What do us beekeepers do in Winter? The short answer is not much. Well, not much beekeeping anyway but there are some important tasks that need doing to ensure the bees make it through to the spring healthy and happy.
Winter is traditionally a quiet time for bees and beekeepers with the cold weather keeping both indoors. Around new year however many of us treat our bees for Varroa using Oxalic acid. Treating with acid sounds a bit grim but Oxalic acid is a naturally occurring acid found in many things, including surprisingly, carrots. It’s harmless to bees of course and is usually administered either by trickling or sublimation. Without going into too much detail the trickling method involves squirting an oxalic acid / sugar solution directly over the bees whilst sublimation involves heating a powder inside the hive until it turns into a kind of smoke. Both methods are statistically one of the best ways to reduce Varroa mite numbers and has become standard practice in the war against these blood sucking parasites.
Woodpeckers and mice can also be a nuisance at this time of year, so keeping an eye out for any damage to the hives by predators like these is a smart thing to do. Another task that a lot of beekeepers perform is a simple bit of observation. Checking the hive entrances are clear of snow or any other debris that might prevent the bees coming/going from their entrance. Bees don’t do much during the winter but they need to leave the hive to spend a penny. Or have a poo to be more blunt. If there’s anything obstructing the entrance then the bees can’t get out, so keeping an eye on this is a good idea.
As the winter progresses, the bees will gradually be eating up their stores and it’s a beekeepers job to make sure that these stores don’t get too low or a colony might starve. Opening a hive in cold temperatures however isn’t recommended so we do something called ‘hefting’ to avoid disturbing a colony. Hefting involves lifting up one side of a hive to gauge its weight. You get better at it with practice but a hive that’s easy to lift would suggest that its stores are running low. To counteract this beekeepers generally place a block of ‘fondant’ (like cake icing) inside the hive - known as emergency feeding. Every beekeeping year is different however and jobs like this will depend on where the hives are located and the weather conditions at the time of year. Lately we’ve had some super cold spring weather and some very mild winters. We once visited our apiary expecting the bees to be hunkered down inside only to find them out on a cleansing flight and we got showered in poo!
Apart from these few hands-on beekeeping tasks, there are a few other things that can be done away from the hives. They broadly encompass preparing for the coming spring, doing tasks that you might not have time for once the bees are more active like preparing new frames, building more supers and cleaning equipment. This kind of planning for the next season during winter can be prudent but is easily put off. Swatting up on the latest techniques and generally reading more books is a good idea too. There are constantly new developments and new ideas around the best way to look after bees and now is the time to do some research.
And that’s about it. Here’s to a cold, brief winter and to everyone’s bees making it through to the spring healthy and happy.