First thing you should know about winterizing bees is that bees don’t hibernate.
They cluster into a ball the size of a soccer ball, or mellon.
The bees on the inside stay warm, and the bees on the outside vibrate their wings to generate warmth.
They take turns being on the inside and the outside. (The queen remains in the middle.)
Throughout the winter, the bees move through the hive and eat up their honey stores. And hopefully you’ve got enough pollen in your area, or given them enough sugar water to help them build up their stores through the previous months of the year. (More info on that process here.)
You should do a few things to help them stay warm through the winter.
Firstly, you may want to get some grease patties which help prevent mites from hurting your bees. The bees really don’t like these patties, and will slowly break them up, and that’s what you want to have happen so they spread these patties around and therefore help prevent mites.
Here’s How To Make Grease Patties
One batch will treat 8-10 hives. You can easily increase or decrease the recipe size depending on your needs.
4.4 pounds (2 kg) granulated sugar
3 ounces (90 ml) corn oil
1.5 pounds (0.7 kg) vegetable shortening (Crisco)
1 pound (454 g) honey
1/2 pound (227 g) mineral salt (pink color)
2.2 ounces (65 ml) wintergreen oil (or tea tree oil)
How To Put It All Together:
Step 1: Mash up the salt so that it mixes evenly throughout the patty. This also prevents water droplets from forming around salt crystals.
Step 2: Mix all the ingredients really well using protective gloves.
Step 3: Make patties the size of small hamburgers.
Step 4: Store in freezer until ready to use.
You want to put about 2 patties on top of the frames per hive.
Next you may want to get some tar paper and use that to wrap up your hives.
You don’t *need* to use tar paper. But if you’re at all concerned about cold weather you may want to do it just in case.
With the tar paper, you can literally just start wrapping the hive and stapling the tar to the hive. (Making sure to leave the bottom entrance open so your bees can get out when they need to, and yes they do need to leave to use the restroom even in winter!)
If you want to get fancy, you can make a more “permanent” structure and take some cardboard and fit it over your hives, and then put tar paper around the cardboard. That way you can just slip the cardboard with tar paper on and off the hive.
Just make sure not to cover the *top* of the hive all the way.
You need to let the top of the hive breathe a bit. Maybe even a bit more than normal. Some people recommend putting small pegs on all 4 corners of the hive body and the cover just so a little more air flow can get through. Others recommend getting a polystyrene cover because they breathe better.
Why should you care about air flow in the winter? Because the bees keep the temperature of their “huddle” at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That causes condensation at the top of the hive cover. And that condensation can drip back down on the bees, can cause other problems. So you want the air to be able to get *out* of the top of the hive.
So whatever you do, let the top of your hive breathe, and don’t wrap up the top or the bottom completely in tar paper. (Just the sides.)
The tar paper really acts mostly as a wind barrier, and helps the bees keep their “huddle” warm and prevents the wind from blowing away their hot air.
Again though, it’s not necessary to use tar paper even. Most of the time the bees will do fine without unless you’re in really cold environments. (I don’t always use tar paper because I’m in the Seattle Washington area, and we usually have fairly mild winters, plus where I keep my hives is very protected against the wind with trees on all sides.)
Also, a lot of your bees will die over the winter, it just happens. And there’s very little, to nothing you can do about it.
You’ll want to go take some trips out to the hive and clear out the bottom entrance.
Sadly, there will be dead bees in the entrance. And if it’s snowed, you’ll want to clear that out as well.
A bent coat hanger works great for that purpose.
Here’s a couple quick videos of one of my hives over the winter, and the process of clearing it out.
As beekeepers we want to do everything we can to have healthy and happy bees. And we *can* do a lot for our bees. At the same time, remember that bees are part of our environment, and they often live through the winter just fine without our help in the wild (in natural hives all around.)
That being said, we should obviously do our best to help, just remember to do your best, and then trust in nature and the bees to do the rest.
If you’d like more information on how to start your first hive from the very beginning check out my Basic Beekeeping DVD here.
Or if you’d rather join our online beekeeping classroom you can get started here.
And happy beekeeping!