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Do not disturb. We are overwintering!

How to help bees through the winter: Interview with Peter Trodtfeld, Bayer Bee Care Center

Oct 20, 2014
Do not disturb. We are overwintering!

Peter, what is going on in Northern hemisphere beehives in October?
The longer-lived winter bees of a honey bee colony are now fully developed. Their health is extremely important, because they need to survive for 6 months, supplying the queen with food and keeping her warm during the dark winter days! So hopefully, all beekeepers have done a health check after the last honey harvest in August and treated the hive against Varroa mites, if necessary.


What do you do with weak honey bee colonies?

Weak honey bee colonies have a reduced chance of winter survival, so if you have one, it’s best to combine it with a stronger one; or you can merge two weak ones to form one robust honey bee colony. But this needs to be done in late summer or early autumn to get strong winter bee colonies before the winter period starts.

What does the beekeeper have to do now?
October is the month to clean the honey chambers and to start thinking about a mouse guard along the entrance of the hive. Once the night frost starts in November, mice will be looking for a winter nesting site. A beehive is a cozy place for them, when the bees are rendered immobile and defenseless in their winter cluster.

Do you do any more feeding now?
From late summer to autumn, beekeepers feed their honey bees with 16-18 kg of winter feed to last them through the winter. But if the late autumn is mild and they continue flying until late in the year, they need more. Beekeepers need to be aware of this now and provide additional food if necessary.

When do you apply the last mite treatment of the year?
After the first severe frost, the queen stops laying eggs which means that 21 days later, the colony is brood-free. This usually happens at some stage between mid-November and mid-December. This is the moment to control any remaining Varroa mites. I dissolve the active compound in sugar water and trickle the solution between the frames. This can be a chemical solution or the biological oxalic acid. 
December, without any flight activity of the honey bees, is also the time to relocate the hive to a new site if required. When temperatures rise and they start flying again, they will happily accept any new location.

How do I protect the hives against snow and ice?
Give them a tin roof against rain or hail, and a stone on the roof to brace this against the wind, that’s all. You do not need to keep the bees warm or isolated against the cold.
What is important, however, is to make sure that the hives are sufficiently ventilated. A gridded bottom board aids in hive ventilation and prevents mold building up in the hive.

Is there something the beekeeper should refrain from doing?
In the winter period once temperatures drop below 10°C (50 F) the bees’ message is: “Do not disturb too much. We are overwintering.” Don’t open the honey bee hives during the winter period, if it is not necessary, even if you are mighty curious about how they are faring and whether your Varroa mite treatment was successful. You can control the colony weight to check the consumption of winter food, and monitor the number of dead Varroa on the hive base. The last Varroa winter treatment should be the only time you open the hives in-between. After that, if you have done your job well, you sit back and wait until spring to find out.

How do I know the moment has come for a first glance into the hive?
Your honey bees will let you know when they start into the next season, by flying out when temperatures rise above 10°C, collecting pollen from the first spring blossoms.

Peter Trodtfeld, Bee Health Expert at the Bayer Bee Care Center

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