Wintering Mini Bee Colonies
Feral colonies around us in trees and structures can be considerably smaller than traditional Langstroth colonies. Warre understood this when he developed his remarkable hive at the turn of the 20th century. Each region will have its own variation requiring adaptation by the beekeeper. Some regions may have the potential of a huge honey crop, however they may also have a long and bitterly cold winter. Other regions, like Utah, may average about 30 lbs of honey per colony per year, but have a short winter. In Utah, winter usually begins in mid-December and is over by mid-February. Even though winter may have not begun or has passed doesn't necessarily mean resources are available for the honey bee colony to forage. Summer and fall robbing may also deplete the colony's resources, and droughts, storms and other natural issues can affect forage and other habitat qualities. Here is how we recommend preparing a Mini Urban Beehive to successfully overwinter.
The Mini Urban Beehive typically starts with 2 or more frames of varying brood, 3-5 days later a queen cell appears, and later still the cell is capped then emerges. This local queen then mates in your neighborhood with perhaps up to 15 drones. This queen then returns to her colony and begins laying offspring. During this period the new colony should be fed supplemented sugar syrup and protein supplements.
At this time the external entrance feeder should be regularly filled, with the lower entrance completely closed leaving the upper entrance the only entrance for the bees to use and defend. We have seen problems with the metal entrance feeders, the lids often have too many holes in them and the way the feeder was made allowed for leaking and thus robbing. We recommend using a solid block style entrance feeder and to leave the remainder of the lower entrance closed off. Poor inspections where honey and comb is dropped, or where there is internally leaking honey or nectar, can also cause a robbing environment. This type of problem exists with traditional hives as well as all non-traditional hives, such as top-bars and Warre. Anytime honey is permitted to be left laying around or leaking from a hive, robbing by other bees, wasps, ants, and rodents can occur. We recommend that you keep your hive and area clean to create a safe habitat for your "babies".
Keep upper entrance open and cleared
How to prepare for winter will vary in each region, but here are some tips for you to consider.
Many will point fingers at the usual threat of the varroa mite, but the very nature of how the mini colony typically begins with rearing it's own queen and being broodless for a time breaks the mite cycle. Mites are introduced to colonies thru foragers and robbing bees. The young beehive does not have either initially. Either way, the first season mites are not an issue. A fall or early winter treatment of oxalic acid is a possibility, but due to the size of the hive, we suggest less dosage. Further study is needed as well as how other mite treatments are to be applied to a mini colony. The oxalic acid drizzle method is also an option and is simple to apply.
Use oxalic acid with all recommended safety precautions. Oxalic acid recommendations are,:
Dribble method 1:1 sugar to warm water mixture, and 5mls per seam on a standard frame or a 1/3 that (1 1/2 mls) per mini seam.
Spraying with a mist is also acceptable with swarms and packages with the same 1:1 solution listed above.
1 gram is acceptable with the vaporization method with a Mini
Winter may be extremely cold and long for some. Our original advice was that if feral colonies exist in your area in trees, then the Mini Urban Beehive will overwinter well in your area. Now we take it a step further, and suggest when days get below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the beehive can be easily lifted and placed into a dark cold storage, or shed. The ideal external temperature needs to be about 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. If the temperature is higher, the bees will want and need to fly, for cleansing and for forage. If the colony is placed into a garage, there is the potential of it getting above 50 degrees, and most garages have a window which poses the threat of drawing the bees to a place they never return from. The ideal is to keep them in the dark and at about 40 degrees. In areas like Canada, a cool shed of -10 is better than outdoors at -40!
Mini Candy Board, or Fondant for winter feeding
Some want a blanket for their hives. Eco Bee Box supplies an adjustable blanket covers that allow for access from both the top and lower entrances. In areas like Oregon, the threat to overwintering well is moisture. The colony must stay dry during the winter months. Placing a candy board on the top of the hive will help draw out some moisture, but it is limited. Putting a box filled with cedar shavings with a screen under it, on top of your hive, will draw out more moisture, but still may need to be checked and resupplied with new dry material.
How many boxes are needed for a mini colony to survive the winter? Here in Utah we have taken single mini boxes through the winter. Others with no experience have neglected a double mini colony in Utah and still survived. We suggest a goal of two or more mini boxes for Utah, other states may vary.
We highly recommend using an upper candy board for both winter feeding and simple moisture control. Bees eat and digest crystallized sugars during winter, NOT LIQUID SYRUPS. If too much uncrystallized honey exists, moisture may be an issue during winter. Some tricks to consider for fall and winter are as follows.
If you have drawn comb in fall that is empty, two options exist. One, mix up a 2 parts sugar to 1 part water (we always add supplements by Complete Bee), get a syringe from the pharmacy and fill the cells, then place into the hive. The bees will move it as it has not been modified by the bee yet and needs their gut enzymes added and to be dehydrated. Another option is to mix up candy and put it into the empty cells. Our full recipe is 12 cups cane sugar, 3/4 cup water, 2 caps of Complete. Once completely mixed, put into a candy board, or empty drawn frames. Let dry over night, and then it is ready to use.
During fall and late summer, if the colony is strong, we suggest allowing a finger sized opening at the bottom entrance. In winter, the lower and upper entrances need to be open for ventilation and cleansing flights. During winter some bees will naturally die and drop in the hive, if left unattended to this will clog the bees ability to get out and they WILL die. Regularly clean out the debris from blocking the lower entrance.
Eco Bee Box Winter Beehive Blanket
A Winter Beehive Blanket allows for bee flights, but gives extra warmth where needed and leaves the lower entrance open for passage.
If you have a large Langstroth hive, we suggest for preparing for winter by drilling a pinky sized hole through the center of all your frames so the bees can recluster all winter. The threat we regularly see is bees remain on separate frames eating honey and absorbing heat from the next frame. They don't move away from their heat source, and starve even though honey stores are all around them. Giving them a central access point allows them to recluster all winter. If the hole is drilled too soon in fall, the bees will close it, so do this at the last inspection.