How To Successfully Overwinter Honeybees

Beekeeping offers ultimate oneness with Nature — watching Bees interact with their surroundings invites one to be more present in the moment. 

Veteran beekeeper Chris Layman of Fox Farm Apiary offers advice on how to ensure the winter health of honeybees.

Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

Winters can be cold and long in the Catskills and honeybees appreciate all the help we can offer, if they are to make it through the season. Successful beekeeping in winter begins in the Spring when you receive your bees. With good nutrition, vector virus management (Varroa mites), adequate honey stores and proper venting and insulation, you stand a much better chance of seeing those bees again in the Spring. 

The Catskill growing season is short and bees’ nutrition on the ground decreases every year as the forests continue to populate. Honeybees in the Catskills need hardy queens and resourceful foragers. You may wish to consider requeening with appropriate genetics. There are many sources in the Northeast for queens that have acclimated to colder areas and that are varroa sensitive hygiene (VSH). Join a bee club and talk with other local beekeepers who are raising suitable queens, or inquire at Hudson Valley Bee Supply in Kingston.

Bees need a good, healthy population going in to winter.  When honeybees feel sick, they don’t want to infect the entire hive and leave the hive to die. Altruistic self-removal is a practice that puts the welfare of the colony above that of the individual, but if the recruitment (birth) of bees is out of balance with the natural attrition (death) of bees, even with adequate honey stores, the colony’s chance for survival is greatly reduced. During late Fall and Winter a normal bee colony can lose a few thousand bees. A large enough cluster can shift around the hive, but a small cluster becomes immobile, unable to laterally reach even two frames over for honey.

Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

The Varroa mite is a parasite that feeds on honeybees. Varroa are responsible  for the deaths of millions of colonies worldwide. Mites are here in the Catskills and have decimated most of the feral hives. In addition, the mites are the vector for new viruses which bees are struggling to fight.

Without addressing mites your hives will have a much lower chance of  survival; varroa management must begin as soon as you hive your bees.  There are many ways to manage varroa; this is what I have found to work for the hives I keep. Before winter sets in you can treat for mites with oxalic acid vapor without opening the hive. I apply a treatment of oxalic dribble directly on the bees In the Fall. While this helps eliminate any remaining mites it may also help the bees to purge any nosema ceranae spores while there is still time for a few cleansing flights. May through October I use organic acids to manage Varroa mites. I find that one formic acid strip cut in half and applied every 30 days keeps mite counts down and reduces visible signs of virus in the brood.  I also add red banded polypore hydrosol to my sugar syrup in the Spring and Fall to boost healthy immune function and reduce the viral load. The bees that overwinter need to be at their healthiest to survive.

In the early Fall, you may want to begin some supplemental feeding. Summer and Fall in 2018 were quite rainy, providing a reminder of the importance of supplemental feeding for your honeybees. During rainy periods before Winter, every day of rain is one less day of foraging, plus hive bound bees are eating honey stores meant to get them through the coming winter. During these periods you may want to supplement feed any and all hives with low honey stores. Leave at least 75 pounds of honey in each hive. With proper nutrition, bees can fight off most diseases. It is so important that they have enough of their own honey but if honey stores are low, fondant or winter patties will help get them through. A mild November means that supplemental feeding is essential, as the honeybees will fly around and use up resources with nothing to forage.

Excessive Winter moisture can bring down a hive. Using wooden bottom boards in place of screened boards can be helpful for cold, but make sure the hive is tilted slightly forward so that moisture can drain. For those with resource hives (two hives back to back), drill two quarter-inch holes in the bottom toward the back of each hive to allow excess moisture to drain and air to enter. I also wrap my hives with tar paper to protect against harsh winds.

To help with insulation and simultaneously assist with feeding, I remove the inner board and place a shallow empty honey super (hive box) at the top of the hive. Fondant or other dry winter patties can be placed on top of the frames. Keep the feed centered. Cedar or pine chips can be contained in a net bag, placed over the fondant and spread out over the top of the hive to absorb moisture and provide additional insulation. The bag can easily be pulled up when it’s time to refeed. Install the inner board, then the winter board with vent, then insulation.

When cold weather temperatures set in, honeybees will go into a state of torpor, which enables animals to survive periods of reduced available food. Torpor is a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal usually through a reduced body temperature and lower metabolic rate. Hibernation is an extended form of torpor, but is not the same. 

The bees’ temperature will hover around 55 degrees Fahrenheit in a cold winter cluster.  When bees are settled in a cluster and there are mice present, a mouse’s every move disturbs the cluster, using valuable energy. Food stores are further depleted as the mice eat pollen and honey stores. They also defecate in the hive, producing additional toxic moisture. When conducting a final inspection, it’s essential to ensure that no mice are in the hive. Mouse guards should be installed at this time; we use screened guards.

Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton

Bear attacks are common in Fall. Many bears are coming down from the mountains in search of protein and they can’t resist the lure of honeybee larvae to fatten up for winter. Now is the time to check your electric fences. After the bears go into hibernation and it begins to snow you can disengage your fence, as heavy snowfall can short out and damage your solar electric unit.

Even with all these challenges, beekeeping is well worth the effort. Beekeeping offers the ultimate experience of oneness with nature and invites you to be more present in the moment. I invite you to try it! 

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