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WINTER MANIPULATION

Beekeeping is all about understanding rhythm of the season and how it applies to the rhythm and timing of the beehives’ development. A beehive will grow starting in February and recede into September when managed in the Prairies, following a strong bell curve. This bell curve of normal development should guide your management, even as you head into the winter months.

 

Beehive activity decreases throughout the cold winter months from October-February. and the weather will keep you from opening or managing your colonies through these months. This is why it is imperative that you manipulate and organize your hives in an effective way to ensure that the bees are best able to access their food stores, regulate hive temperature, ventilate moisture from the colony, and allow periodic cleansing flights.

Compressing Your Beehive

 

In the late fall, your brood nest will naturally recede as the night-time temperatures begin to drop below 10°C and daylight hours decrease into the equinox. You may find that in a few weeks, your brood nest can decrease by half.

MANY BEEKEEPERS FEAR THAT THEY ARE QUEENLESS AT THE POINT OF HIVE RECESSION. WAIT! LOOK FOR QUEEN CELLS OR FIND SOME EGGS, EVEN A FEW BEFORE YOU THINK ABOUT INTRODUCING ANOTHER QUEEN. IF YOU DON'T SEE QUEEN CELLS AND CAN FIND A COUPLE OF EGGS, YOU'RE IN THE CLEAR. YOU'RE QUEENRIGHT.

As the brood nest compresses, there will be empty combs found throughout the brood nest. The bees will start to back fill these cells with pollen as the colony moves in to the year’s final flow of pollen and nectar, the Fall Flow.

 

When compressing the beehive it is essential that all of the brood is compressed into the bottom middle of the beehive. If you have more brood than space in your bottom box (9 or 10 frames), wait a week or so to compress the brood and allow your colony to naturally recede.

 

According to the Alberta Beaverlodge Research Centre, honey bee colonies require 65 – 85 lbs of honey to survive the prairie winter. A frame of honey weighs an average of 7 lbs. So stores of 8 – 9 frames of honey is required.

Overwintering Doubles

 

Doubles consist of two standard Langstroth boxes filled with 9 or 10 frames. The bottom box is a mixture of brood, pollen and honey, with the brood consolidated to the centre of the box, with pollen encompassing the cluster of the brood nest, and the residue of space is filled with honey. The second box above the bottom box is filled with honey combs.

 

Compressing from multiple boxes into a double can be overwhelming, especially if you have more than three boxes. Here is a step-by-step strategy on how to compress your beehives and harvest capped honey simultaneously.

Compressing in to a Double

You will need a single standard box, large container with a lid, an old bed sheet and a hand washing station for rinsing honey off of your tools and hands in excess of your usual beekeeping equipment,

 

  • Top box is tipped on its narrow side with the inner-cover intact and unopened up to 5 feet from the colony. This is done to decrease the number of disturbed bees.
  • This is done to all of the boxes in excess of the bottom two boxes.
  • The box second from the bottom is placed above an upside down telescoping lid crossways, to allow it to be suspended. Any bees that fall out of the box will land in to the inside of the lid.
  • You begin inspection of the bottom box starting closest to you, like a filing cabinet.
  • All empty combs found in the bottom box are removed.
  • These empty frames are tipped gently against the outside of the bottom box after being inspected for a queen.
  • Inspect the second box for brood, and add brood to the cluster in the bottom box if found.
  • Once brood is consolidated in to the bottom box, all brood is surrounded by pollen dominated frames to ensure healthful and convenient feeding in the final months of production.
  • Once the bottom box is filled with 9 or 10 frames, smoke the bees down, scrape the top of the frames, place scraped combs into your container, and stack the second box above.
  • Move box three on to the upside-down telescoping lid and inspect like a filing cabinet, starting closest to you.
  • Move heavy frames of honey into the second box.
  • Once filled, the remaining honey is your surplus.
  • Place the empty standard box on to the bed sheet. This will be the location where you place your shaken and brushed empty combs and honey combs. Cover the box with the sheet after each deposit to restrict robbing.
  • Brush all of the bees off of the frames and into the double stack.
  • Once complete, take honey and comb filled boxes in to you honey extraction location.
  • If concerned for hive vitality or stores, start liquid feeding.

 

Before wrapping your beehive for winter, it is important that a final check is done to ensure that they have not exhausted honey stores beyond your preparation and that the colony is in good condition.

Overwintering Singles

 

A single is a standard Langstroth box filled with 9 or 10 frames depending on preference. Overwintering single brood boxes is a common practice in cold climates and has success if done correctly. It is imperative that single overwintered colonies are jammed with honey stores or dry feed.

 

This is to ensure that a larger cluster does not starve. In order to ensure that a colony has enough stores, compression of the beehive takes place in two rounds. The initial compression, moving a multiple boxed hive in to a double, with brood compressed to the bottom box after the first hard frost, a second compression event must take place. Here are the actions to be taken.

