Winterizing bee hives improves outcomes for overwintering colonies, but how to prepare your hives for cold winter weather depends on the severity of the season in your area. There are many steps to squaring away your hives for winter, but checklists work to make sure you haven't missed any important details. Follow the processes and steps outlined in this hive inspection and winterization checklist as you prepare your bees for winter, and download a printable version of the checklist to keep it handy as you work.
- 1) Feeders OFF - Remove any feeders, including any boxes that surround them. You don't want to have any empty space on top of the hive. You can leave a frame feeder in place. If you think your hive might be short of honey, install a feeding shim or an extra deep inner cover to make space for supplemental feeding later in the winter, if needed.
- 2) Entrance reducer installed with the smaller notch facing upwards. Unlike in the summer, in cold weather undertaker bees don't remove bees that die in the hive. During a long cold spell, the corpses will accumulate in a thick layer that may completely block the entrance. Turning the entrance reducer so the opening faces upward will help keep the entrance open even if there are lots of dead bees on the floor of the hive.
- 3) Mouse guard ON - As the bees start to cluster together, they pull away from guarding the entrance, so mice can slip inside. The mice will make a mess, chewing on combs and relieving themselves wherever they please.
- 4) Queen excluder OFF - Leaving a queen excluder in place under a super that you're using for winter stores will trap the queen underneath it when the bee cluster needs to migrate upwards past the excluder to access the winter honey. This could lead to the loss of the hive.
- 5) Make sure top box is full of honey (or syrup). Remove any empty boxes. If you returned wet supers to get them cleaned out, take them off before winter. If you were feeding and the bees didn't put any stores in the top box, remove it. The only safe place for an empty box is in the lowest position, but it's better to remove it altogether.
- 6) Decide if you're using an upper entrance. Upper holes allow bees to exit the hive for cleansing flights, and also lets moisture (and some heat) escape all winter; opinions differ on whether this is helpful or not. A feeding shim or a deep inner cover both create upper entrances, as well as providing room for supplemental feed. If you have a traditional inner cover with a notch, you can "open" or "close" the upper entrance by pulling the overhanging outer cover against the notch hole or not.
- 7) Foam insulation panel tucked up inside the telescoping cover. Putting a 1” thick piece of foam insulation up inside the cover will help keep the interior of the hive warmer and drier. Once installed, it can stay there year-round. Just like in your house, attic insulation keeps you both warmer in winter and cooler in the summer.
- 8) Hive strapped or weighted down with a rock or bricks to make sure the cover can't be blown off in a storm. The consequences of this during winter are much more severe than in warmer weather – and you might not notice the problem in time to fix it!
- 9) Insulation installed (if using).Winter insulation is something that some beekeepers believe in, and some don't. It undoubtedly gives your bees an extra edge in cold regions, or during unseasonably cold weather. You can use a winter hive wrap, or make your own from foam insulation panels. Read more about winter insulation here.
10) Hive tipped slightly forward to allow any free moisture to drain out. Just slide a couple of wood door shims under the back corners of your hives.
Finally, if your bee yard is exposed to fierce winter winds and drifting snow, consider installing a windbreak upwind of the hives. A windbreak creates a downwind sheltered area equal to about 30 times its height and provides protection from drifting snow out as far out as three times its height. However, in areas just beyond these protected zones, there is increased wind turbulence and drifting. When designing a windbreak, make sure it extends well beyond the width of the area needing protection in order to get the most benefit. Windbreaks can be made from temporary fencing, including snow fencing and landscape fabrics stapled to posts. They can also be made from shipping pallets anchored with metal fence posts. Some beekeepers use stacked hay bales. If using hay, however, make sure the hay is at least several feet away from the hives. This protects the hives from excess moisture and it also prevents the hay from becoming a haven for field mice and shrews which may invade your hives.
Keep your front entrance area dry
Once Election Day is past, leftover political signs make great awnings for your hives. Set one on top of the hive sticking out in front about 6" to keep snow and sleet off the entrance area.