Beehives covered in snow | Preparing Honeybees for Winter

The cold weather is creeping in and that means that it is time to start getting the homestead ready for the cooler months. If you are a beekeeper, then this includes preparing honeybees for winter. Bees do a good job of taking care of themselves, but it is still a good idea for you to make sure that they are healthy before heading into the cold winter months.  

How to Prepare Honeybees for Winter

It is important for beekeepers to check their hives and begin preparing for winter in early-mid fall. This gives enough time to apply treatments, supplements, and any hive additions if they are needed before it gets too cold. 

I don’t like to interfere with my bees if I don’t have to, but a weak hive has little chance of making it through winter without help. There are a few things to do when you are preparing to overwinter honeybees:

  1. Perform a fall hive inspection.
  2. Decide whether or not you should provide food for them.
  3. Consider different options for keeping the bees warm. 

Fall Honeybee Hive Inspection

The first thing to do when preparing honeybees for winter is to perform your fall hive inspection. An inspection needs to be done when the temperatures outside are above 55 degrees F. 

I usually complete mine in mid-late October, but this will vary from region to region. Let’s go through what you need to look for during this inspection. 

Appropriate Space

The bees need to have enough space to avoid overcrowding, but they do not need so much space that will be difficult to keep warm. 

The typical rule here is to remove all honey supers except for the bottom deep box (and sometimes one super on top). This will leave enough honey for the bees while reducing the space that they have to warm during the winter. 

Appropriate Honey Stores

A colony of bees will need 40-80 pounds of honey to get through the winter.. One deep super full of honey is usually enough, but you will need to take the severity of winter in your area into consideration.

If your hive is low on food stores, you may want to consider an emergency feed supplement. I don’t recommend feeding bees regularly, but when they don’t have enough food for winter it becomes a necessity.

When the bees don’t have enough honey stored up, you can feed them with sugar cakes. Don’t feed sugar syrup in cold weather because it will freeze and affect the moisture inside the hive.

Pests in the Beehive

During your hive inspection, check for common honeybee pests. These pests include varroa mites, tracheal mites, small hive beetles, ants, and even mice. 

Don’t panic if you find mites, beetles, or ants… the bees will typically take care of them on their own. However, if you find an abundance of these insects along with many dead bees by the hive entrance, you may need to help them out. 

Varroa mites on honeybee larvae

To prevent mice from making a winter home inside your hive, you should add a metal mouse guard to the entrance. This will allow the bees to enter and exit while keeping the mice out. 

Signs of Disease

When preparing honeybees for winter, be sure to check for signs of disease.

If you notice dead bees around the entrance, spotty brood patterns, or a foul odor you may be dealing with a disease inside the hive.

Common honeybee diseases include nosema, American foulbrood, European foulbrood, chalkbrood, and sacbrood.

Spot Healthy Queen and/or Brood

You don’t necessarily have to spot the queen bee herself, but you should see eggs or larvae within the brood chamber. Keep in mind that there won’t be as much brood in the fall hive inspection as there would be in the spring.

Seeing some healthy brood is a clear indication that your queen is present and doing her job. 

Spotting the queen bee when preparing bees for winter

Should You Feed Honeybees in the Winter?

As mentioned earlier, if your bees don’t have enough honey stored up then you may need to feed them so they can survive the winter.

If you notice low honey stores early in the fall, you can offer a pollen patty to help them make more honey before the cold weather sets in. If it is already getting cold, you may need to feed sugar cakes or dry sugar as an emergency feed. 

Do not feed sugar water or sugar syrup in the winter as it will freeze, make the bees damp, and affect the moisture level inside the hive. 

How to Keep Bees Warm in the Winter

Bees cluster together to keep themselves and the hive warm through the winter. There are several things that you can do in your winter preparations to make this easier for them. 

Reduce Space

Bees work together to heat the hive when it is cold outside. The more space they have, the more they are required to warm. They don’t need much space because they will be huddled into a cluster for most of the winter so remove all additional supers. Only leave the bottom deep box and maybe one shallow super if needed.

Switch to a Solid Bottom Board

If you were using a screened bottom board during the summer, it is time to switch to a solid bottom board. This will help to reduce drafts and reduce the amount of work required for the bees to keep the hive warm.

Top with a Quilt Box

A quilt box can be added to the top of the beehive when you are preparing your honeybees for winter. This is a ventilated box filled with absorbent material (like wood shavings) that will help to regulate the moisture of the hive and it also serves as extra insulation. 

Wrap the Hive

If you live in a very cold climate, you may need to wrap your beehives with a wool wrap and/or tar paper for insulation.

Beehive wrapped in tar paper surrounded by snow

Opt for an Upper Entrance

Many beekeepers use an upper entrance year-round, but they can be particularly useful in the winter. Benefits of an upper entrance include:

  • Moisture Control- excess moisture in the hive can easily escape through an upper entrance.
  • Pest Control- A small entrance at the top of the hive greatly reduces the chances of mice and skunks getting into the hive. It also makes it less likely for the hive to be robbed or infested by other insects.
  • Preserves Energy- When bees are trying to get to the frames of honey, they usually have to go from the bottom through the brood box, then through a queen excluder to get to the honey. An upper entrance gives them a shortcut.

Put up a Windbreak

Add a windbreak around your beehives to protect them from gusty winds. It is best to use a material that isn’t solid so that some wind can pass through, but not enough to harm your hives. 

Add an Entrance Reducer

A wooden entrance reducer can be added to reduce drafts coming into the hive. I suggest adding a metal mouse guard over the wood to keep mice from chewing through.