Updated: Oct 23, 2021
We are hunkering down now with cold nights and becoming very aware of dropping temps. Its our last few weeks of prepping to be sure that your bees can survive winter. Did you know that honey bees do not heat their entire hive, but only their cluster around the queen bee? The cluster will move on warmer days to a new frame of food and take turns insulating the queen bee and feeding on the honey frames. The cluster can also expand or contract as ambient temps fluctuate. The bees on the outside of the cluster will separate to increase air flow or contract to as temperatures fall. The cluster tightens as the outer workers pull together to create solid insulation.
Many insects, like bees can survive winter, which include “hibernation” and diapause (a period of suspended development in an insect, other invertebrate, or mammal embryo, especially during unfavorable environmental conditions.) In some bee species, only the queen survives, reemerging in the spring to then reestablish a new colony for the season. But honey bees remain active throughout the winter by creating their own heat source and so is not considered a true hibernation. To overwinter, bees need enough food stores and carbohydrates to heat the cluster and survive the months where there are no conditions to obtain more food and energy source. Understanding bee biology and how the colony operates is imperative to being a successful and ethical beekeeper.
In the northeast our season is shorter and so late summer we stop and carefully evaluate our honey stores and make sure the hive has enough to overwinter. Leaving 50-100 lbs depending on the size of your hive is key. Each frame holds about 6-8 lbs of honey depending on the dimensions of your langstroth hive. Leaving a full super or two on top of the brood chamber is the goal, however for new colonies that may be much smaller, leaving the brood chamber with 5-6 frames of honey may suffice. But we don't take any chances with new colonies! When checking your bee yard many beekeepers keep a resource hive or two. Use a hive that is thriving to create resources for other hives that are not. For example one of our hives has a lot of extra honey and instead of harvesting it for myself, I will take the 10 frames off the final extra super and give these frames to a few other smaller colonies of which are brand new splits from the season. I will be doing that this week as we have one or two more definite warm days where I am comfortable opening up the hives.
This month I am feeding a sugar syrup to the new colonies in a 2-1 or 3-1 sugar to water ratio. In fall we feed a thicker syrup ratio so that the honey bees can dehydrate it quickly enough to store for winter. On top of this I will also be creating candy boards from granulated sugar. We never know what the season will bring and if the temps stay warm and the bees stay active they can go through their stores quickly. So having reserves on hand is imperative. We just never know, and to hear stories of beekeepers losing colonies which could have been prevented is disheartening. Every year is different. I have some colonies who never touch the candy board and some who chomp in by December and January. The candy board can also create a layer of insulation on top.
I will copy more info on sugar syrup and candy board directions below.
As for insulating your hives in the northeast, there are a few trains of thought. Some insulate, some don't. Elements to consider:
-Where are your bees originally from, the northeast? Down South?
-Do you have wind break near your hives or are they in an open field?
-Are your hives in a lot of sun over the winter when trees are bare?
-What temps does your region reach in the height of winter?
-Do you get a lot of snow?
-How does your altitude affect your bees?
These questions become important to consider not just for prepping for winter, but when you are considering where to place your hives when you are first setting up your apiary.
Our apiary is set up to be between a couple of tree lines to create a natural wind break when storms arise year round. We placed our hives in the sunniest spot on the property to keep the bees warm and active during spring and summer months as well as toasty in winter. Due to our temps getting very low here with high winds in the Hudson Valley, I have opted to insulate if for nothing else, for wind break and creating a moisture barrier because we have a very wet and humid climate. Snow can act as an insulator so some many choose not to insulate. If you do decide to feed your bees and insulate for winter instructions and options are below.
Creating a simple syrup recipe for fall -
Mix 2-3 parts granulated sugar and one part water (using hot water to melt sugar works best). Be sure sugar is melted and then let sit to room temp. Use only granulated sugar... no juices, no confection or raw sugar, no honey (unless it is from your own hive) no "natural sugars" etc. Bee biology can only handle the very simple form of granulated sugar. After mixing your syrup there are several feeder styles you can obtain or you can make your own. Easiest way to feed is to use a mason jar, drill 5 holes in your lid and fill with sugar. (Beekeeping companies also sell these jars and feeder inserts). When you turn the jar upside down the suction creates a very small drip perfect for the bees to approach. You can insert an outside feeder like this one below, or put your feeder over your inner cover and add an empty super on top to protect the feeder from critters and other insects. There are so many types of feeders including community feeding with a bucket feeder, feeders that are inserted directly into the hive in the form of a frame, the list goes on and every beekeeper should research the best option for them. There are pros and cons to many of these, however the mason jar feeder for new beekeepers is a great way to start out and honestly many continue to use this design for years. It is easily refilled, you can see how much syrup is left and how quickly your bees are taking it in (which may be a sign that they are very low on stores). You can access these feeders without going into the hive and you can make these feeders at home without spending a ton of money. I have also tried a few other feeders but have found the risk that the bees drown can sometimes be an issue and so really enjoy the simple design of an old school mason jar with a very small drop that is safe for the bees.
CANDY BOARDS AND WINTER FEED -
I am sharing these links below because I have both bought bee candy as well as created my own and these are my top two links. If you are searching for recipes or purchasing options, search terms may include honey bee sugar patties, bee fondant, bee candy, sugar boards, etc. Sometimes purchasing is the way to go if you don't find you have the time in the busy fall and holiday season. Priddy Acres has been one of my favorite due to its consistency I have found is a really nice fondant style the bees have enjoyed. Sometimes making your own recipes can be difficult and come out too hard or too soft and melty and can also just bee a big mess! So if in doubt, purchasing may be best option until you have your recipes down pat. Keep in mind this is not the season for bee pollen patties and pollen substitute. This will be in our spring prep discussion. Pollen is more for larvae and brood production.
INSULATING HIVES and Strapping Down for Winter:
At Beez' Apiary we insulate using 1-2 inch insulation board, bungee chords and ratchet straps. Buy a large insulation board and cut to size 4 pieces per hive to cover all sides. (see image below) I do leave a few inches from the top box as I use this as a feeder box and drill a few holes in this box for ventilation. Cutting the insulation a few inches short gives those top boxes room to breath and let the air ventilate. I then bungee the 4 pieces around the hive which also allows me to remove a side or two on really hot weeks and very early spring when temps start to really fluctuate again. I do this because if the hive does get to warm and you create too much moisture inside the hive, the moisture will condensate on the inner cover and then drip back down on the bees like a green house and can kill a colony. So ventilation and aware of temps is key!
There are several types of insulation like the pictures below. There are wraps, quilt boxes, bee cozies and more. Researching your style is the best way to go for your property, your bees conditions, sun, wind and all the considerations listed above.
We use ratchet straps to strap our hives to the cinder blocks below the hives. We use cider blocks as the hive stand because it stays dry, creates a great amount of weight for the hive to attach too in a storm and does not allow for critters to borrow in and nest the way wood hive stands can. However if you do not have blocks, using a nice wide pallet can be good for strapping down too and distribute the weight. Ratchet strap your hives to your base and or put weights on top of your hive to keep the hives in place when the high winds come through during winter blizzards. There are many nights when i will be out at 2am in high winds with a flashlight checking my hives are still in good standing.
The time is now to have all your prep work done. Fall goes quickly and we don't know what is in store for us weather wise. Be prepared for anything and give your bees the best shot you can as it is our responsibility as beekeepers to KEEP our bees. They are not wild bees, they are "domesticated" to say the least and we need to tend to them. For more info, check into classes, bee-clubs in your area, or reach out to us any time for questions!! Stay tuned for more BEE EDUCATION resources, classes etc on our blog and Facebook page.