The Hardest Season. Winter.
Winter is the hardest season, except in the very, very southern part of the U.S. where there are plants blooming all year long. When bees have access to nectar and pollen on a continuous basis, life isn’t quite as tough as those in the far north have to experience each season.
However, even those southern bees can face hardships with a dearth, storms, pesticide exposures, removal of forage or even late season swarms and of course, other reasons.
But for those who live above the Mason/Dixon line, Winter is not for the faint of heart, or for bees who are not managed for this kind of stress.
A well-prepared hive generally has little to worry about for the months it must deal with no fresh food coming in, with daily flights pretty much out of the question but enough food stored for the Winter adults and the kids coming in the Spring.
Your job, even this late in the season is three-fold – mites, food and protection. Much earlier this season, starting in July, you began this task by taking care of the bees that take care of the bees that go into Winter. Taking care of your grandparents means they can take care or your parents meaning they can take care of you so you make it through Winter. That means in July you were monitoring mite loads and reducing them to near zero so Winter could be spent in a mostly mite-free environment. If you missed that window there is still a chance to make it right.
Unfortunately, the best of all worlds can go astray if your bees experience a mite bomb…that is, a nearby colony wasn’t prepared, and the mite population, right about now, gets way ahead of the bees and the virus and the mites take their toll. Bees die younger and younger and eventually the colony absconds, looking for a better home. They leave behind brood and a queen perhaps, but most of the workers leave for better digs…where there’s food, and not as many mites. But they take their home mites with them, and suddenly your once clean hive is loaded, again. Right now.
A quick test, even this late in the season can help. If your alcohol wash shows more than 2 mites/100 bees you can treat with one of the organic acids. Both work this time of year because you have little or no brood for the mites to hide in. And, besides those mites that just came are all exposed and are exceptionally vulnerable to these treatments.
Food. You’ll need to make sure there is enough food. If you live where you get snow and ice and are overwintering in 2 deeps, bottom board, inner cover and cover, along with food and bees, the entire unit should weigh in at about 165 – 180 pounds, minimum. If less, you need to get some food in there. You can get this weight using a hand-held Spring scale. Weigh the front, the back and add the two numbers together. If not enough feed, feed. Feed heavy sugar syrup, at least 3:1. Better, use fondant or a candy board. Easy to get to for the bees and they don’t have to get rid of any water.
Wrapping or at least wind breaks are always a good idea. Use some pallets or hay bales to stop the wind on the two most common windward sides, about a couple of feet from the hive and a third again as tall. Wrapping is always good when it gets that cold. Regular roofing felt paper is perfect, and there are even better materials on the market to use. This provides a wind break and some level of insulation. Be sure and leave a top entrance.
Winter. The hardest season. Make it easier for your bees…
The end of the calendar year has special meaning for beekeepers certainly. Holidays, vacations, football games, parties, friends and family get-togethers. I encourage you to add a few additional activities to your festivities this season though. If you haven’t already, find and join your local beekeeping association, and then, attend the meetings. This time of year speakers and discussions tend toward what happened last season, and what should I do next season. If this is your first Winter you probably don’t have a lot of background in what to expect and when to expect it. Talking to seasoned (bad pun, sorry) beekeepers will give you a feel for what happens when where you live.
And that is exactly why keeping bees is both a challenge and an adventure. My bees live in northeast Ohio, and no two winters here are alike. We may have inches and inches of snow, all Winter long due to some kind of lake effect weather, or, it may be warm, sunny and mostly dry because Winter weather comes from the south and west, rather than the north and west over the lake. Predicting what will be is difficult, and me giving advice about what your Winter will be is, to put it bluntly, almost impossible.
We can give advice about what to do when, if whatever happens, but if it doesn’t happen, then what? All beekeeping is local. Very local. Backyard local. Experience is the best teacher. A local beekeeper is the next best teacher. Good luck, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all of us at BEEKeeping, Your First Three Years!!