Winter Prep

For colonies to survive the winter, you need healthy winter bees

Colonies raise these winter bees predominantly in August and September, just as varroa mite levels peak nationwide.

Varroa Mites Sampling by Month Chart
On average, varroa mite levels exceed the recommended treatment threshold of 3 mites per 100 bees from July through November in the United States. This means that varroa peaks right when colonies are rearing long lived winter bees. Figure reproduced from Traynor, Kirsten S., et al. “Multiyear survey targeting disease incidence in US honey bees.” Apidologie 47.3 (2016): 325-347.

There are four key aspects to winter prep that help ensure the survival of your colony through the winter:

  1. A high quality queen with an excellent brood pattern
  2. Low varroa pressure, so bees can rear healthy, long-lived winter bees
  3. Plenty of incoming pollen to provide protein to the nurse bees, so they rear healthy brood
  4. A nectar flow, so the queen expands her broodnest again after the summer dearth

1. High Quality Queen

Colonies need a healthy queen with a good brood pattern, as a good queen will allow the colony to have a large population of healthy bees. Big clusters winter much better than small clusters, as they can better thermoregulate colony temperatures. The larger size also allows the cluster to stay in contact with food stores more readily; they occupy more space and so can more easily move up into additional stores. A small cluster may consume all the food in their vicinity during a cold snap. If you have a poor quality queen in late summer, it is better to “pinch” (eliminate) her. If the remaining bees are healthy, combine them with another colony. Beekeepers typically have greater success wintering a few large colonies than more small-to-medium sized colonies.

2. Low Varroa Pressure

Varroa mites naturally peak in colonies right when colonies are rearing their winter bees. Winter bees differ from summer bees. They have more fat body, which produces a special protein called vitellogenin (VG). This VG protein is an egg-yolk precursor that bees add to brood food. VG also allows bees to live longer and is abundant in winter bees. Unfortunately new research by Dr. Samuel Ramsey is showing that varroa mites feed on fat body, potentially reducing the amount of VG. Bees parasitized by varroa are shorter lived. So if you want your bees to be healthy enough to make it through the winter, you need a low varroa mite population in July, August and September.

Monitor your varroa levels: It’s best to monitor your varroa levels and have a management strategy in mind if levels exceed 3 mites per 100 bees. The Varroa EasyCheck (M014908) makes mite monitoring simple.

Mites higher than 3: There are several treatment options available, depending on your mite management plan and local temperature conditions. Very effective synthetic options include Apivar (M01490) an amitraz based product and Apistan (M001261) a fluvalinate based product. If you want to manage your bees organically Apiguard (M01480) a thymol based product and two formic acid products Formic Pro (M01464) and Mite Away Quick Strips (M01460 or M01461) work well, but have temperature restrictions.

3. Pollen

Bees require protein rich pollen to rear the next generation. Not all areas have late summer and early fall pollen sources available. If you want to give your bees a protein boost, feed AP23 Patties (M0016010PH) or mix your own patties with AP23 Dry (M0016005) as part of your winter prep.

4. Nectar

A queen will significantly reduce her egg laying during a nectar dearth. Some regions of the United States have very little nectar resources in late summer and early fall. If you live in an area where colonies don’t have nectar coming in, you may want to feed to stimulate the queen to expand her broodnest starting in early August. There are a variety of feeders available, such as the Entrance Feeder (M00826) or the Division Board Feeder (M00859). To feed larger quantities at once, use a Wooden Hive Top Feeder (10-frame: M01454 and 8-frame: M01453).

Winter Prep Starts in Summer

Low Mites + Protein + Nectar = Healthy Colonies

Every beekeeper wants to winter their colonies successfully. Ensure the right conditions with smart winter prep so you can bring the same number into the spring that you prepped for winter.