Overcoming Winter Beehive Issues
Overcoming Winter Issues
Queenless in Late Fall or Winter
First, verify they are actually queenless. Depending on what part of the country you are in, queens either completely stop laying in the fall or at least dramatically reduce laying. If you are in an area that typically remains above freezing during the winter and has more days than not in the 60s and 70s, your queen may lay year-round, though at a much-reduced rate during the late fall and early winter. In those warm areas, zero eggs or larva is a good sign that your hive is in fact queenless.
For the rest of the country, queens normally fully shut down. That being the case, if your hive has a healthy population and the queen was laying until the weather cooled, she just shut down for the winter. If you have more than one hive, and the other hives are rearing lots of brood but one hive is not, it is most likely queenless. When it comes to starting and stopping brood rearing, most strong hives follow roughly the same patterns.
Now, if after reading the preceding information you are convinced that your hive is queenless, you have a few options:
- If the hive has fewer than 4-5 deep frames covered with bees, join it with another hive. Even if you introduced a queen, there is a good chance they wouldn’t survive the winter anyway. See “How to Combine Hives.”
- If the hive is a deep box, or 7-8 deep frames covered with bees or better, you can try to save it. That late in the year they can’t raise their own queen since there are virtually no drones left to mate with. So you can do one of two things:
- Look for queen breeders in CA, FL, or HI who may still have queens for sale, even late in the fall.
- If that doesn’t work, just leave the hive be. If you have other hives, once they have a few frames of brood in the early spring, give the queenless hive a frame or two of brood and a new queen as early as you can find one for sale.
For those in southern states, you can often give them brood in late February or early March, and they may be able to raise their own queen and have sufficient drones available before you can find a mated queen to purchase.
Surviving the Cold
I know the feeling well—a major cold front blows in with freezing temperatures, and all you can think is, “Are my bees OK?” The good news is, if you’ve properly prepared your bees for winter, they should be just fine. They are incredibly good at adjusting to temperatures and will naturally cluster more tightly, even for weeks or months, to stay warm. They vibrate their wing muscles to stay warm and eat stored honey for energy.
Below is what you can do to ensure they are well prepared and can survive the cold winter:
- Make sure Varroa mites are under 3 per 100 going into winter. Get them under control immediately after harvesting honey and keep them that way. A hive suffering from high Varroa counts and the associated viruses will not survive the winter.
- Make sure the hive has plenty of food. See “Does My Hive Have Enough Food?”
- Make sure cold wind can’t blow into the hive by covering the screened bottom board, if you have one, or blocking the sides. See “Should I Insulate My Hive or Cover My Screened Bottom Board for Winter?”
- After heavy snow, clear off the entrance so the bees can fly if the temperatures warm. If the hive is completely covered in snow, dig out around the hive periodically so they have fresh oxygen. This is most important if the top layer of snow melts then refreezes, creating a barrier for air to get to the hive.
- Weigh down the lid to make sure it doesn’t blow off.
Feeding Syrup When It's Cold
If your hive was fed sufficiently in the fall, odds are they won’t need any additional feeding. However, if they did not go into winter with sufficient stores or are eating stores faster than expected, you may need to feed during the winter. This can be challenging since it is difficult for the bees to move around enough in cold weather to access syrup. See Winter Feeding Methods.
Here are some tips to give them the best shot at drinking syrup or having enough food:
- Feed 2:1 syrup. This will allow them to use or store it immediately.
- Use a division board feeder or a top feeder directly over the cluster. The closer the food is to them, the more likely they are to drink it.
- Take a few frames of honey from a different hive with excess honey and place them immediately beside the cluster.
- If the hive is completely out of food, place a gallon-size baggie half full of 2:1 syrup, with all the excess air removed, on the top bars directly above the main cluster, and poke 10-15 small holes or one-inch slits on the top of the bag. This will give the bees direct access to food with minimal movement.
- For southern beekeepers it's not necessary to feed fondant. Some beekeepers feed a thick sugar patty placed on the top bars for winter feeding. This works for northern climates where bees can't access syrup for weeks or months and syrup freezes even inside the hive. Unfortunately, bees have to turn that sugar into a liquid before they can use it. Syrup is much easier for them to use, and in the South, there are plenty of days the bees can access syrup.