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Preparing Honey Bees For Winter

RachelWinterizing Top Bar Hives

Helping bees close up shop for the winter is one of my seasonal chores. This year my husband even helped! I am really proud of him; he has always been supportive of my bee habit and loves to sing the praises of bees, but never really wanted to get too close for fear of getting stung. He even winterized a hive all by himself! One step closer to being a big happy alternative beekeeping family.

I have two Kenyan Style Top Bar Hives (or kTBH) at my parents' house so we decided we should have taco night, the boys would get Gramie and Grampy time and I would get my bees hunkered down for winter.

The process to do two hives probably takes a whole 30 minutes from start to finish. You need your hive tools, I keep them all in a tool box. Specifically, a hive tool or small pry bar (I used a flat head screwdriver since my hive tool grew legs and walked off), bee brush, stapler, 1/4-inch hardware cloth cut to the size of your TBH, a bowl, knife, and straw.

How do you know its time to winterize your hives? The flowers in your area will tell you when to close up shop. (Just as they tell us to open up for the season.) For those of us in Southern Michigan and surrounding areas the last big bloom of the year comes from the golden rod. Stinky stinky golden rod. Your hives might be a little putrid but still sweet smelling around this time of year. Start preparing your gear. The first frost will happen soon, so be listening to your local stations for frost warnings. After the frost hits, pick the next warm day and head to your hives and get to work.

You may be wondering what the deal is with the hardware cloth. Beehives tend to be an irresistible place for “visitors” to overwinter too. The bees keep their queen warm and toasty by clustering around her all winter long, moving along the comb eating honey. A warm place with easy food is the perfect place for mice to snuggle into, and when you have mice you can kiss your bees goodbye. The hardware cloth gets stapled to the lid and the sides of the hive blocking off any mouse sized entrances.

Start by removing your lids and stapling the hardware cloth around the rim so it will overhang onto the sides of the hive. I did this a year or so ago and I leave it on year round. Also remove your observation window to see how far the girls have gotten and where you need to start prying up the bars to slide in your follower board.

Hives

Hives ready for winterization.

Remove any started or unfinished comb. The goal here is to have that follower board right up next to the last full bar of honey comb.

Unfinished comb

Small unfinished comb.

Move the follower board up to the last comb and be careful not to squish any of your ladies. Use your bee brush or a gentle hand. Neither my husband or I wore bee suits for this hive manipulation as our bees are docile.

The comb you collect here will most likely be full of uncapped honey. Cut it off the bars and place it in your bowl and share with your family. To be clear on one thing. We only harvest our honey once a year, in the spring time. NOT the fall. The bees eat their own honey all winter and in the spring we take what they didn't use. We don't need to supplement our bees with inferior sugar so they can make it through the winter.

Comb

More unfinished comb.

Stuff the empty bit of the hive with straw. And I mean STUFF IT IN THERE! I used at least a 1/4 of a bale of straw just for this tiny little bit of empty hive. The straw acts as insulation. While you are at the straw stuffing, stuff a bunch into the underside of your lid. More insulation and it also helps to wick away moisture that the bees will produce keeping their queen warm.

Pack with straw

Stuffing straw

Now simply replace your lid and staple down the excess hardware cloth around the outside of the hive. Replace your observation window and ensure that it is totally secure. It is not a good thing when your window blows off in a storm and its a few days or weeks until you find it has fallen off.

TA-DA! Bees are all cozy for the winter!

More bee posts to come so keep on the look out for them. Happy Beekeeping!

Observation window

View from observation window.

nwotim
11/5/2015 11:29:15 PM

Thanks for the reply! I just started looking seriously at top bar hives this fall after our latest bee club meeting. I had previously written them off, however, a couple of people were discussing how easy they were make and take care of which caught my attention. I will double check but I think both keepers were treating for mites this fall. One had just started this year and the other keeper had 30 top bar hives. I know the larger top bar keeper has to deal with commercial people coming in to pollinate the local farms and I assume there are additional pressures there. I have to say you are atypical of most beekeepers. Well, at least the ones near Toledo as I have yet to talk to one that doesn't treat for something. I am not sure if your experience is because of the top bars, small cell, bee genetics, forage or location pressures as I would think they are all playing a part. I am assuming you feel the top bar/minimal intrusion is the largest part of your success? Just know I am totally envious of your bee keeping skills and experience so far! We will definitely have to get a visit in next year sometime. Thanks for the great article and I look forward to reading more! P.S. I always heard it was ten beekeepers and 20 different answers...


