Helping bees survive in the winter can be a daunting task. No one likes to lose livestock, especially something as essential as honey bees to our food supply. We’ll share some tips to help protect your bees in winter so they’ll still be there in the spring.
What Kind of Bees Are Best for Winter?
‘We live in northern Michigan and our winters are 4 ½ to 5 months long. It’s really hard on the bees to winter that long in their hives.
Russian bees are supposed to be good for winters but they are grouchy and no fun for me. I keep Carnolian bees because I believe they winter better than most bees and are still friendly. They are a joy to work with over other breeds we’ve tried.’
Where Do Bees Go In The Winter?
Bees don’t like the cold, and honestly, I can’t blame them. Bees are cold-blooded and need to protect their colony, and more importantly, their queen, when it gets chilly.
They like to go indoors when temps drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Whether those indoors are in a log, on the side of a building, or in your beehive, they will find a place to keep cozy.
Do Bees Hibernate?
Typically, bees never stop working. Just because you don’t see them flying around doesn’t mean they aren’t busy. If the temperature is below 50F, bees are working hard inside the hive trying to stay warm and protect the queen by caring for her.
How Do Bees Stay Warm?
In order to stay warm, the bees form a cluster in the beehive or their home. The queen is at the center of the hive, staying protected by all the worker bees.
They only need a cluster of bees, about the size of a softball, to make it through the winter.
When bee’s cluster they move around the hive together, eating honey and shivering to keep warm. The queen is close to the center of the cluster being protected on all sides.
As the bees on the outside get cold, they work their way into the cluster. This is what helps the hive make it through the winter, eating, shivering and moving.
How To Care For Bees In Winter
Bees are an expensive investment and we want to protect that investment to the best of our ability. The last thing you want to do is buy bees every spring because your bees can’t survive the winter on your homestead.
For the most part, bees are pretty self-sufficient and a hands-off livestock. However, when we contain bees in a hive so we can raise them, without help from us, bees in the winter stand little chance of surviving until spring.
The number one thing to help your bees make it through the harsh winter is to ensure the health of your bees. You need to keep control of mites and other pests that can weaken the hive.
Before the temps drop below 50 degrees for the season, do a complete hive inspection and check the health of your queen and colony. If your colony has any signs of sickness, disease, or pests, treat your hive before winter.
Penn State Extension offers advice on how to treat your hive for mites and other pests.
Feeding Your Bees
One of the main reasons a hive doesn’t survive the winter is starvation.
As I mentioned earlier, your bees will not come out to play if the temps are below 50 degrees. In some places where the winters are long, the bees will be cooped up in their home (hive) for several months at a time.
They need lots of food to survive the winter.
How many days (or months) you have of temperatures below 50 degrees will determine how much honey they need to last them until spring.
In warmer climates, 30 lbs of stored honey would be sufficient to last them until warmer weather. In colder climates, like where my friend Steve lives in Northern Michigan, hives need 60-90 pounds of stored honey to survive the winter.
The longer and colder your winters, the more honey and food your bees will need to survive.
Learn more about feeding your bees in the winter and other seasons Feeding Your Bees and When To Feed Them?
Leave Some Honey For The Bees
Some beekeepers like to harvest honey twice a year, Spring and Fall. If your hive is bursting at the seams with honey in the fall, I don’t see any problem with harvesting some honey.
However, I’m not a fan of taking all their honey and feeding them sugar water throughout the winter. A bee’s natural diet is honey. Sugar water should only be used when honey isn’t available.
“I leave my bees lots of honey to make it through the winter. I am not too keen on feeding sugar or sugar water. Honey is bee food and unless it’s an emergency that is what they get here.”
Condensation In Your Bee Hives In Winter
Starvation is one of the main reasons bees don’t survive the winter, condensation is the other.
As the bees breathe, they exhale a little bit of moisture, just like people. The moisture is warm from the bees and rises to the top of the hive.
Once the moisture rises and hits the roof of the hive, it meets the cold temps from outside and turns the little bees warm breath into condensation and water droplets.
That water will form a drop, and the drop will fall down on the cluster of bees. It hits a bee and kills it by getting it wet in the cold.
One by one the drops hit the bees and the cluster gets smaller and smaller. Eventually, killing the colony.
To avoid this, you can add a bee quilt or insulation to the top of the beehive (see directions here).
What Are Beehive Quilts?
A quilt box will help absorb the moisture in a hive during the winter and prevent water from dropping on the colony.
We offer step by step instructions on How to Build A Quit Box for Beehives.
Protecting Your Bees In Winter
In addition to making sure your bees are healthy, have plenty of food, and protection from condensation, you can help your bees in winter by insulating and protecting their hives on the outside.
Winter Protection for Beehives
There are several ways you can help insulate your beehives to help protect your bees in winter.
When insulating your beehives, remember, hives need to breathe. Do your best to protect them from wind and cold but still allow for some air flow.
- Stack hay around your hives to provide a good wind block and insulation.
- Foam Board Insulation on the outside of your hives.
- Plastic or House Wrap your hives.
- Filter Cloth.
Foam Insulation for Bees In Winter
To insulate your beehives using foam board insulation, use 1/2 ” foam board insulation with foil on one side to protect your beehives.
- Line the back and two sides of your hive with the insulation * see below picture
- Make sure the foam does not cover the holes in the quilt box and block the air flow.
- On the front of your beehive, place about a one foot tall section of 1/2 inch insulation board so it covers about half of the boxes and the seams between the boxes.
- Leave the entrance on the front open and unobstructed.
- Secure insulation with tape.
Weed Cloth for Winter Beehive Protection
- Wrap the whole hive with black weed guard cloth, the kind that you can buy for gardens.
- The black soaks up the solar heat, blocks wind and most importantly breaths. The hive has to breathe.
- Cut a hole in the cloth where the hive entrance is so bees can go in and out for cleansing flights.
I try to push my hives together so they can share warmth and add additional wind blocks; as seen in the picture.
Entrance reducers (blocks that reduce the hive entrance) are important when adding new bees to a hive, when building a hive, when a hive is suffering from pest issues, and during the winter.
- Place an entrance reducer to reduce the hive entrance to 2 inches.
- Add a mouse guard in the two inch gap made from ½ hardware cloth to protect your hive from predators.
After The Snow Has Melted
Bees hit the ground running when springtime comes and make a lot of bees quickly. You have to watch them and add boxes to your hives or they can swarm on you.
Spring and warm weather don’t always mean nectar flow. Your bees have exhausted all of their honey stores and surplus during the winter months, make sure to offer them some bee food until they can build up their supplies again.
We offer more information about feeding bees in our article, Feeding Your Bees- When Do You Need to Feed Them?
This article was a guest post and collaboration with my good friend, Steve Detmer. Steve and his wife, Mary Lou, live on a micro-homestead in Northern Michigan and have been beekeepers for eight years.