Compressing in to a Single

  • Top box is placed above an upside down telescoping lid crossways, to allow it to be suspended. Any bees that fall out of the box will land in to the inside of the lid.
  • You begin inspection of the bottom box starting closest to you, like a filing cabinet.
  • All empty combs found in the bottom box are removed.
  • These empty frames are tipped gently against the outside of the bottom box after being inspected for a queen.
  • All brood is surrounded by pollen dominated frames to ensure healthful and convenient feeding of brood in the final months of production.
  • Inspection of second box as it sits crossways on the upside-down telescoping lid.
  • Inspect for brood. Any remaining brood is placed beside other brood in the bottom box.
  • Back fill the bottom box with honey from the second box until full.
  • Shake and then brush the bees on the remaining empty combs in to the hive just prior to placing the inner-cover on the box.
  • If concerned for hive vitality or stores, start liquid feeding.

Overwintering Top Bar Hives

 

Top Bar Hives (TBH) come in various sizes and lengths. Whether you have a narrow side entrance or a long side entrance, the principals are the same: consolidate brood, consolidate honey. In our apiary, our TBHs have duplicate supers mirrored above with a supering lid allowing for bee movement between cavities. It also ensures that the equipment used within the colony is consistent.

 

If your TBH colony is in a double, it will have to be compressed in to a single TBH for winter. This is to ensure easy movement of the bees throughout the long cavity, and decrease the loss of heat through the top box. If your TBH colony is a long single, then you will need to inspect and consolidate the brood nest and honey stores.

 

TBHs with long side entrances are at a higher risk of starvation in the winter months if honey is not consolidated. This is because a beehive will organize its brood rearing location nearest to the entrance for temperature regulation. A long side entrance will cause honey stores to be split at both ends. When winter arrives, the colony will move to the opposite side of the cavity once rations at their location become sparse. This can cause starvation with an excess of honey stores within the colony. If it’s more than a couple empty combs away, the bees struggle to move through that space as the honey is not there to work as a thermal regulator, absorbing heat from the bees and emitting it back to them when temperatures drop.

THIS IS WHY CONSOLIDATING HONEY IS SO IMPORTANT IN ALL BEEHIVES. THE EASIER IT IS FOR BEES TO ACCESS WINTER STORES, THE GREATER THEIR DEFENCE AGAINST STARVATION.

Compressing A Top Bar Hive

Top bar beehives are a fun and unique method of beekeeping. It encourages natural comb development, decreases in the physical weight the beekeeper is responsible for lifting, and honey harvesting does not require much more than the appliances found in a home. But when managing bees, care and consideration for the colony heading in to winter must be taken in to account, no matter what hive body you select. Here are some general recommendations for al TBHs headed towards a prairie winter.

  • Inspect your TBH from the back to the front. Most brood will be placed nearest the entrance of the colony. If a comb breaks on your initial inspection, then it decreases the risk that it will be heavy with brood.
  • When brood is found, compress the brood to the back end of the hive, closest to where you started working.
  • Place excess honey combs in a holding station, e.g. another TBH, file box, nuc box or stand.
  • If your beehive is supered without a queen excluder, you will keep your bottom TBH open with the brood consolidated and the excess frames in the holding station as you open the second TBH to inspect for brood.
  • Compress all brood to the back end of the hive body away from the entrance. The honey excess will be stored closest to the entrance as your bees will migrate toward the entrance during the winter months for ventilation and cleansing flight access.

Excess Honey

 

It is a good habit to store 2-3 frames of honey over the winter for spring feeding. This eliminates any concerns that can come from artificially feeding syrup when temperatures fluctuate between below freezing to high teens within the same week. Honey has a controlled moisture content that is isolated from the bees unless uncapped by the bees when needed.

 

Many new beekeepers become concerned when honey stored in combs becomes crystallized, and worry that the bees can no longer eat it. This is false. Honey crystallizes naturally depending on the concentration of fructose in the foraged nectar. Some plants have higher fructose in the foraged nectar. Some plants that have higher fructose will stay liquid for longer, like acacia honey. But honey stored sourced from plants that produce a higher ratio of glucose, like rapeseed honey, will crystallize quickly. Storing honey in a freezer is an active way to decrease the rate of crystallization. The colder the temperature, the slower the molecular activity and the process of crystallization. Once at room temperature, honey will remain liquid until molecular activity of crystallization takes place.

 

Storing honey over the winter for bees is best done in a cool-cold place. This is more for the inhibition of wax moth proliferation. Wax moths can consume a box of wax and honey in a couple months of warm temperatures in storage. Therefore storing boxes of honey wrapped in heavy garbage bags, or topped and bottomed with solid inner covers will keep vermin and debris from accessing the combs. If you want to potentially harvest the honey in the spring if your bees do not need it, it is recommended that you freeze the combs to ensure that they are liquid for removal. By leaving the frames out, they will most likely crystallize.

Short on Stores

 

Whether you are short on honey or pollen stores going in to winter, or find that you have very little food in your beehive left in the spring, it is essential that you prepare for a back-up plan. Feeding your honey bees is always an option, and often a good choice when in doubt. If your colony has sufficient stores, they will not make use of the feed you provide for them. Always aim for 65-85 lbs of honey within your beehive heading into winter with a total of 1-2 full frames of pollen (this can be dispersed throughout multiple frames). If you are light, or worry about the long months of observing your beehive from the outside, go ahead and artificially feed honey substitutes.

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Are you ready to go more in depth with these topics? Our Level One Beekeeping Course is the perfect opportunity to engage with beekeeping on another level. This course has limited seats so make sure to sign up so that we can notify you when registration is open.