Preparing the JBA bee hives for winter

In our final blog of the season from the JBA bee hives, Andy Evans explains how honey bees prepare for winter – and how beekeepers can give them a helping hand to get through the cooler months.

As the weather turns to mist and the nights begin to chill, beekeepers start to think about extracting honey from their hives and preparing them for winter. It’s a time for re-balancing and consideration. For the majority of beekeepers, removing excess honey stored by the bees is the most obvious and explicit reason for keeping bees – though you’d be surprised how little importance it has for many in reality. This time of year we start to think about taking the summer’s production. And if there’s flowering heather locally, we think about setting up the hive for heather honey and moving the bees nearer to the heather.

Most honey is spun from the frames of wax using a spinner like an old fashion washing machine, but heather honey thickens when you spin it and stays on the frames, so beekeepers will often put in wax frames that can be cut up for honeycombs instead.

Preparing the hives for winter

Honey bees at the JBA hives

The main autumnal balancing act is how much honey you leave for the bees. In the winter, bees will ball-up into a mass in the centre of the hive to keep warm, and while they don’t do much, they do need honey to survive and to keep moving to warm the hive. While you can top-up honey stores with sugar solution in a feeder at the top of the hive, it’s not great practice to take so much honey that the bees need this. As it happens, our bees arrived quite late in the season, so we’ll be leaving them all the honey they collected this year, and we’ll probably feed them over winter as well.

The second balancing act is whether to merge smaller hives together. You need a significant mass of bees over winter, or the cluster they form in the centre of the hive isn’t warm enough. Again, our bees arrived fairly late and are a bit marginal in terms of colony size, so we may consider merging the hives together to make one big hive.

Protecting the hives during cold spells

Preparing the JBA bee hives for winter - bee feeder
Feeder for overwintering bees

The final thing to think through is how much protection to give the hives over winter. During summer bees can usually repel most native intruders. Invasive species such as a hive beetle or Asian hornet are a different matter. During winter, however, other animals can creep into the hive and eat the wax and honey while the bees are clustered up, so beekeepers will generally reduce the hive entrance in some way – we’ll probably put on a mouse guard, which is a sheet of metal with holes drilled in it so the bees can get out if they feel like it but small rodents can’t get in. We might also think about insulating the hive in some way, though the danger with that is that damp can build up in the hive bringing cold and mould.

Leaving the hive in its ‘natural’ state at the mercy of the cold is just as likely to be a problem, so there are no easy answers. Getting this balance right is 90% luck, and every spring it is with great anticipation beekeepers look for the first signs that their colonies have made it through the winter to enjoy the first flowers of spring.

Want to know more?

Well, that’s all from the JBA bee hives for this season. We hope you’ve enjoyed following the honey bees as much as we have.

Andy will be keeping a close eye on the JBA bee hives throughout the coming winter months, ensuring that our bees continue to thrive and are protected during the cold weather. We hope to see you again in the spring with more updates.

Preparing the JBA bee hives for winter

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