(which is almost everywhere)
Forget not bees in winter, though they sleep.Vita Sackville-West
Wintering bees in cold climates can be one of the most challenging parts of beekeeping. I am here to share what I have learned, which could be drastically different from what you have. I am taking the vast majority of my information from “Beekeeping in Western Canada (1998),” local beekeepers, and the little knowledge I have gained over the two and a half seasons I have been involved in keeping bees. In this post we will assume that the bees are well fed and the size of the hive has already been reduced. Wintering bees in Saskatchewan Canada lasts for almost 6 months, the bees need to have enough food stores and enough population to make it.
Canadian bees are chosen from temperate stock. When choosing to purchase bees you should always find a local knowledgeable breeder. The easiest and most reliable way to do this is through the local bee club. While the cost of packaged bees shipped from who knows where may be appealing, your chance of survival in the harsh winters may have a very disappointing ending.
Shut down time. From what I have observed, Canadian Thanksgiving (Second Sunday in October) till Halloween seems to be when the vast majority of Saskatchewan beekeepers are closing up shop for the winter. It is this time that we are removing Apivar strips, or administering an oxalic acid drizzle or vaporizer to control those nasty varroa mites (Apivar strips are not as highly recommended for fall treatment). If necessary, October is when you would move your hive to a suitable wintering spot or indoors. It is also common practice when wintering bees to wrap the hives with some sort of insulation, whether that be a commercially produced hive wrap or some other form of insulation such as hay bails or foam insulation.
Everything I have heard and read suggest that a top entrance in a must for wintering bees. The first year I overwintered my hive at a friends farm/apiary. We simply wrapped the hives and made sure there was ventilation though the bottom hive entrance. It was a hard cold winter with entire weeks dipping into the -30’s or worse. While my hive made it through, we did experience a 40% loss through the entire apiary. Most people that we talked to had experienced this percentage of loss. While devastating, it is the new reality of beekeeping.
This year I decided to make an insulated lid with a top ventilation hole. I was able to use the cut offs from my deep langstroth supers that I had made earlier in the year with a piece of plywood on top and a piece of 1″ dense foam insulation. Only time will tell if this is successful.
Hive Check in January:
The hive should never be opened in winter unless the temperatures are above 10 degrees C and even then I would question why. There is little we can do for the bees in the winter. When inspecting, make sure that the entrances are free by snow, and that the hive wrap is secure. Listen for the bees in the hive, this will give you a good idea about where they are in the brood boxes.
If you have chosen to use two brood boxes you should be able to tell, just by listening, as to if they have moved up into the top box. If you do not hear the bees at all you will need to have patience, this is not the time to open things up to see. You will end up doing more harm than good. If the hive is still alive you have likely reduced its chances of survival by breaking the propolis seal and chilling the bees inside. If the hive is actually dead there is no helping it anyways. Hand off!
My inspection in January shows that my bees seem to be doing fine. This year I moved my hives into a well sheltered valley and now share my pallet with one other beekeepers hive. With three hives in place, we decided to place a dummy hive packed full of pink insulation to square off our site and allow us to wrap the three hives with a 4 hive insulated tarp wrap which we purchased from Beemaid. Before we put on the top insulated cover I placed a open bag of warfarin to control unwanted rodents on top of the insulated lids.
We placed two of the hives facing South and one facing North. Upon inspection I noticed that the hive facing North has ice plugging the top entrance. If this continues to be a problem then I will have to figure out a way to solve this problem for next year. For now I just stuck my finger in there to clear it out. This made the bees roar but my finger was left unscathed.
*It is common practice to pile snow around the hive for more insulation. I haven’t been able to accomplish this yet because of lack of snow, but there is some in the forecast so we will see what the future holds.