a bind, you can insert a folded hardware cloth into the entrances. 

Observation is preparation  

A hive that’s healthy year-round will be more likely to survive the winter. 

There are a few changes in your bee’s behavior you may start to notice in the next few weeks, all of which are normal and expected – desired even! 

Bees are incredibly hygiene focused. They do not like a messy hive. Since their movements slow down to preserve energy and heat in the winter months, they like to get the hive nice and clean ahead of time. 

In fall, it’s normal hive behavior to steal honey from other hives to optimize honey supply heading into winter. You may notice a higher concentration of guard bees near the entrance to your hive. This is totally normal! They are making sure your hive’s honey supply is not vulnerable to theft. 

You may also notice drones being shoved out of the hive. This is called “drone culling” and it is a survival mechanism the bees engage in. Drones are viewed as nonessential members of the hive heading into the fall and their absence is beneficial to the hive because it leaves more resources for the queen and the worker bees to make it through winter. 

The queen herself will reduce the size of the brood nest, meaning she lays fewer eggs. Space normally reserved for eggs is now necessary for honey and pollen supply. The bees are focused on filling the hive with nutrition instead of increasing their numbers. 

When the outdoor temperature drops to 65 degrees Fahrenheit and below, the hive begins the cluster together. The bees are now focused on their wintering process rather than gathering resources outside the hive. 

Once the bees start to cluster, keep in mind checking the hive frequently in the winter months can add stress to your bees – only check when absolutely necessary and let your bees do their thing to get through the cold!

Remember!

Your awareness of your hive health and an early start on the winterizing process will help your bees survive the winter. 

Our goal is to help our bees not only survive but thrive and YOU are a big part of that mission!

References: 

https://www.idabees.org/uploads/6/7/3/6/6736824/winterizationguide-3.pdf

What happens to honeybees in the winter?

https://carolinahoneybees.com/preparing-beehives-for-winter/

See also: 

3 Best Ways to Feed your Bees

Top 5 Reasons Bees Don’t Survive the Winter

Fall Tea Recipe

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