Common Winter Beekeeping Problems

From pests and diseases to large predators, here are several solutions to common winter beekeeping problems.

Keeping Bees In Towns And Cities

Managing a hive of calmly productive honey bees amid the bustle of a town or city may seem like an attractive prospect, but is it really possible? With “Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities” it is possible, and author Luke Dixon shares his compelling account that describes how urban bees enjoy excellent health, help pollinate plants, produce rich and plentiful honey and make for a rewarding hobby.

Cover Courtesy Timber Press

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Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities (Timber Press, 2012) by Luke Dixon features everything an urbanite needs to know to start keeping bees: How to select the perfect hive, how to buy bees, how to care for a colony, how to harvest honey and what to do in the winter. Urban beekeeping has particular challenges, and this book highlights the difficulties and presents practices that are safe, legal and neighbor-friendly. Learn how to safeguard your hives from common winter beekeeping problems in this excerpt taken from the book. 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities.

“The months will be long and cold, and it may seem that you will never see your bees again.”

As the days begin to draw in and the colony reduces in size, it is time to prepare for winter. Eventually the bees will huddle down in a cluster to keep themselves, and their queen, warm during the winter months. The temperature inside the hive will drop to about 20°C and the cluster will move around the hive to feed on its stores of honey. If you have taken it all from them, then you will have to give them something as a replacement—sugar in the form of fondant, the thick white paste that is spread on cakes and buns. A local baker will often supply it, or you can purchase it from beekeeping suppliers in plastic bags. Just cut a hole in the bag and place it over the hole in the hive’s crown board. The bees can come up and remove fondant from the bag and take it down to the cluster. Not nearly as good as honey, of course, but the bees will need it if there is not enough honey in the brood box to keep them going.

Common Winter Beekeeping Problems: Pests and Diseases

Now is the time to think about disease and pests, though an eye must be kept out for them throughout the year. The varroa mite is a tiny creature, the size of a pinhead, that invades a hive, multiplies in the brood, and lives on the thorax of the bee. The Asiatic honey bee evolved with this parasite and so is able to cope with the mite in its hive. But the varroa mite arrived in the homes of the European honey bee with devastating effect. Any beekeeper now has to be alert to keep varroa out of their hives.

Hives have been redesigned to help in this, with mesh floors through which the mite will drop if knocked off the bees. Unable to climb back into the hive, the mites can be collected on a tray under the mesh floor so that you can see how much of a problem you have. The little brown shiny creatures will glisten, like tiny pinhead-sized conkers, amongst all the other debris from the hive that has fallen through. There are various ways to kill them and to help the bees to remove them from the hive. There are chemical treatments, or you can dust the frames of bees with finely ground sugar and that will help dislodge them and make it easier for the bees to knock them off themselves.

There are diseases that the bee is prone to. Nosema is an illness whose dysentery-like symptoms can be seen outside the hives as the bees soil the hive and the landing board. There are horrible diseases of the brood, called European and American ‘foul brood’, though they know no national boundaries. These are so serious that in Britain you are obliged to notify your government bee inspector if you suspect them and, if necessary, they will destroy your colony.

With luck your hives will be healthy. Most are. Just as most beekeepers are. But once the honey harvest is off it is time to treat for any disease (so that no treatments end up in your honey) and ensure that your colonies are as strong as possible before the cold winter months.

Common Winter Beekeeping Problems: Predators

It is also time to protect your hives from bigger predators. There are wasps, woodpeckers, foxes, mice, and badgers—all ready to eat your bees and your honey as highly nutritious sources of winter food.

I can hear a woodpecker at the Natural History Museum and occasionally see him. He does not yet seem to have noticed the hives, and I have got through all my seasons without him picking off my bees as they fly in and out of the hives, or worse, drilling a hole in the hive to get the juicy food out. Woodpeckers are a winter pest. In January and February when the ground is frozen hard, a beehive is an easy source of nutritious insects. Urban foxes can be much more of a problem throughout the year, quite fearlessly nosing into a hive, knocking over unstable ones. I came one morning to find a hive at Coram’s Fields, a children’s playground, with its super and roof pushed aside and the brood box exposed. The cold and wet had killed the colony. It might have been a human who had disturbed the hive (maybe the one who had stolen my scooter helmet a few weeks before while I was working on the hives), but more likely it was the fox that was standing on the wall next to me as I looked at the destroyed hive. I have strapped up all my hives ever since.

