Winter Beekeeping: Caring For Your Hives

Bees generally rest during the colder weather of winter and if managed well, will require minimal inspections. Here's a list of ways to support your bees through this season.

Weatherproofing The Hive

To keep your bees healthy during winter, the hive needs to be kept warm and dry: receiving full sun for the majority of the day and protection from any cold winds that may develop. 

  • Use solid bottom boards to keep the hive cosy

  • Reduce the entrance to minimise cold winds entering the hive, whilst still allowing the bees to come and go

  • Insulate the hive if in colder areas. This can be done in many ways for example: by adding a hive cover or woollen blanket, sheets of cardboard across the top of the hive, newspaper across the top of frames or polystyrene inside the lid.

  • Ensure adequate ventilation to minimise mildew and disease by adding small ventilation holes near the top of the hive if you're concerned that the hive may be damp and stuffy.

Packaging Down For Winter

Bees use a lot of energy to heat and clean the hive, so packing hives down for winter by reducing their physical size can make it easier for them to maintain warmth through winter. This means removing empty frames and boxes and reducing the number of hive entrances. You can also rearrange the inside of the hive to maximise efficiency. In autumn, you should have left enough honey stores in your hives to get them through winter.Position these honey-laden frames at either end of your brood box, with brood frames clustered together in the middle.

Although it’s more complicated, you could also think about combining a smaller, weaker colony with a stronger one to increase its chances of getting through the winter.

Keeping your bees well-fed is probably your most important job during winter. Your hive can be as warm and dry as possible, but if your bees don’t have enough food they won’t survive.

When you harvest your honey towards the end of autumn (or summer if you live in a particularly cold area!), you need to leave enough to keep your bees fed through the winter. In Australia, an average colony needs around 8 frames – or roughly 18kgs of honey – to keep it going. Of course, this depends on where you live – in colder areas, more frames may be needed.

If your bees don’t have enough honey in storage, or if their honey stores shrink more quickly than you expect, you may need to supplement their food to help them survive. Depending on your preferences and systems, this could mean using honey reserved from a previous season, or feeding with sugar water. Don’t feed with pollen supplements at this stage – pollen can trigger a population increase, which could mean you need to supplement with even more feed.

Check and change

Although you should minimise hive checks during winter, you shouldn’t ignore your bees altogether – even if getting outside isn’t that appealing.

Check your hives at least once a month during winter, preferably on a warm, dry day. Lift the lid briefly to check food stores, look for dampness or mildew, assess hive health, and sweep dead bees, twigs, or leaves from entrances. If you notice that food supplies are low or see signs of disease, or a queenless hive, you will be able to supplement or treat before it’s too late.

Towards the end of winter, watch for bees leaving and re-entering the hive – they should start collecting pollen early as they gear up for spring. If you’re concerned about the low level of activity, supplement with pollen to help them start the season on a strong footing.

Get ready for SPRING!

The best way to use your spare time in Winter is to prepare for the busiest time of year for bees and beekeepers - Spring! Identify any boxes, lids, bottom boards, queen excluders or other equipment that might need to be replaced when the weather warms up. Coming into spring, as long as it is warm enough, you will also then make room in the brood box for more brood by extracting the honey in your brood box that kept the bees warm through winter…

But more about Beekeeping Prep For Spring next month!

It’s all about being prepared

If you keep a good eye on your hives, make sure they’re weatherproofed, properly positioned and well-fed, your bees should make it through the winter without much trouble. As with almost anything with beekeeping, it’s all about being aware, and being prepared.

In theory, making sugar syrup is not hard, mix water with sugar and you’re done.  The challenges really lie in the equipment needed to make the quantity you need in order to successfully feed bees. If you only are feeding a few hives, this task is easily done in a home kitchen.  Feeding tens or hundreds of colonies requires a bit more thought, space, and equipment.

We are not experts in all the ways to make sugar syrup, but thought helpful to show you the process we use to make syrup and some of the tricks we have learned along the way.

The basic ratio for heavy syrup we use is 60% sugar.  So this translates to 1 kg (litre) water to 1.66 kg sugar or 600 ml water to 1 kg sugar.  

We make 60 litres of heavy syrup at a time in a really clean 100 L wax melter from Quality Beekeeping Goods in Queensland. We prefer to use Sunshine Sugar that we buy in 25 kg bags from Campbells Wholesale partly because it is a good price, and partly because we LOVE to support Australian businesses with sustainable growing, processing, manufacturing, and social practices.

Supplementary Feeding

During winter or when the foraging area surrounding your hives isn't producing the pollen and nectar required to support your bees, we suggest supplementary feeding. We use a 50/50 sugar syrup mix with added prebiotic, vitamin supplement with super-greens. This is delivered via chicken waterers with shade-cloth fitted around the drinking area to allow the bees to land safely without the risk of drowning. We also feed them a mix of pollen and pollen substitute to ensure they receive the protein, and essential nutrients to support the hive.

If you think your bees could benefit from supplementary feeding, we suggest the following:

  • Sugar syrup (50% water/50% white sugar) can be delivered via chicken waterers if you have a few hives or by soaking a folded blue chux and placing the wet (but not dripping) chux on top of the frames within the hive. The chux will also act as a small hive beetle trap and will need to be changed every fortnight or so if beetles are prevalent.

  • Add 1/3 cup dried pollen/pollen substitute across the chux and then an additional 1/3 cup of white sugar. The additional sugar inside the hive is not needed if feeding via chicken waterers.

  • Fresh molasses can be substituted for the white sugar, though you should never use raw, brown or castor sugars.

  • It's vitally important that you never feed honey to your bees as this is a major biosecurity risk and can lead to cross-contamination if any disease or pests are in the honey.

  • Over winter it is very important to ensure that the hive is kept at the correct temperature. Insulation is great, either polystyrene in the lid or a few sheets of newspaper across the tops of the frames can be helpful.

  • Leaving the honey super on the hive over winter is ideal as an ongoing food source, however, if there are not enough bees to fill both boxes, we suggest downsizing and removing the honey super so that the bees do not have to work extra hard to keep the hive at the ideal temperature. This allows them to work less inside the hive and more able to forage and pollinate outside the hive, keeping the entire hive healthier and stronger.

  • Another great tip to support your hive is to add a 1/4 of a ripe banana weekly to each hive (squash down on top of the brood frames) to assist with combating chalkbrood. If conditions are cold and damp, chalkbrood will greatly weaken a hive, lowering resistance to pests and disease. We have found that banana works well and is suitable to use all year round, not just over winter. The banana supplies extra nutrients and seems to get them buzzing.