Updated: Aug 20, 2021
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