Updated: Oct 2
Winter bees need to survive 6 months instead of the spring/summer life cycle of 6 weeks and in order to get through the winter months, a colony needs to be strong and healthy, have a safe nest and enough food and protection from predators. The colony also needs sufficient bees to cluster tightly together for warmth so it’s beneficial to start winter with plenty of young bees.
Winter preparations slowly start to take place from mid-August through to September. Honey bees need treating around this time, for Varroa (a parasitic mite which lives on the bees, can’t be eradicated but needs controlling ) in order to protect the last new bees who will over winter and start the colony going in the spring. Most beekeepers apply an effective Varroa treatment after the honey harvest so that the population is as low as possible going into winter.
A strong colony needs about 40llbs of honey stores to see them through winter. Once excess honey supers have been removed in August/September time, the bees can be given an autumn feed of sugar syrup, generally until the end of September, to ensure they have sufficient stores. Adult bees also eat a lot of pollen and store this in their bodies as food reserves, they also pack pollen preserved with a little honey into cells and cap it as protein reserves for winter and early spring when there is new brood to feed.
Bees need to be in a dry place over winter as it’s the damp that kills them, not the cold. In autumn bees will propolis hive parts (using tree sap) to ensure their home is watertight and as the weather gets colder, the bees cluster together to keep warm (like the arctic penguins). Some beekeepers insulate the hive for winter with a layer of insulation material under the roof of the hive to keep out the cold. The entrance must be kept clear for both ventilation purposes and to allow the bees to go on cleansing flights or short foraging trips. Apiary sites should be sheltered from strong winds and roofs can be secured with bricks. Once bees are clustered they no longer have guard bees posted at the entrance so are vulnerable to predators such as mice that are looking for a warm place to spend winter with a food supply. Mouse guards can be fitted to keep them out.
Apiary sites need choosing carefully to ensure that they have good access in all weather, firm but well-drained ground, sunny, not in a frost pocket and with good air circulation, etc and not subject to high winds and gales. It is important to still monitor the hives during the cold months you can also heft (lift) the hive to check its weight and if it is getting particularly light, then chances are that they may need some fondant to see them through. It is advisable to do this every other week.
During this time the beehives show very little activity and look almost abandoned but inside is a different matter, as we head towards spring, the worker bees will start to feed the queen bee more food and this will trigger her to start laying increasing numbers of eggs and by the time the beekeeper does his/her first spring inspection, the brood should be quite large and then the fun and hard work start again!
I just heard this week that David Beckham (footballer) took up beekeeping during the lockdown, is smitten with it (hardly surprising) and intends to start a new business venture selling his honey. This prompted me to research as a bit of fun, what other ‘famous’ people apart from Bill Turnbull and David Beckham, has been involved with keeping bees. Here’s what I found - Agnes Baden Powell (sister of Robert Baden Powell who established the Girl Guide movement) Vince Cable (politician) Scarlett Johansson (actress) Sir Edmund Hilary( mountaineer) Leo Tolstoy ( Russian author) Leonardo Di Caprio (actor) and Sylvia Plath (American poet and novelist).
Well there you go you never know who's into bees!!!