Straps will not stop a human of course, and may even tempt a teenager. The hives at the Lillington Estate in Pimlico are protected against this particular pest. There are signs close to the hives warning of the bees and signs on the hives themselves saying DANGER BEWARE OF THE BEES in bold bright type. And the hives are strapped down within an inch of their lives. Despite all these precautions there are the occasional mornings when Jim the gardener arrives to find the straps removed. It is certainly not a fox who has done it. It must be a human, perhaps out of curiosity or maybe as a dare or a bet?

Smaller but no less of an urban pest is the house mouse, looking for a warm place to nest. They are as much a problem in a hive as in a house, and the best way to deal with them is to block up any hole they might get through. In the hive that means the entrance, which should be reduced to as small a space as possible during the winter, making it easier for the bees to defend and more difficult for the mice to squeeze through.

Worst of all are wasps. Like all bees except honey bees, colonies of wasps do not survive the winter. Once the queen has hibernated there is nothing for the rest of the colony to do and they hang around in gangs, scavenging on anything they can find to eat. The sweeter the better. So they will invade your picnics and if they get a scent of honey they will invade your hives. Wasps can destroy a hive in a couple of days. Just as you are relaxing at the end of the season and decide to go away for the weekend, the wasps will arrive and clean out your hive. They will eat anything. Not just the honey but the bees as well. The bees will do their best to defend against the predators. A small hive entrance will help, as will wasp traps easily made out of old fizzy pop bottles. You can watch the bees literally wrestling with wasps around the hive, grappling each other on the ground. Give them whatever help you can.

Common Winter Beekeeping Problems: Losing Your Bees

It is always sad to lose your bees. However careful you are with your husbandry and management, not all your colonies will survive. It has been the collapse of colonies that has led to the growth of interest in bees and beekeeping over recent years and brought many new beekeepers into the hobby. The causes of colony collapse are many and varied, but there are some that can be kept at bay. If you keep your bees fed over the winter, and protect them against disease, the chances are they will survive through to the spring.

After the regular weekly checks on the hives in the spring and summer, as the days get shorter and the temperature drops, reading the hives, strapped up and sealed against predators as they are, becomes much more difficult. But it is still possible to monitor the activity of the bees in the winter cluster. You can listen for them by pressing your ear on the side of the hive, you can feel the heat coming off the hive, and you can see the tiny fragments of wax that drop through the mesh floor of the hive as the colony uncaps stored honey. The pattern of wax pieces on the tray under the floor also gives you a sense of how large the colony is and where in the hive it is clustered. And you can heft for stores, carefully lifting the hive at one side to detect its weight and therefore how much honey the bees still have left to feed on. If you are feeding with fondant, a quick glimpse into the roof of the hive will show you whether the bees have eaten up into the bag of sugar. In the depths of winter it does not do to delve too far into the hive—and there is little to be done for the colony except to fend off woodpeckers and mice, to keep it dry, and to ensure it has adequate stores.

The season has finished. Time to clear up and plan for next year. There is mead to be made from any leftover honey, lotions and potions, soaps and salves, to be concocted from wax. The months will be long and cold, and it may seem that you will never see your bees again. But then one day the pussy willow will be in bloom and a foraging bee will be out bringing in the first pollen of the year. The new season will have begun.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities, published by Timber Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities.

