This is going to be your first winter as a beekeeper, and you’re probably wondering if your bees will make it to spring. Before we answer your question, let us ask you this: Did you take any honey from your bees?
If the answer’s no, then there’s a good chance that they’ll survive the winter. Your bees – who are not yet strong enough to make a surplus to share with you – will need every drop of honey they can get to survive the winter. That’s why experienced beekeepers tell you not to harvest any honey in the first year. Your goal in the first year is to establish a healthy colony that will be able to produce honey for many years to come.
If the answer’s yes, there’s no need to panic. We’ll show you what and how to feed your bees to get them through winter. On top of that, we’ll show you some things you need to do to prepare them for winter.
How Do Bees Survive the Winter?
But first, it helps to understand how bees instinctively manage winter weather.
When the temperature drops, bees form what’s called a winter cluster – basically, a ball of bees. At the outer layer of the cluster, bees huddle together and work their wing muscles to create heat for the rest of the bunch. They act as an insulating layer, keeping everybody in the cluster warm.
At the center of the cluster, temperatures will climb to around 90 to 100°F (32 to 37°C), which is warm enough to raise brood. The center’s where your bees will nurse brood and eat. It’s also where your queen will spend the winter.
Of course, the bees at the outer layer where it’s much colder won’t be able to sustain themselves for long, so what happens is they’ll slowly move toward the center to “take a break”, and other bees will move out to replace them.
So that’s pretty much how your bees will survive the winter: by staying in a cluster, keeping warm, and eating. And also, they’ll leave the hive on warmer days to defecate.
Why Do Bees Die in the Winter?
One thing you should know is that the movement and size of the cluster changes with the temperature. The colder it gets, the smaller it becomes and the less it’s able to move. This can be a problem if your cluster isn’t able to spread out and reach more food.
That’s why the key to surviving winter – or at least not starving – comes down to 1) having enough bees so that at least some of them can reach and pass along food to everyone, and 2) having enough food.
Another reason bees die in the winter is simply due to old age. In the winter, you’ll notice many dead bees around the hive. This can be a startling sight, but it’s perfectly normal.
Usually, those are older bees that would have died inside the hive. So what they’ve really done is use every last ounce of energy to fly out of the hive to make a sanitary and considerate sacrifice for the benefit of everyone else.
How Much Honey Do Bees Need for Winter?
As mentioned earlier, one of the keys to surviving winter is having enough food to eat. And what’s considered “enough” depends on where you live. Generally speaking, the further you are from warm weather, the more honey you’ll need to save for your bees.
If you live in the southern US, the weather is warm enough all year round for your bees to fly. There’s always something in bloom. So you don’t have to worry about saving honey for them. Some people think better safe than sorry, so they’ll save 4 or 5 medium frames of honey anyway.
The middle states might have days in the winter that dip below 50°F (10°C), which is below the minimum temperature bees need to fly. If you live in this area, you should save 50 to 60 lbs (23 to 27 kg) of honey for your bees for the winter. This equals to about 12 or 13 medium frames of honey.
Those living in the northern US and Canada where winter can be brutal should save about 100 lbs (34 kg). This equals to about 24 medium frames of honey.
Here’s how to place the 24 frames of honey in a Langstroth hive: You should first reduce your hive to 4 boxes so that there isn’t unnecessary space that will cause heat loss. Think of it like this: The smaller the house, the cozier it is.
There should be honey frames above and on both sides of the cluster. The top box should be full of honey, and there should be about 5 or 6 frames of honey on the sides of the other 3 boxes. The winter cluster will form roughly at the center of the hive.
What Do You Feed Bees in Winter?
As promised, we’re going to show you what to feed your bees if for some reason you don’t have enough honey to get your bees through the winter.
For winter feeding, you’ll need dry sugar. Liquid sugar won’t work because your bees will have to remove the water and it’s virtually impossible for them to do so in the cold. You have two good options for winter feeding: table sugar or fondant.
The easiest thing to do is to place table sugar around the inner cover hole. But the thing with table sugar is that your bees might not eat it. We suggest buying some fondant (the stuff used for cakes) from your local bakery as a backup plan.
Store slices of fondant in plastic food bags in your freezer ahead of time, and thaw them just before feeding. To feed, cut the bag open and place the bag cut side down on the top bars of the top super. Then put an empty super (no frames) on top, and after that put the covers back on the hive.
It’s quite possible that your bees run out of honey near the end of winter, despite having saved them as much as you can. Perhaps winter is lasting longer than usual. In that case, you want to keep an eye on them and provide them with food as needed.
Don’t take honey from your bees, thinking that you’ll just provide them with alternatives for the winter! Honey is packed with nutrients and is simply the best feed. You want your bees to be strong and healthy, right? So only feed them other things when they have absolutely nothing to eat.
How to Prepare a Beehive for Winter
Getting bees ready for winter is not unlike preparing backyard chickens. You want to offer wind and water protection for everyone, and keep their home well ventilated.
There are many ways to winter wrap a beehive. Whatever method you choose, make sure the top and bottom entrances remain open for cleansing flights and whatnot (use an entrance reducer to discourage mice from entering and seeking shelter), and keep good ventilation in mind (we can’t emphasize this enough).
Here are some ideas: Use evergreens, fences, or burlap fabric to provide wind protection. Or wrap beehives in roofing felt paper to provide wind and water protection.
You can also fill a box with insulation and place it over the hive. This added warmth will help bees move within the hive to reach more food.
Keep Your Fingers Crossed
Despite your efforts to keep them warm and well fed, your bees might not survive the winter. According to yearly surveys, backyard beekeepers lose over 40% of their colonies over the winter each year in the US. The number was as high as 50% in 2018. We know it can be disheartening, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do to help your bees but to keep your fingers crossed.
Check up on them and replenish food as needed. As long as you keep them fed and away from wind and water, they’ll have the best chances of surviving.
Have Fun Out There!