The Wintering honey Bee


Will our Tenacious Wee Bees survive the winter?

The west coast of Scotland has some horrible periods during the winter months. As I write, the UK has just suffered from Storm Arwen; gale force winds, sub-zero temperatures and snow. There have been power cuts, stranded cars, overturned lorries and even, horrifically, deaths caused by the storm. Imagine being a tiny wee bee out in that, your only shelter a wooden box; no brick walls, no central heating. As first year beekeepers, this is such a worrying time for us, as we approach our first winter. Have we done enough to set our bees up for the season? Will they survive? Or will we open up the hive in spring to discover that the colony has perished. For several reasons, a percentage of colonies just won’t make it through the winter. In the winter of 2018/19, which is the most recent published data I’ve managed to find, UK hive losses were approximately 9% – that’s almost 1 in every 10 colonies dying! In Scotland, that number was a rather horrifying 21% loss rate! I can’t imagine how heartbreaking it is to discover in the spring that that’s happened to the bees you’ve been so carefully nurturing.

There are actions a beekeeper can take to stack the odds in the bees’ favour and to give them the best possible chance of coming through relatively unscathed. Below I high;ight the main dangers and what we’ve done to counter them.

Death of your colony over winter is likely caused by one of the following:

1. Starvation

Honey bees need plenty of stores to see them through the lean months. In the lead up to autumn we kept track on how much honey and pollen the bees had stored. And to give them a boost, we gave them fondant as well (not quite Dr Oetker’s, but close!) Strong colonies will build up good stores, but weaker hives may need help, particularly if nature has conspired to produce poor nectar flows and little pollen. We can’t go into the hives during the winter except in case of emergency, as we can’t risk chilling the cluster of bees as they huddle to stay warm, but we can “heft” the hives,
that is lift up one side to monitor how heavy the hive is – as the bees eat their way through the stores, the hive lightens considerably.

2. Weak or Infested hives

One of the key parts of our summertime weekly inspections is to monitor the health of the hive and check for varroa mite (a parasitic mite which in itself isn’t too much of a threat but which, like mosquitoes to humans, carries a virus that harms the new, emerging bees). It is vital to treat hives with signs of varroa in the lead up to autumn, to minimise the mite numbers and again in winter when the hive is broodless – but details of that are for another post.

3. Damp

As mentioned above, the bees form a cluster to generate and conserve heat (and this is generally formed around the precious queen, to protect her). They can therefore deal with very cold temperatures, but what they can’t prevent are damp, mouldy conditions. Our preparation to help with this is insulation at the top of the hive (thank you kindly neighbour, who threw an offcut of Kingspan into a skip) and ventilation at the bottom of the hive. This should prevent condensation forming on the roof of the hive, to drip back onto the bees.

4. Mice

If they get a chance, mice love to nest in that nice, dry hive full of food. A mouse guard is a metal strip drilled with holes just large enough for the bees, but too small for mice to pass through (see the photo above). As long as the rest of the hive is in good condition, with no sizeable cracks or holes, that should do the trick.

There are other causes for a hive loss and sometimes the exact cause for a loss will remain a mystery. All we can do is give the bees the best conditions to see themselves through the winter, and to trust everything else to them. That’s certainly our approach, but it’s going to be a long tense, nail-biting winter waiting to be able to see if they’re okay.

Caroline & Andy

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