Winter Management Techniques
Winter for a first year beekeeper is tough. At least I know it was for me when I started beekeeping! I had taken the PCBA class, set up my hives and added boxes when I was supposed to. I Read a book or two and my first hives had done well at building out all of their frames and filling them with honey. I even was able to get a few pounds off of them without worrying too much if they had enough reserves for winter. And then, they hit their reserves pretty hard during an August dearth. So I fed them and they backfilled with 2:1 in the fall as long as the temps were above 55. Going into the late October, they weighed closer to100lbs rather than the 70lbs (of honey) that is generally recommended as a minimum hive weight for overwintering, so I figured I was good to go. Since I was a first year Beek, I hadn’t really started paying attention to what bloomed when and what the overwintering cycle of my hives were. Worse, I couldn’t find a lot of information on what I needed to do for overwintering my hives. Most of the “how-to” books said to relax, melt wax, make candles, read about your new hobby and wait, repaint or build your next year wooden ware and look for the first flowers of spring to peak out……good advice, but didn’t help me a bit! I thought I’d done everything I needed to, but it was late November and wet, cold and windy and there was no let-up in sight. When the winter sun did come out, the temperatures were only in the high 20’s at night and maybe hit somewhere in the 40’s during the day if we were lucky. The bees were in tight cluster, I was reading about them starving to death with honey only two inches away, and now I’m wondering how much good the 30lbs of reserves they had put up in the number 1&2 frames and the 9&10 frames was going to help them get through December and January if they couldn’t get to it. On the first decent day I could take a peek in-side and check the hives, I had an obvious moisture problem. Some kind of wet black mold was on the inside of the lids and the tops of the frames under the inner cover was pretty fuzzy in the corners. I also realized that I had made a mistake on one of my hives when I realized I’d left the top feeder on that wasn’t helping. When I pulled off the entrance reducer to have a look, the front entrance was packed, and I mean PACKED with dead bees. I freaked! After shoveling out pile after pile of dead, wet, black bees, I thought “Great, I’ve killed them!”…..but then my mentor said, “Oh, that’s ok, it’s normal, but you should sweep out the bottom board once in a while, so they won’t block your ventilation”. Now that I’ve been down the road a little, I’ve been through the cycle a few times, and some pretty wild winter cycles, I find that when it is November/December or January/February, my Winter Hive Management techniques have developed but need to be flexible. My main goal is to overwinter all my hives, but I can probably tell you in October which of my 10-12 hives are going to make it. Sometimes it’s a queen that I tried to get one more year out of, or a swarm that I got in late July (the saying is “a swarm in July, isn’t worth a fly”)…you can nurse them along, but it’s even money on a hive you get this late being able to make it without a ton of attention. Hive management decisions that you made months ago, come to home to roost eventually. Some are good ones and they go in the book, others are chalked up to learning, they go in the journal too. So, with all of that backstory, what are some of the things that we can be paying attention to as we approach spring preparations and the next 8 weeks or so until the first flow (Maple) starts around the end of February or early March? 1.) Check your hives overall weight. My technique is to simply grab the bottom box in the back and lift with three fingers of one hand. You can do it however it works for you, but if you can’t lift the box at all, they are in pretty good shape. If you do this every couple of weeks (and had done it in the fall), you’ll get a pretty good sense of how fast the bees are using up stores. Watch the weather, if it warms up much, the bees will often break cluster and move around (at 40-45 degrees, I always find bees on the upper frames after my sugar blocks). With a little practice, you’ll get pretty good at estimating reserves. 2.) If the hive is heavy, and you also installed some emergency sugar block in the fall, you can check to see how much has been consumed and replace as necessary with whatever method you used. The cluster is usually in the middle by not always. Do your best to put the blocks directly over the cluster if possible. 3.) Sweep the entrance clear of dead bees. I use the skinny end of one of those wooden garden stakes for tomato plants, but anything that fits will do. Sweep it until your satisfied that you got the majority of dead bees out and the entrance is clear. Your bees will also thank you on the warmer days that occur to take “cleansing” flights, since they don’t defecate in the hive during these months. 4.) Lift the outer covers and inspect for moisture build up or mold. If it is there, clean it up the best you can, but the real issue is airflow. If you just swept a lot of bee’s out of your entrance, you may have solved your problem, but keep an eye on it for a while and see if you need to do something to increase your airflow. In some of my hives, I have drilled additional holes in the front of the upper boxes to improve this. Some don’t like to do this, because they just don’t like putting holes in their boxes, others run hives with only top entrances and none on the bottom at all (snow build up). I have both and am willing to adjust to what the hive needs. This may be a more viable option if your hive has transport covers rather than the inner cover with a top outer cover set up. 5. If you have them, make sure the bottom entrances are clear, but your reducers should be in place. It’s the yellow jackets in the fall, but in the winter you want to keep mice out. In the last few weeks for my hives however, I kept finding my wood entrance reducers in the dirt in front of the hives. At first I thought they were getting knocked off by my yard guy blowing leaves, but it turns out I had several rats coming in from the woods, that were cleaning up the dead bee’s in front of the hive that were being dragged out by the morticians. They were pulling the entrance reducers off the hive and (apparently) reaching in for more bee booty. A couple of traps set with peanut butter took care of the problem, but I caught three of the little devils. I read somewhere that bee’s don’t starve to death in January, they starve the last week of February! So, keep an eye on the weather, your hive weights and be prepared to give them a little help to get through a few weeks if they need it until the Maple flow begins in early March. Then you can start planning your Spring Management apiary needs…. Swarm control? Splits? Replacement Nuc’s, maybe a go at Queen rearing. Or, are you going to manage your hives for honey this year, or splits to grow your apiary?