Bees, just like all wild creatures, have natural ways that they survive through the winter but since you’re keeping them in an unnatural habitat, there are some steps and tips that you need to take to help them along the way.
As summer draws to a close and the weather starts to cool, one of the main questions is, “What happens to bees in the winter?” People often guess that honeybees hibernate; others presume that colonies die as cold weather approaches. Fall’s first frost does kill most members of bumblebee and yellow jacket colonies, leaving lonesome queens to establish new nests each spring. But honeybees are different.
Instead of hibernating, honeybees form clusters so that they can generate heat. They do this whether they’re in the hive in the wild or in captivity. The thing is, when they live in the wild, they have the option of choosing the perfect conditions, but if they’re kept in captivity, it’s your responsibility to provide them with an environment that’s conducive to their survival.
Keep things simple. Let bees be bees. They know how to take care of themselves because they’ve been doing it for thousands of years, so let them do it!
Propolis is the glue that bees use for a variety of purposes in the wild. They use it to seal their hives and they also use it to keep their hive clean. It has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that are so powerful that it actually mummifies any other insect that makes its way into the hive. If something inside the hive dies, the bees wrap it in propolis and the little corpse is actually preserved much like a mummy. Appropriately enough, propolis means, “defense of the city” in Greek. Sealing the hive with propolis protects the bees from viruses and bacteria that could cause illness, but for hives in the winter so that the cold and yuck can’t get in too.
Leave your bees enough of their hard-earned work to feed themselves over the winter. If you aren’t sure how much they’ll need, harvest your honey in the spring instead of in the fall.
As we discussed above, bees cluster to create heat. The inside of this cluster is 96 degrees Fahrenheit and, as you can imagine, when this kind of heat meets cold, condensation is created. This can gather at the top of the hive, then drip down on the bees and get them wet, which can cause them to freeze. Just like us, it’s hard for you bees to stay warm if they’re wet. Thus, it’s important to properly ventilate your hive.
Natural hives are usually made of porous wood that absorbs moisture. They also have another fail-safe in case there’s so much condensation that the wood can’t absorb it – the single entrance/exit hole in the hive is at the bottom so that the condensation can drip out. This hole serves a secondary purpose of ventilating the hive. When necessary, the bees can fan air through the hive up from the hole.
You can either choose to use wood that’s thick to try to emulate the natural hive, or you can add small ventilation slit off to the side of the hive so that if the condensation does build up, it doesn’t drip down on the bees. Don’t make this hole large because it will let in cold drafts that will cause the bees to have to work harder to stay warm. More energy used means they’ll need more food, or perhaps won’t be able to generate enough heat to stay warm.
Since the wood that you used to make your hive is probably much thinner than what would typically make up a natural hive, you need to insulate it to help keep the heat in. The bees are going to seal all of the holes with propolis, so you can just use a layer of foam then a layer of roofing paper to wrap the hive in so that it holds the heat.
You don’t want to live with mice, spiders and other vermin in the winter and neither do your bees. You may have a larger “reducer” on your hive for summer months so that many bees can come and go at the same time.
This isn’t a good thing in the winter for a couple of reasons. First, it lets in too much cold air. Second, it lets in vermin. Reduce the size of the hole because in the winter, bees will only be flying on fairly warm days. You won’t need much room for them to make mass entrances and exits.
As long as the snow isn’t getting the hive wet, it’s actually a really good insulator. Leave it where it is – there’s nobody in the wild to sweep the snow off for them.
You don’t want to winterize your hive too early, because as long as it’s warm, your bees are flying and doing what bees do. But you also don’t want to wait too long. Typically, if it’s going to dip below 20 or so at night or it’s going to be below freezing during the day, it’s time to winterize your hives.
If you have any additional tips for getting your bees ready for winter, please feel free to add them in the comments section below. We know that there are different types of hives, and we all have different ways of doing things, so let’s share some information! :]