The Hive Life – What do beekeepers do in the winter?

by J. David Weidner

What do beekeepers do in the winter?  With daytime temperatures often struggling to rise above the freezing mark, we know our bees are clustering around the queen to feed, protect and care for her.  The survival of the entire colony depends on her.  At this time of the year, beekeepers are typically stuck in the house fighting off the threats of cabin fever and dreaming of warmer temperatures.  Even more important, as beekeepers, we should be planning for the spring; providing ourselves with more education and building additional equipment to accommodate our expanding apiaries.  During the coldest winter months, I typically leave my bees alone knowing that I have done everything possible to prepare them for winter.  Our bees appear healthy and have sufficient food stores.

On cold winter nights, I plan to go thru the pile of beekeeping magazines and journals in my office to remove any articles that I might find useful for future reference. The remainder of the printed materials will end up in the recycle bin.  I will be reading other beekeeping books, but trying specifically to stay away from the internet-based resources as I find many of them are either not accurate, not applicable to beekeeping practices in New Jersey or even to the backyard beekeeping community.

I have a small library of beekeeping books that I will refer to during the winter, mostly to get ideas about improving our queen rearing and nucleus colony operations and how to make our operations more efficient.  Beekeeping can be an expensive hobby, so any manner in which we can save a few extra bucks and improve our operations will ultimately lead to healthier honeybees and more honey.

I would be far from being considered a carpenter, but I do know how to swing a hammer, drive a nail and paint.  Winter is a great opportunity to get out in the garage, build some new brood boxes, place the new foundation in frames, paint and stain boxes and even make a few new hive stands.  For most beekeepers, I recommend purchasing your beekeeping equipment online from one of the reputable beekeeping supply houses such as Dadant or Mann Lake.  Their prices are competitive and most offer free shipping if you order over $100.  Winter is a great time to become familiar with your equipment, how it is constructed and what purpose it actually serves.  

In my opinion, it is important to have several hives, even smaller nucleus colonies, that you can inspect, manipulate and pull from and trade resources between.  Every hive is different, and many times different hives present different problems that need to be resolved.  Sometimes these problems can be solved by the bees themselves and often they do.  However, beehives often require beekeeper intervention to prevent them from swarming, to address queen issues, or address disease issues.  The more opportunities you have to become familiar with the inner happenings of a hive, the better.  That being stated, each and every time you open your hive, you should have a plan and a purpose for doing so.  It just stands to reason, the more hives you manage and the more you interact with your bees, the more comfortable you will become manipulating frames and actually managing your colonies.  This is the difference between having a beehive and being a beekeeper.  Become a beekeeper.

Finally, if you are thinking of becoming a beekeeper this spring, now is the time to reserve your package bees, queens and nucleus colonies.

Links to more information: NJHoneybees