Preparing Hives For Winter
Every beekeeper overwinters slightly different, and many of them have good success with markedly different methods. Every method that has good success, however, contains at least three main components:
The most important thing, of course, is to make sure that the bees are strong. A weak or sick hive will not survive the winter no matter how well you prepare it. Bees that are adapted to the local climate are much more likely to survive our Michigan winters than bees that just came from Georgia or Florida. If a hive is full of varroa mites, hive beetles or wax moths, it will probably not survive the winter. You can combine two weak hives to try to get them through the winter, but if both hives are really weak there will be too many empty frames in the lower boxes and the cluster will be too far away from the stores. If you know that you have weak hives earlier in the season you can combine them then by moving all the brood frames from each hive into one box, placing one box on a hive stand, covering the first box with a sheet of newspaper and putting the second box (preferably with an upper entrance) on top of the newspaper and covering the hive. By the time the bees chew through the newspaper the two hives will tolerate each other.
If a hive was queenless during the summer, it may have produced a lot of honey, but all the bees will disappear before Labor Day. Don’t think you have CCD if this happens; the hive has probably been queenless for a long time and you just didn’t notice. A hive full of yellow jackets is always a bad sign; a live hive won’t let yellow jackets in.
Labor Day is the time to begin preparing your hives for winter. Don’t collect any honey after this point; the bees need it all to make it through the winter. A hive should have honey stored in all the brood boxes in addition to a full super of honey on top. It’s always better to have too many stores than too little. If the hive doesn’t have enough honey of its own, take frames from a hive with excess to make sure that the super is full. Just having ten frames of honey isn’t enough; they should be mostly capped on both sides. The weight of the super is a good indication of whether or not there is enough honey. If it doesn’t weigh very much, it’s not enough.
If there isn’t enough honey or you choose to extract all that is left, you must feed the bees. The easiest way to do this in the fall is to feed sugar water in a 2:1 ratio (weight or volume—they are equal) of granulated sugar to water. You will have to heat the water to get the sugar to dissolve. Use whatever feeder method you used in the spring to feed this sugar water. Keep refilling the feeder until it gets so cold that the water might freeze.
Adequate ventilation is necessary to prevent moisture buildup in the hive during the winter. If moisture builds up, the bees will chill and die and mold will overtake the hive in the spring. The easiest way to provide ventilation is to prop the top cover up slightly with small pieces of wood, or use a notched inner cover with a 3" spacer over it to allow airflow. Also leave the entrance as open as possible, using ½” hardware cloth to keep out mice, but leaving the entrance open to the air. Make sure the bees have an upper entrance to leave the hive for cleansing flights during the winter if the bottom entrance gets blocked with snow and ice or dead bees. A notched inner cover with the three inch spacer provides both the upper entrance and ventilation. Make sure you have a heavy stone or brick on the top cover to keep it from blowing off in high winds. A natural or man-made windbreak is advisable, especially in the direction of prevailing winter winds.
It is advisable to insulate the hives in our region for the winter. There are several different methods for doing this. Basically you want something that will give you an r-value of at least five. If you choose to use tar paper, put something insulating under it first. Tar paper alone stops wind, but has little insulating value. Insulated hives have a better chance of survival if the winter is exceptionally harsh.
Throughout the winter do external checks to see if there is evidence of life, such as bee droppings on the hive or the snow around the hive and fresh dead bees in the snow in front of the hive. Keep the entrance clear of snow and ice. Do not open the hive in the cold weather. If you notice a lot of animal prints in the snow by the entrance, you can put a board with nails sticking up in front of the hive to discourage damage to the hive by skunks or other animals.