Successfully overwintering your colonies can be a complicated task. From large commercial operations to backyard hives, beekeepers need to start preparing for winter months in advance. At NOD Headquarters in Ontario, autumn has arrived. This time of year is often our last chance to manage our colonies before a long Canadian winter. The coldest months of the year in climates like Ontario include nectar and pollen dearths, long periods of clustering, weather unsuitable for flying, and severely restricted brood production or a complete brood break. NOD beekeepers, Tom Nolan and Hannah Neil, share their key steps to getting bees ready for winter—so you can be cracking into stronger, healthier colonies in the spring!
1. Assess Your Colonies
As the days turn cooler, drone production ceases and males are evicted from hives (see more about drones getting the boot in fall). With queens no longer able to mate, any hives left queenless in the fall will not overwinter successfully. To ensure a healthy population of winter bees can be reared in advance of cold weather, your queen status issues should be addressed in mid-late summer. If you have small or queenless colonies, consider reducing the size of the hive box (in the case of queenright colonies with weak populations) or combining with a queenright colony. This should be done only once the weak colony has been inspected and brood disease is ruled out as its reason for being weak. Colonies that are not populous and queenright will not sort themselves out over winter and you should be sure to address this early.
2. Monitor Your Mite Levels
Monitoring mite count is critical to determine if you need to treat for varroa before the winter brood is produced. Ideally, mite checks should be performed monthly, and at minimum in the spring and mid-summer. Use a simple alcohol wash, sampling from a frame with older larva (just before capping) to get a realistic example of a colony’s mite count. In our region during late summer, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) advises a treatment threshold of >3% in an alcohol wash or 12 fallen mites per day on a sticky board is used. Monitoring for mites is advisable before treatments to inform your decision, AND AFTER treatment to ensure efficacy. Check with your local beekeeping association or apiary inspector to determine guidelines for your region.
3. Treat for Varroa Mites
Flexibility is important for fall treatment. If you used a synthetic miticide as a spring treatment, it is a good idea to switch to an option with a different active ingredient in the autumn to avoid the development of resistance. Mite Away Quick Strips™ (MAQS™) and Formic Pro™ are all-natural products made with formic acid that has been used for over 30 years without any known resistance. The ready-to-use strips make for easy application and quick treatment periods, killing varroa mites in the dispersal phase (phoretic) that are found on adult bees and mites under the brood cap where they reproduce. Be sure to perform post-treatment monitoring.
If you find that your chosen treatment was not effective at reducing mite levels to below threshold, a follow-up treatment may be required. Oxalic acid vaporization can be a great option for autumn, as the brood area has shrunk significantly and can be used in outdoor temperatures as low as 3°C/37.4°F. Less capped brood in the hive is better for this option as it does not kill mites under the brood cap, making it especially suitable for early spring or late autumn treatments.
4. Assess Your Hive Configuration
As the colony’s needs change throughout the seasons, so should some key hive components. Entrance reducers should be installed to keep out other insects and mice once the nectar dearth begins and robbing pressure increases. Many beekeepers will swap out screened bottom boards for wintering to reduce drafts in the hive. Specialized winter lids or inner covers with space for top insulation are also a great option for beekeepers in colder climates.
5. Ensure You Have a Proper Feeding Plan
Providing your colonies with ample feed stores is essential to keep honey bees healthy over winter. You should commence feeding after your last honey pull, in late summer or early fall. Assessing your colonies’ needs for feed can be done by weighing hives or tilting them from the back and estimating the weight. A hive should weigh no less than 70 pounds for a single brood chamber and 100 pounds for a double going into Canadian winters. There are a variety of feeders available for overwintering. A tried-and-true method is 2:1 liquid sucrose (66.7% sucrose) in a bucket top feeder. Thick 2:1 syrup is recommended at this time of year in Canada as it reduces the amount of work for the bees to evaporate excess moisture and concentrate the sugars in preparation for winter. Remember: do not feed during your Formic Pro or MAQS treatment period and ensure hives are well-fed before winter wrapping.
6. Wrap Your Hives
If you are beekeeping outside of the honey bee’s native range (Europe, Africa, and the Middle East), insulating the hive may be advisable to conserve the colony’s energy and decrease feed consumption over the winter. Bee Cozy™ Winter Hive Wraps prevent unnecessary heat loss, conserving feed stores over the winter and assisting your bees to brood up faster—so you can split earlier in the spring and be ready for the honey flow. Wrap once temperatures are consistently below cluster point (10°C/50°F) and remove when temperatures are consistently above cluster point and the possibility of snap freezes have passed. Ensure wrapped hives have top and bottom ventilation to reduce the risk of condensation, which further chills the inside of the hive. Watch our YouTube video to learn more about how to install your Bee Cozy Winter Hive Wraps. Wintering colonies in indoor facilities is also an option, but heat, light, and ventilation must be controlled. Temperatures around 5°C/41°F, circulating air, and red lights should be maintained to avoid having the bees break cluster and leave the hive.
Whether we like it or not, we tend to emulate honey bees throughout the seasons. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re finishing a busy summer of fevered work and stocking up for the winter. Once your bees are treated, fed, and insulated, the time has come for us beekeepers to act like our bees: stay inside, snuggle together, and eat honey for the winter!
Wishing you all happy fall beekeeping and a cozy winter ahead.
About Our Authors
Hannah Neil, Beekeeping Coordinator
Hannah Neil is the Beekeeping Coordinator at NOD Apiary Products Ltd. She is an eternally curious and passionate beekeeper with eight years of experience in the industry. She has worked in commercial beekeeping settings and applied honey bee research in the Canadian prairies as well as New Zealand. When she isn’t playing with bees, Hannah enjoys gardening, beeswax crafting, and walking her dog.
Tom Nolan, North American Sales Representative
Tom Nolan is the Founder and Past-President of Urban Toronto Beekeepers Association and lead Sales Representative at NOD Apiary Products Ltd. His personal mission: to ensure the sustainability of honey bee health. He shares this enthusiasm by educating urban beekeepers on best management practices, varroa control, and swarm catching—all while running his successful urban apiary: Hivetown Honey.