rachel
11/3/2015 5:59:29 PM

NWOTim, I agree and disagree with you all at the same time. You know they say "ask ten bee keepers the same question and you will get ten different answers". How true right?! I agree that occasional peeking in is a good idea. But if you have never kept bees in top bar hives the lack of effort required can be shocking! I have kept bees in top bar hives for four years and have never had issues with mites or other parasites. Mice will always be an issue. In fact I haven't talked to a top bar keeper yet that has had varroa. If you have had a different experience, I would actually love to hear about it! A neat feature of a top bar is that they have observation windows, so you can observe them for as long and how ever often you wish without upsetting their delicate hive scent and activities. One of my friends who has kept top bar for 8 or more years has actually invited a state inspector out to his bee yard to inspect his hives after he told my friend that he didn't believe him about being pest free. The inspector sat at the hives all day and never found an issue! He never would have beloved him otherwise. In short there are many approaches to keeping bees and none of them are wrong! Like you said every beekeeper has to find what works best for them! Very true! I suggested to nebraskadave top bar hives because they really are set it and forget it. Honestly... I only open my hives two times a year, in the spring to open them and In the fall to winterized. I check them through the window several times a year though. My approach vastly differs from yours but I bet we could learn a lot from eachother :) Another thing NWOTim... I am assuming that the NWO stands for Northwest Ohio?! If so we are not far from each other, and if you ever get the itch to check out some top bar hives in action if you have never seen them before I think we could work something out. Happy beekeeping!


nwotim
11/3/2015 10:17:27 AM

Please be aware that not inspecting your hives can lead to a very sad experience when you find all your ladies dead or gone. There are many things that can cause your bees harm and taking a peak to keep on top of mites, diseases and other issues is very necessary in my opinion. However, over inspection can be a bad thing too so each beekeeper needs to find what works for them in their area depending on the local threats. I wasn't quite sure what "set it and forget it" might mean to different people.


theiconoclast
11/2/2015 9:09:36 AM

Wow, after reading your blog I'm glad I live in Central Texas. I run two Langstroth types with screened bottom boards, and typically all I do to winterize my hives is slide a piece of corrugated plastic in a slot built into my bottom boards and, voila, I'm done.


rachel
11/1/2015 2:01:01 PM

NebraskaDave, most certainly! In fact a Top Bar hive is absolutely perfect for this. They are truly a "set it and forget it" hive and great for beginners. you don't need fancy tools or expensive equipment and you can take care of them by yourself. You can even build one from scraps that you have laying around the shop and find plans online for free or very cheap. Check out Phil Chandler! The beautiful thing about honey bees is that they self regulate perfectly without any human intervention when allowed to build their own comb their own way like they are allowed to i. Top bar hives. You will need to make sure they are warm for winter, and have a safe water source. Please keep in mind that if you are in an urban location to check your local regulations. Bees also naturally swarm, it's how they reproduce. So if you have close neighbors it's always nice to let them know that they may see a swarm but to leave it alone and they won't be there long. This really is the best way to help the bees. By giving them a house and letting them do what they do naturally.


nebraskadave
11/1/2015 9:03:04 AM

Rachel, I do like bees in the garden for polenation but just have never had the desire to keep them. I wouldn't mind have some hives near my garden but don't really want the responsibility of tending them. Is it possible to set up hives and not harvest the honey? Just let them do their thing without intervention? ***** Have a great bee hive day.


rachel
10/31/2015 4:21:07 PM

Hey Andrew! I must confess I know next to nothing about using a Langstroth since I've always done Top Bar :) I would love to share some photos with you to better illustrate my point. I realized after posting this that I did not have good photos of that step. I will work on getting some posted as soon as possible!


andrew
10/30/2015 5:55:35 PM

Hello Rachel. You shared some interesting thoughts on winterizing a hive. I confess, I'm not familiar with top bar hives, as I used Langstroth frame hives when i kept bees. I'm a bit unclear on your method of wrapping with hardware cloth. Do you have pictures you can share?