11/5/2014 8:40:41 AM

Not sure how many actual beekeepers are in here. The screened bottom boards and the organic pulverized sugar are one of the best ways to fight off the mite. I have no mites and from doing beekeeping for many years do not give my bees any chemicals what so ever. Letting the bees keep to themselves and leaving 100 lbs of honey for each hive I have had no problems. I do not split my hives but let the bees swarm when they need to. Bees are not the best pollinators and the queen is not a captive but a queen. It is a natural function of the bees to produce honey and thrive in the wild. Bumblebees are one of the top pollinators and have become more and more used by growers. The complaints here about the article should be more about the pesticides killing the bees and not the bees themselves. Unless you are a beekeeper and have done some research you should listen with your ears open and not your mouth with your ears shut. Bee Happy

10/23/2013 5:25:42 PM

An easy way to keep mice out of the hives over winter is to take a 1/2 inch mesh and roll it around a 3/4 inch dowel. Then 90 degree the rest. Looks kind of like a letter d with the lower circle open. The curve goes into the inside of the hive entrance. The bend in the mesh keeps the mice out. Make sure the wire mesh goes all the way across the entrance. As for powder sugar it doesn't actually work very well. It works when the hive is broodless. During the season it's practically worthless. Also, powder sugar contaminates the honey so only do this when the honey flows are over. A more efficient way to control mites is drone trapping. If you don't know what this is you should research it. I do this every year and have minimal mite levels. As for wintering. The hive should have low mite counts by the middle of August, food stores, lots of bees, and the brood should still be reared. The queen needs to be laying here in southeaster Pa late August into September and later. These are our winter bees. October 15 is our frost date and we need the bees who didn't fly to be our winter bees. These are the ones that make through the winter. The flying bees won't survive through the winter. Lastly, for the winter make sure you have the top cover slightly propped up (about 3/8 inch) for air flow. If not you'll find a hive of dead, wet bees in the spring. Right now I'm feeding my 45+ hives. It's expensive, but with all the building in my community there is minimal fall feed for them. So, sugar syrup made from white table sugar is used. Good luck keeping your hives alive over winter

5/30/2013 10:15:32 PM

@Lorraine: I'm vegan, so I don't eat any of the animals you've listed. As for the issue of native vs non-native species, European Honeybees are an invasive non-native species, which is doing great harm to native pollinator species, whereas mice are not. Further, the author isn't referring to mice in his pantry as 'pests', but rather mice (and other native animal species) in their natural environment.

lorraine keegan
1/16/2013 11:47:44 PM

A mouse may be native, but I wouldn't want one in my pantry. It is indeed a disease carrying pest unless in is out in the meadow. Just as many of the plants in my yard are considered weeds by others. Honey bees are very valuable for crop pollination. Oh, that's right you won't eat anything non-native. No tomatoes and beans for you. No beef or chicken either. What do you eat. Squirrel and deer?

paul figueiras
1/16/2013 9:35:13 PM

Aside from the abhorrent ethics of enslaving (since confining a queen to a hive effectively confines all members of that hive), a sentient species only to murder members of that species, then pilfer the fruits of their labour (which is an unnecessary food for humans), there is also the very real issue of the ecological damage done by European honey bees. It's clear the author has not taken this into consideration when he refers to native, North American species of fauna such as wasps, mice, foxes, and woodpeckers, as "pests" that need to be safeguarded against, lest they disturb the non-native species he exploits. Interesting as well, is the mention of the role of these bees as pollinators as, ironically, many native pollinators are actually more efficient than these introduced species at pollinating even non-native food crops. It is, however, the harm caused by the ability of the European honey bee to gather nectar that outweighs even that dubious claim, as it is precisely that ability that ensures the effective displacement of native pollinators from their naturally-selected roles within ecosystems. So, should we really encourage more humans to enslave non-native honey bees? Not on your life.

robert krayer
1/16/2013 3:24:48 PM

The article has some flaws that need to be corrected. It's been recently found that screened bottom boards do not have a significant effect on mite loads in the hive. Also, the powder sugar technique for mite control isn't as effective as once thought. The powder sugar method needs to be done on a regular schedule just to keep the levels at a constant. Other natural methods will also work and are labor intensive just like the powder sugar method. As for mice entering a hive an easy fix is to bend 1/2 inch mesh around a 3/4 inch dowel and then push it in the entrance way. This is a very good method of keeping mice out of the hive(s).