How many times have you been asked by non-beekeepers whether bees hibernate over winter? It’s interesting that it’s such a common question. People are always amazed to learn that the colony doesn’t hibernate or die.
It’s incredible to think that right now, while a winter storm is roaring outside and I’ve turned the heating up, my bees are living in wooden boxes on a freezing field in Surrey!
We all know that our bees have a lot stacked against them in their quest for survival. Although the main preparations for winter are done in autumn, there are things we can do right now to give our bees a helping hand through winter.
Prevent winter starvation
This is one of the most critical threats our bees face over winter. Starvation happens either through running out of stores generally or through isolation starvation (when the cluster loses contact with stores and dies despite close proximity to food).
Starvation often happens in spring, when the colony is growing rapidly. However don’t wait that long to give them some fondant. I heft hives over winter, but it only makes sense if you’ve done it in autumn too and can make the comparison.
Even when I know there are enough stores, I always give them a block of fondant in early January. I put it over the feedhole in the crown board where the cluster can find it in the rising heat. It comforts me to think that if they lose contact with other stores they will probably find the fondant.
I don’t make my own fondant, I buy it. It’s better.
Remember too that its essential to remove the queen excluder in winter so that the cluster can move freely with the queen. If you didn’t do it last autumn, pick a relatively warm day and whip it off. Better late than never.
Take action on varroa during winter
What a nightmare varroa is. I have two colonies that, despite shook swarms, drone brood removal and MAQs, still went into winter with high mite drops. And now the problem requires action.
Oxalic acid is the treatment used at this time of year, now most widely done via sublimation (vaporising the crystals). It’s a good time to do it because there is less brood, so the phoretic mites are more easily knocked down.
Like starvation, varroa is something that you can’t take your eye off. I’ve been measuring the mite drop regularly over winter because I don’t want any nasty surprises in spring – I’ve had that before! Also I’d rather deal with the problem in winter while there is a good opportunity. I’d rather not put varroacides into the growing colony in spring, so better all round to do it now.
The varroa tray is also a very useful way of monitoring where the cluster is, how big it is etc. – the debris on the tray will tell you.
Too much condensation is a common winter problem which can be serious. Caused by the heat of the cluster meeting the cold surface of the hive walls or crownboard, condensation drips on the cluster and can kill a small or weak colony. I find it’s a real problem with polynucs.
The answer is simple: TOP INSULATION, BOTTOM VENTILATION. I haven’t looked back since someone helpfully pointed out that I should stop applying Ted Hooper’s methods to my open mesh floor hives! I once heard a bee inspector describe lack of top insulation as being like leaving the loft hatch open in your house so that all the heat flows out, and the ceilings grow cold.
So I now insulate the crown boards of my wooden hives with those foam quilts (I cut a hole for feeding). Floors are all open mesh for ventilation. No doubt there are other things you can use.
Polynucs get a piece of thick cardboard cut to size and inserted between crown board and roof.
The bees do use condensation in the hive for digesting winter stores but they really don’t need it dripping on them.
Bee poo: is it dysentery or nosema?
Bees get dysentery from eating fermented stores. Nosema is an adult bee disease caused by a fungal parasite. Both can show up over winter or in early spring and the visual signs are impossible to miss: squirts of bee poo on the outside of the hive – not just a few, LOTS. It’s obvious that there is a problem! Usually with nosema there’s also bee poo inside the hive, on the combs, simply because the infection gets that bad.
Nosema is diagnosed using a microscope and looks like lots of tiny grains of rice on the slide. In the UK, beekeeping associations often hold nosema clinics in the spring for you to have a sample of your bees tested. This is simple to do and well worthwhile even if you can’t see any visible signs.
There is no licensed treatment for nosema anymore so clean boxes and a comb change are needed in spring, although progress with comb changes tends to be slow because these colonies are weakened. Sometimes re-queening helps with nosema. There’s lots of info online about how to manage this. Check out the Beebase resources at www.nationalbeeunit.com.
Problems with hive or equipment failure during winter
By this I mean the damp, leaky hive, the collapsed hive stand, etc. Hopefully you checked the condition of your hives and strapped them down in autumn. If not, you can still do it now. Sometimes replacing a roof is all that’s needed to fix damp. If hives do topple and they are strapped, your bees will probably be alright. Obviously try not to disturb the bees while you are making any necessary adjustments. I always think that I won’t need a veil when I’m checking hives in winter and the bees always tell me otherwise!
Green woodpeckers, mice and other pests
Continue to check that mouseguards remain firmly on. Strong winds and animals knocking against the hives can cause them to come loose. Boxes can also be knocked out of alignment.
It’s good to protect your hives with netting, even if you think you don’t have green woodpeckers. They can destroy hives and boxes by pecking through to eat the brood. The have a very distinct ‘swooping’ flight pattern which is a giveaway even when you can’t see the bird clearly.
When I went to check my apiary last week there was a woodpecker sitting on top of one of my hives. The first time I have seen one in five years on that site! Off I went to the hardware store for net.
Moving hives in winter
Of course one good thing about winter is that you can move hives within your apiary without recourse to the 3 feet/3 mile rule. But only after there has been a really cold snap for about two weeks and while the bees are still clustered (try not to disturb the cluster).
Those are, to me, the urgent essentials to watch when looking after your winter bees. I think observational skills are even more important in winter, simply because we can’t get inside the hive to take a look. I always take a look at how many dead bees are in the pile at the entrance, what debris is on the varroa tray and note any spots of bee poo on the outside. This takes seconds but helps in maintaining a picture of what might be going on.
Keeping your eye on a few important things can make the difference between survival and colony loss.
Happy winter beekeeping!