Roy Lee Carter – Gulf County Extension Director
Although overwintering management of bee hives differs according to regional winter conditions, there are some fundamentals that apply everywhere. When helping your bees prepare for the upcoming hardships of winter months, some of the main concerns are: food storage, the arrangement of the food, hive ventilation, disease prevention, queen quality, and weather protection.
Determining whether the bees have enough food is critical to their survival through the winter. Here in North Florida it is recommended that at least one full medium super, or 40 to 60 pounds of honey or syrup be reserved for each hive. Feed colonies if food stores are inadequate.
The arrangement of food in the hive is almost as important as the quantity. At the beginning of autumn if the colony is “honey-bound,” that is, there is so much honey that every available cell in the brood nest is filled, remove (extract) some of the honey from the brood nest so that the bees will have empty cells to form the winter cluster. It is important not to extract too much honey, just 3-4 frames to give the bees an area to cluster. This should be done only if no empty cells are available.
Provide adequate ventilation. During winter, the temperature at the center of the cluster is maintained at 90 to 93 degrees F. Without adequate ventilation, the warm air from the cluster rises, hits the cold inner cover, and condensation drips down onto the bees as ice-cold water. To guard against this, you can prop the outer cover open with a small stick, or cut a notch in the rim of the inner cover to allow moist air to escape.
Diseased colonies rarely survive winter. In early autumn, feed colonies Terramycin for preventing American and European foul brood and fumidil B for treating and preventing Nosema. If your bees have tracheal mites, a fall treatment with menthol or vegetable oil extender patties will improve chances of winter survival.
Overwintering colonies must be “queenright,” preferably with young, productive queens. The term queenright is defined as: a colony of bees with a properly functioning queen. Young queens lay eggs later in fall and begin earlier in spring than do older queens. Additionally, the queen’s mere presence increases worker survival.
Finally, when your colonies are well fed, well configured, ventilated, healthy, and queenright you can turn to weather protection. Year-round, colonies should face south to southeast to maximize sun exposure; they should be on high ground to allow drainage of cold air, and they should be shielded from direct wind. Reduce colony entrances to minimize drafts and to exclude mice from the hive.
For additional information on this and other beekeeping topics please visit the following UF/IFAS beekeeping publications:
Explaining the Best Management Practices for Maintaining European Honey Bee Colonies
Florida’s Climate and Its Beekeeping