A big concern for beekeepers at this time of year is worrying about whether or not their hives will survive the cold winter months. There are several reasons why a hive may not make it to Spring, and many of those are preventable. Below are 5 of the most common reasons that a hive may perish during the winter.
One of the main reasons that a hive will die out before the end of the winter is starvation. There are many reasons that bees may not have enough food throughout the winter, but all of them are preventable. Firstly, they may not have made enough honey. Secondly, it could be that they made enough, but the beekeeper took too much throughout the seasons. No matter what the cause, it is possible to ensure that your bees have enough sustenance throughout the winter either by replacing their honey or by giving them tea or sugar syrup. You can read more in our article about feeding your bees in the winter.
While bees are all huddled together for warmth in the winter, they are producing moisture. The warm moisture evaporates off of the bees and rises to the cold areas of the hive above them, then collects and drips cold water back down onto the bees. This results in a drop in temperature, which in turn results in the bees dying. This problem can be fixed by adding more ventilation (not too much, or it’ll get cold in the hive!), or by putting something in the hive to absorb the moisture, such as newspaper. This way, the absorbent item will collect all of the moisture before it can rise to the top of the hive and cool off, and save your bees from a chilly demise.
Bees are extremely hygiene conscious, and therefore like to keep their homes as tidy as possible. In order to do this, they must occasionally take what is known as a “cleansing flight,” where they leave the hive to defecate and get rid of any debris. They do this less frequently in the winter, and only on warmer days (around 40ºF or warmer). This creates a problem if the entrance or exits become blocked by snow. Either the bees become trapped inside and are unable to clean their hive, or a bee that has taken a cleansing flight becomes trapped outside and freezes. The simple solution to this problem is to make sure to clean off all exits after every snowfall.
Hives are susceptible to all sorts of infestations, whether they be mice, wax moths, or varroa mites (read more about the varroa mite in our article published with Keeping Backyard Bees). Infestation stresses out bees, and stressed bees are unhealthy bees, and unhealthy bees seldom survive the winter. You can help your hive by keeping on top of pest management throughout the year. Nancy Buffington wrote a great article on Keeping Backyard Bees about how she treated a hive for varroa mites without the use of chemicals. As far as wax moths go, Kristina Urquhart wrote an article on Hobbyfarms.com detailing ways to get rid of the pests. Mice can be deterred from entering the hive by installing mouse guards. You can make these yourself by folding a piece of hardware cloth and inserting it into the entrance(s) of your hive.
Changes in temperature are bad news for bees. If it gets warm, bees may leave the cluster that they formed to keep each other warm, thinking that they no longer need to huddle together for warmth. If the temperature drops, though, those bees may not return to the group quickly enough, and may freeze to death. One way to prevent this is to have some sort of wind screen like a fence or foliage to prevent strong winter winds from affecting the temperature within the hive. Another way is to wrap your hive with an insulating material like our BeeRito Wrap, seen in action on one of our hives in the image to the right. The material used in the wrap not only serves as an insulator, but also maintains a temperature neutral environment by reflecting sunlight rather than absorbing it. Click here to read more about the BeeRito Wrap and Winterizing Solution, and why you should consider using this system on your own hive!
As we and many others have said countless times, bees are extremely important to our ecosystem, and we’re losing them at an incredible rate. It is our goal to help save the bees, and getting them through the winter is a huge part of that. Hopefully some of the tips above will be helpful to you in making sure that your bees make it through the winter.