For most of us Winter starts on December 1st, which is the Winter solstice. For beekeepers Winter starts when the high temperature for the day does not consistently exceed 55 degrees. The reason this is that below 55 degrees the bees will cluster for warmth so once the daily high temp is below 55 degrees the bees are basically indoors. They cannot go flying without getting too cold and dying. Below is a picture of two hives all buttoned down for winter.
There are two hive bodies down low and one honey super on the top of each of these hives. Both hives have about 70-80 lbs. of honey stored that the bees will eat during the winter. That is enough to fill the top Honey Super and most of the upper Hive Body. If you look lower you can see how the wide entrance at the bottom now has an entrance reducer in it. This is to keep out any mice or other critters that might look to use the hive as a winter home. This is also protection for the bees. Since there are far less bees in the hive in winter they don’t have as many bees around to guard the hive in case other hives decide they want some of the stored honey on a warm day. Once the bees are in cluster you don’t have much to do as a beekeeper. You typically watch for a winter day that is unusually warm so you can go check on the hives. Bees do need to go to the bathroom and while they can wait up to 70 days or so in Winter they will still look for a warm day to take an “elimination flight”. The following picture is of one hive in late December when it was sunny, with no wind, and a temp just above fifty.
Most beekeepers put their hives facing East so they get the morning sun to warm them up. This hive was facing East and you can see the bees are out and about right in front of the hive. The sun warmed up the inside of the hive to above 55 degrees so the bees broke cluster and went out for short elimination flights. It also helped that there was no wind so while it was below 55 degrees outside the bees could stand a short elimination flight. For beekeepers, this an easy way to see if the hive is OK. If the bees are out and flying you are good. However, you may not have warm days like this in January and February. This is where a beekeeper might pick the warmest day they can and go briefly peek under the top cover. If all is good you will be able to see the cluster of bees. Ideally, the cluster would look like the size of a basketball between all the frames. When the cluster is smaller the hive may not have enough bees to maintain warmth. This is the time of year you also check honey supplies. If the cluster is all the way to the top of the hive they have eaten most of their honey. That is a cue for the beekeeper to put on some Winter food whether it is in the form of a sugar candy board or other methods. You might wonder why some hives run out of food versus others. This is all the variability you get in beekeeping. One hive might have a larger population of bees for the winter who eat their stored food far faster than other hives. You might have a warmer winter where the bees are more active and require more food. Again, the primary goal is just to make sure the bees make it to April which is when we typically start to see some warmer weather and the start of spring plant growth. This is also a bit of a guessing game. If we have a cold spring but the temperature starts to occasionally exceed 55 degrees you can go back to sugar syrup feeding without worrying about the syrup freezing solid. At some point in April you also add a protein patty in the hive for the bees to nibble on. This helps provides protein the bees need and a signal to the queen that food resources are good so she can start laying eggs to rebuild the population. The goal is to get the bees to start rebuilding populations as early as possible as it takes about 21 days for a bee egg to hatch as a larva, grow, pupate and then hatch into a new bee. If you have an early, warm spring the flowers come back early and you want lots of bees to go right after the nectar and pollen. Again, this is all part of the variability in seasons and hive management you get as a Beekeeper. In the next blog post I will talk about Spring, which is the second busiest time of the year for Beekeepers.
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