Updated: Oct 20, 2020
As I write this, it's 83ºF outside and sunny, so winter isn't exactly on the mind, but it is just around the corner and having a solid plan on wintering your hive(s) can be the difference between opening your hive up to a colony ready to pounce on nectar and pollen and one that is..... well, dead.
Location..... Location..... Location
Standard hives need many things to help keep your bees alive all winter, and one of the most important items is the location of the hive. The hive should have access to sun for the majority of the day to help keep the hive as warm as possible. This would be any South facing direction in the Northern hemisphere and North facing in the Southern hemisphere.
Another critical location aspect is to have a wind break around the hives as cold blowing air will chill a hive far worse than a perfectly calm winter day or night with substantially colder temps. This can be done a few ways, like:
Place bails of hay around your hive.
Use snow fencing and T posts
If you currently have fencing around your hive, you can place landscape fabric on the existing fence.
Place your hives on a tree line and use natural vegetation to protect the hives.
If you have an insulated hive, these tactics certainly can assist in the hive survivability, but become a bit less important. Having the hives in the sun most of the day will also help in orientating the bees on time of day and year.
Insulate Your Hive
If you have an uninsulated hive and live in a climate that gets cold in winter, you'll want to insulate your hive. Bees have evolved to survive these cold climates in the protection of a tree hollow. These trees often provide a insulation value of at least R-6(1) and provide very little ventilation.
Insulation does not provide heat but helps the cluster retain heat. This in turn reduces the amount of energy the bees expel and in return reduces their food consumption. This will also allow the bees to get through any longer stretches of cold. Often clusters in uninsulated hives will starve to death, because they will not break formation to get the honey that is just outside of the cluster. So they starve to death with food in the pantry, so to speak. A insulated hive will also allow the bees access to all of their food stores within the hive as long as it is also sealed well.
If you have an uninsulated hive, you will need to insulate it. This can be done several ways and one of the most important is to make sure the cover is insulated. If it is not condensation can build up and then drip back onto the hive and that will most certainly chill them beyond their ability to cope with. You then can use the insulation to build around the side walls, this can be done with the same insulation board material you used on the top cover. Beware that bees will chew through insulation so it if the bees have access to the insulation, its best to cover it with wood or another material the bees cannot chew into.
Once you have the exterior pieces of foam cut, you can tape 3 seams together with vapor tape (sold at local hardware stores) and then wrap that around the hive and use a bungie cord to keep in place. Using the tape will also keep air flow penetration to a minimum. Once done you can store the pieces in a garage or shed for future use.
Feed the Bees
The most important aspect of wintering bees is food. If the bees don't have food, no type of insulation or treatments will keep them alive. There are two camps here:
Feed the bees their own honey
Feed the bees sugar syrup
You can leave a bunch of honey for the bees and your going to want to have at least one full deep of honey. Thats around 60-100lbs of honey. Simply slide some honey into the box you plan to winter them in and they should get through the winter with that.
Feed the bees sugar syrup-
There are a few ways to feed the bees sugar syrup. You can open barrel feed the bees, this is where the bees forage the syrup and place it into their winter hive setup. This method can create a situation where other local colonies are taking what you think you are feeding your bees, but you are also feeding your neighbor bees.
You can also frame feed the bees, this is a feeder that sits on top of the hive. This allows the bees in that hive to store it in their own hive.
As a rule of thumb, you will need around 4 gallons of syrup per each deep 10 frame box.
Now in my opinion, which doesn't mean it is the way it needs to be done, but just the way I look at it is. Honey is worth around $5-10 lbs. and sugar syrup costs around $1/ lb. From a practical standpoint there is no significant advantage to feeding the bees their own honey vs. sugar syrup, and Universities like Guelph in Ontario Canada have been winter their bees on syrup as part of their program. The only advantage to not feed syrup is the labor. There is less beekeeper labor in feeding honey to the bees, but as you can plainly see, sugar syrup is 5-10X less expensive and provides what the bees need to get through the winter. So what I do, is sell all the honey and feed the bees sugar syrup. We use the frame feeders, but open barrel can work well if you are feeding a lot of hives in the same location. Be prepared for the fury of the bees collecting it though.
Treat Your Bees
Some may say that this probably should be on the top of the list, however not all beekeepers treat their bees, and are allowing nature to help them create a more hygienic bee, and I am not going to debate the merits of any of that in this post (we will save that for later). So depending on what camp you are in treat, don't treat, prior to going into winter and once the honey is off the hives, its time to treat. Bees that are suffering from a mild to high mite count will likely die over winter, especially in an un-insulated hive. So give your bees there best shot by getting them as healthy as you can if you are in the treatment camp, and no matter what camp you are in, I'm not here to tell you which one is better as they both have their good intentions.
If you want more information or insight into what to do or what beekeepers in your area are doing, then I suggest signing up to our forum list and ask some questions in there. We are gathering a list of experienced beekeepers to help all of us communicate on whats working and whats not.
(1)R-value is the capacity of an insulating material to resist heat flow and the higher the R-value, the greater the insulating ability. See http://energy.gov/energysaver/energy-efficiency-log-homes for insulation values for wood.