Overwintering Honey Bees
Football, pumpkins, evening bonfires and countryside drives to see the changing colors of leaves. We can feel it. Summer ends and fall begins a change in seasons which causes trees to show their vibrant colors as nature prepares for a new season. Many are unaware that this transitional period, from summer to winter, is crucial to the honey bee. While not native to the United States, the honey bee has developed many survival mechanisms since being introduced to America in the 17th century by Europeans (Horn, 2008).
The onset of fall is an important time for the honey bee. Colonies have gone through summer, expanding colony size, fighting off colony parasites such as small hive beetles and Varroa mites and utilizing floral resources to survive the summer dearth. Fall is the beginning of winter survival for honey bees.
As the temperatures start to change, the bees reduce the intake of nectar and pollen in the hive and work feverishly to collect winter stores to survive the cold months. Propolis, collected from tree buds and tree sap, is used in the hive to seal any cracks and reduce the entrance size in an effort to keep cold air out. Then, like magic, cool air moves in and bees begin to cluster around the queen when temperatures are between 50 and 57 degrees (“Winter Cluster”) in attempt to keep her safe and warm. If all goes well, the colony survives the winter months and the cycle resumes in the spring.
As a beekeeper, overwintering honey bees has been a real learning experience. In my second winter of owning bees, my dad and I have experimented and feel we have honed our overwintering technique with three key practices that greatly increase the survival of honey bees during the winter.
First, colony health is key. According to Mr. Steve Turner, owner of Honeyton Farms, “The number one most important factor is treating hives for mites.” As late fall arrives, we found it is essential to treat for Varroa mites. These pesky parasites, introduced in the 1980s to the United States (Rogers, 2018) will wreak havoc on a colony. The mites not only attach themselves to adult bees but also enter brood cells just prior to capping and cause colony destruction. If the colony is not closely examined, losses may be mistaken for winter mortality or queenlessness (Bessin, n.d.). After my first experience observing overwintering bees, I believe that one of our colonies absconded because of failure to treat for Varroa mites leading up to the winter months.
A second practice I use to increase my colonies’ chances of survival revolves around food. Food is critical to survival of a colony over the winter. According to Arkansas apiary inspector Danny Brewer, “During wet summers, we will have plenty of forage, but in dry summers a colony of bees may starve to death because of location and/or lack of foliage due to drought-like conditions.” I learned this the hard way during my first year as a beekeeper.
Having successfully caught a couple of swarms with my dad late in the summer, I assumed my new colony would have time to build up stores for the winter. I supplemented feeding into the fall, thinking all was well. As spring approached, I was devastated to find bees dead with their heads stuck in cells, which is indicative of starvation. This was an important lesson for me which led to more research around how to increase bee survival through the winter months. My research led me to a solution that seems to be working. The “Mountain Camp” method of feeding bees is simple yet effective by providing multiple benefits to a colony.
Mountain Camp feeding involves putting dry sugar inside the hive. Normally this is done by placing a piece of newspaper on the top bars, pouring dry sugar in, spritzing the sugar with water and replacing the inner cover, adding shims and then the telescoping lid. This allows honey bees direct access to food once the colony clusters. An additional benefit of this method of feeding is moisture control. The dry sugar absorbs moisture and prevents condensation from falling down on the bees (Hubbard, 2016). This has proven to be very beneficial for us during the wintering season.
Above all else, the process of calling oneself a beekeeper involves one thing that is continual: Learning. In today’s world, access to data through internet websites, social media and local bee clubs make learning so much easier than for those who came before us as beekeepers. I’ve found that, for the most part, beekeepers are eager to share their knowledge to help others be successful in this endeavor. This is good news for the future of our precious resource, the honey bee!
Bessin, Ric. “Varroa Mite Infesting Honey Bee Colonies.” Entomology at the University of Kentucky, University of Kentucky. Accessed 6 Feb. 2020.
Brewer, Danny. Facebook Messenger interview. Conducted by Libby Majors, 2 Feb. 2020.
Horn, Tammy. “Honey Bees: A History.” The New York Times, 11 April 2008.
Hubbard, Charlotte. “Winter Prep.” Hubbardhive, WordPress, 2016.
Rogers, Dick. “Ongoing Hive Management: Defending against Varroa.” Bee Care, Bayer Global, 2018.
Turner, Steve. Facebook Messenger interview. Conducted by Libby Majors, 11 Jan. 2020.
“Winter Cluster.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Feb. 2020.