When the temperature falls, as it does when autumn comes & brood rearing is finished,
the bees form a cluster, closing in tightly and opening up as the temperature varies.
While clustered, food consumption is minimal but increases rapidly once brood rearing
starts or if the colony is disturbed or weak.
Ivy is the last important source of nectar & pollen, when the weather is warm enough
for bees to work the flowers, making a valuable contribution to winter stores. The
colony will require about 40 lb. sealed stores to survive the winter. Colonies should
have been fed sugar syrup (if necessary) in time for it to have been ‘ripened’ &
sealed. If feeding becomes necessary in the winter, you will need to use a solid
form of food e.g.
Candy – commercial or home-made.
Bag of dampened white sugar.
Icing sugar made into a thick paste with water.
Bees can also starve in the midst of plenty. Bees move upwards – cold weather may
prevent sideways movement. If a super of food is left on the hive, it is usually
recommended that the queen excluder is removed to avoid isolation starvation.
Do not feed honey from foreign sources, which may contain spores of Foul Brood
Colonies should have been assessed for varroa mite levels and treated where necessary.
Since mite resistance is now widespread, the only legal treatment is Apiguard. Although
warm weather is required for effective treatment, the manufacturers have said that
it may be used in the winter. If in doubt, assess surviving colonies in the Spring
& treat those colonies showing a significant mite fall. Remember, doing nothing is
not an option.
Mice can be a problem when the bees are clustered and are lethargic. Remove the entrance
block when robbing by honey bees, bumblebees & wasps is no longer a problem and fit
a mouse guard. The use of a varroa screen may provide a narrow ‘mouse proof’ entrance.
If mice can get into the hive via the roof, store the queen excluder over the crown
board. Check periodically that the entrance is not blocked by dead bees.
Stored combs should be protected from mice and wax moth. Place queen excluders/crown
boards (holes sealed) at the top & bottom of stacked boxes – seal sides with tape
or place in a sealed plastic sack. Combs may be sterilised by placing ¼ pint (100
ml.) 80% acetic acid on a wad of cloth over each super – remove metal spacers. PDP
crystals may no longer be used to deter wax moth – instead use a biological treatment
such as Certan or burn sulphur strips (both available from E.H. Thorne). Queen excluders
left out in the cold can be scraped clean of propolis.
Woodpeckers can cause considerable damage to hives in their search for food. If they
are a problem in your apiary, surround the hive with chicken wire. Plasticine can
be used to fill small holes – however, temporary repairs tend to become permanent!
During the winter you will not visit out-apiaries very often. However, theft & vandalism
are an increasing problem and you should check regularly. Grazing cattle, sheep,
badgers etc. should be kept away from hives by fencing.
Bees can survive long periods of cold – the real danger is dampness. A colony produces
1 gal. water vapour from consuming 10 lb. honey. Remove the bee escape(s) from the
crown board & place a match stick under each corner. Make sure the roof is waterproof.
Treat the outside of single-walled hives with non-insecticidal preservative. The
floor should slope down slightly to the entrance. If you are using open mesh floors,
this will not be necessary – and lack of ventilation will not be a problem. Avoid
having the entrance facing the prevailing wind to prevent rain being driven in. Hives
should be raised on hive stands or bricks to provide air circulation.
If it snows & the entrance becomes blocked, some air will still get through but ventilation
may be impaired resulting in dampness. Alternating thawing & freezing can result
in the entrance becoming blocked with ice. The bright glare of the sun reflected
from the snow into the entrance will attract the bees out. In cold weather the bees
are quickly chilled and are unable to return to the hive. Bees may fly into the snow
because they see UV light – they think the snow is the sky! These problems can be
avoided by shading the entrance with a board leaning against the front of the hive.
Avoid frost pockets, damp sites, over-hanging branches & disturbance e.g. tree branch
rubbing against hive, water dripping onto roof, etc. In windy areas, secure the hive
with ropes & place a brick on the roof.
During the winter, hives may be moved and the rule ‘2 feet or two miles’ may be ignored
– bees in need of a cleansing flight make a quick dash up the garden path and return
to the warmth of the hive! However, long distance moves should be avoided until the
bees’ bowels are empty to avoid the spread of Nosema. When bees take a cleansing
flight, evidence of dysentery should be noted (orange/brown streaks on the front
of the hive), which may be the result of unsuitable stores.
Winter losses should not be lamented if they eliminate unsuitable bees. A strain
of bee able to survive our winters should be bred.
During the winter months, secure in the knowledge that you have done everything possible
for your bees, read beekeeping books and appliance catalogues – make a Christmas
‘wish list’. Assess this year’s successes & failures and plan for next year. Repair
hives etc. make up hives & frames. Spare floors or varroa screen inserts should be
got ready for spring cleaning replacement.
On Christmas Day, legend states that the bees sing the Lord’s praise at midnight
– wish them a happy Christmas and give them a block of candy!