5 Things You Can Do This Winter to Help Save the Bees

As bees take their winter snooze, beekeepers and urban gardeners can join forces to help keep the honey flowing.

by Kristina Mercedes UrquhartJanuary 18, 2016
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Winter is arguably the hardest time of year for a colony of Honey bees. Unless you find yourself in Florida and certain parts of California, where the winter is exceptionally short (or entirely non-existent), the domestic and wild Honey-bee hives in your region will be hunkering down and doing their best to survive the cold. What’s a melliferaphile  (the name I’ve coined for bee-lovers) to do? Compiled for both beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike, the following list will give you an idea of some easy steps you can take to support your bee friends all winter.

1. Leave the Honey

Hands down, my favorite homesteading adage is, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The best way to support winter Honey-bee survival is to give them everything they need to get through it on their own. In other words, leave the honey on the hive!

An average colony of bees heading into winter requires about 40 to 60 pounds of honey to survive in most regions. My hives in North Carolina are able to fare well with a number lower on that spectrum, but if you’re farther north, err on the side of caution and leave an ample amount (60-plus pounds) of honey in the hive.

2. Feed

Despite colony collapse disorder, the feared varroa destructor mite and a host of other Honey-bee ailments attacking our beloved colonies, the No. 1 killer of a hive in winter is starvation.

The reason for this is multi-fold: Honey bees aren’t able to survive and fly in temperatures below 55 degrees F, and there aren’t many flowers blooming in wintry regions even if they were able to go out and forage. This is why honeybees put away so much honey for the winter. Honey bees munch away on honey and pollen, which is capped and stored in their hexagonal cells, all through the winter. So why do they still starve?

Sometimes, beekeepers get greedy and harvest too much honey, not leaving enough for the colony’s survival. (This may be intentional or accidental.) Other times, a prolonged cold spell makes it difficult for the winter cluster of bees to break and access the honey stored nearby. The most heartbreaking losses are colonies that have died just inches from stored honey.

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The solution for beekeepers is to offer feed—preferably honey in its raw state—on warm winter days. A warm winter day is any day about 55 degrees F. If there’s no honey on hand, make a thick sugar syrup using organic refined white sugar and feed it to the bees using a designated feeder purchased from a beekeeping supply catalog.

3. Plan Your Garden

Beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike can use the winter season to plan a garden full of nectar-rich plants that Honey bees can forage come spring. Buy your seeds early, and get a head start on planting. Start seeds indoors so they’re ready to go out just after your region’s last-frost date. Zinnias, cosmos, bee balm, lavender, rosemary, dill, Echinacea, and many other flowers and herbs make fabulous bee food.

4. Don’t Spray!

Chances are great that if you’re already reading this, you know that home and garden pesticides (a category that includes fungicides and herbicides) are toxic to Honey bees, native pollinators, and all manner of healthy organisms that reside in and around your gardens and backyard. Even so, it needs to be said: Put down the chemical sprays for good!

Just think about it: if it’s meant to kill “bad” bugs in your garden, it will be pretty toxic to “good” bugs, too. Pesticides don’t discriminate. What’s more, they build up in your soil, get on your food, and end up on your plate, as well. Ew.

5. Winterize the Hive

Remember that saying about cure being prevention? For those of you keeping your own Honey-bee hives, the best time to prepare for winter is in the fall. Considering you have the colony’s food needs covered, you’ll want to winterize the physical hive itself to give your bees a leg up on the cold. Here are a few steps I take to winterize my apiary each year:

  • Scan for mice. Sweep the bottom board with a coat hanger, and knock on the side of the hive gently. Once you know your hive is free of winter stowaways, install a metal mouse guard to the front entrance. (Do this on a cooler day to keep the guard bees from getting restless.)
  • Ventilate. Remove the hive’s inner cover and place eight popsicle sticks (two to each corner) on the edges of the top-most super. Replace the inner cover on the hive upside down. This additional ventilation will keep condensation to a minimum.
  • Strap or wrap hives. Some beekeepers prefer to wrap hives in black roofing paper for added insulation. I find that this cuts down on ventilation and keeps the hive too warm. Instead, I prefer to simply wrap the hives with a hive strap, securing the supers together in case a predator or a big gust of wind should knock the hive over.
  • Add a wind-break. A few bales of hay on the north side of the apiary, for example, will help cut down heavy gusts without much fuss on your part.

Let’s face it, the bees need all the help they can get. Beekeepers and melliferaphiles alike can take tiny steps in their own backyards (quite literally!) to support our sweet pollinator friends. Whether you plant a few flowers or become a beekeeper next spring, don’t discredit the great impact that a single individual can do to help and support our beloved bees.

About the Author: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart is a freelance writer and photographer living outside of Asheville, N.C. She tends to her hives of Honey bees with her husband and young daughter (a budding beekeeper) in the mountains near Pisgah National Forest. Follow her Facebook community page The Humble Honeybee to keep up with the latest pollinator news.