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Beekeeping in Winter

'Formby Library beehives, early Winter 2020' - credit Andrea Ku

As the temperatures drop and the sun isn’t as high in the sky, honeybees will keep to themselves and mostly stay in their nest.

Unlike most bumble bees and solitary bees, honeybees don’t hibernate but are active all through winter. They have a lot less work to do during the colder months as they huddle, or cluster, into the middle of the nest, and keep each other warm and fed.

There should be drones (males) in the hive as they have no purpose in the colder months. The purpose of drones is to mate with a virgin queen from another colony. As there are no virgin queens from autumn to the following spring, the drones should have been turfed out by their sisters, the workers, in autumn. As the drones only have a 1 track mind and are not capable of working or helping the others in the hive, the workers don’t want vital resources wasted on them, so out they go! The queen will not lay male eggs until spring the following year so the colony is an all female democracy from now until spring!

If honey has been harvested during the year, beekeepers will feed the bees with a supplement of sugar water (approx. 1L water to 600-700ml warm water) from August to October and then a more solid substance of fondant (like the icing on an iced bun) until February. If no honey has been harvested, the bees can enjoy the honey they have foraged all summer for. I personally either don’t take off any honey or I leave over 20kg of honey in a hive. Whatever is excess to this, I will harvest. I don’t take off more than I want because the bees have made this for themselves and anything extra is a little for me.

Another job some beekeepers do is to treat their colonies. It’s not flowers and chocolates (although the idea sounds lovely!), but to treat against a certain pest called varroa. There wont be just 1 varroa mite, there’ll be hundreds, possible thousands, may tens of thousands! Varroa is a tiny mite approx. 2-3mm wide, it’s a dark red colour and kind of looks like a crab. Up close, it’s a bit more frightening looking than a crab and this magnified image is what the bees would see!

Image of a varroa mite by photographer and writer, Marc G Airhart

Treatments can be put on at any time of year depending. I experiment and use different treatments for different colonies at different times of year, to see which I feel works best.

Treating colonies from autumn – spring is vital as this is the time when the varroa population can increase while the honeybee numbers are decreasing. Not all beekeepers like to use treatment but this is personal preference. Our local bee inspector is quite adamant that colonies in quite dense urban areas need to be treated just because of the proximity of other colonies.

For more information on Varroa, please visit for more detailed information

For now, in November, very little else needs doing. It would be a good time to catch up on cleaning, painting and stocking up for the season to start as this always comes around a lot sooner than we think!

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