"No beekeeper worthy of the name will allow his bees to go into winter quarters short of stores. They ought, at least, to have enough to last them until the first warm days of spring." - W.Z. Hutchinson, The Country Gentleman, 1891
As Michiganders, we know how tough our winters can be on us but also for our honeybees. The weeks coming out of winter have proven to be their toughest season.
In the 3 years that we have kept bees, we have learned a lot from our hives. Sadly, we have often learned the hard way. No beekeeper should begin beekeeping without wanting to put the care of their bees as their top beekeeping priority.
Beekeeping has been an interest of mine for several years but it wasn't until I moved into my first home that I saw it as a possibility. Our home came with acreage that is a mixture of old Michigan hardwood & pasture type grasses. We have always had the space for bees but I didn't feel I knew enough to get my first hive. To be a good beekeeper, you must have basic beekeeping knowledge & be open to learning more each season. Prior to 2016, we had spent a lot of time reading & planning for starting our first hives. In February of 2016, I attended my first class about beekeeping with my dad. After two hours of first hand learning, our orders for two "nucs" were placed the next day.
Our beekeeping adventure began on April 22nd, 2017. I took it as a "meant to bee" as our bees arrived on my wedding anniversary. Looking forward to March 2020, we have finally got a hive through a Michigan winter.
Here are some things we have learned along the way that will hopefully help you in your own beekeeping adventure:
November - April
To ensure your bees make it through winter, you have to provide your bees additional food. In November, install a sugar candy board at the top of your Langstroth hive - just under the cover. By placing this on our hive, it continues to feed our bees through March/early April.
In November, you have to insulate your hives in order to cut down on wind & snow buildup. Our hives face south. This allows our hives to get maximum sun through the cold winter months. We box our hives in on the two sides & back side with insulation. Bales of straw are stacked around the insulation to hold insulation tight to the hive. The top of your hives need to breathe & allow moisture to escape. Otherwise, your hive will collect water that will drip on your bees & freeze them within the hive. Above, you can see there is about 2-3 inches of space between the top cover & insulation.
We build an overhang above and around our hives to keep rain/wind/sleet & snow from hitting all sides of the hive (see picture below). A large piece of insulation will do the trick. A scrap piece of metal siding on top of insulation keeps the insulation dry. Bricks & blocks of wood weigh down your insulation/siding throughout the winter months.
Check your hives through winter months when temperatures are at least above 40 degrees. We leave our hives alone in late December/January. During winter months, do not complete a full hive inspection. Simply crack the top cover to make sure your bees have enough food left to get them through until your next hive check (sugar candy board and/or sugar bricks). By early February, we begin our first checks of the year when winter temperatures start to rise above 40 degrees (cracking the top cover to check food sources). We will not complete a full hive inspection until the end of April/early May when temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees.
In March, start offering a water source. Your bees are thirsty & need a fresh source.
Treat for mites early & often! Get your hives on a schedule & stick to it. Any experienced beekeeper knows, your hives can look great one week & the following week you can open your hive to heartbreak & a dead hive.
Our first mite treatment of 2020 started March 16th. We are treating with oxalic acid (vaporizing). No hive is mite free. Unfortunately, they are here to stay. The best time to use oxalic acid is when the hive is broodless. We will vaporize 3 times at 5 day intervals. Oxalic acid only kills mites on the bees, not in the brood. Treating 3 times allows you to kill mites in different life cycles. Some mites can stay in brood cells for up to 14 days. You 1st treatment kills current mites, 2nd treatment those mites that come out of brood cells early & the 3rd will kill off the last to emerge from brood cells. If using oxalic acid, plan to continue a treatment schedule that covers no less than 14 days.
Michigan winters bring a quiet time for bees. This also is the only season that gives beekeepers a break. It is a time to review your notes, research, reflect on the last season & the coming season. Happy planning & enjoy your countdown to Spring.