March | Beehive Management

This month in the Hive

As we approach the end of March, the change to moderate daytime temperatures, cooler nights and the occasional chilly morning herald the onset of autumn and the need to prepare our hives for winter. As a rule of thumb, the “wintering of hives” should take place from Anzac day (April 25th), until there is a 20 degree plus day with no wind in mid  September.

Inadequate attention to preparing hives to survive winter may have serious impact on reducing the hives strength, such that in early spring the colony has died out or is weakened to a point where it cannot take advantage of an early honey flow.

As individual situations and conditions vary so much, we can only cover some of the basic key principles for successful wintering of hives. The key factors to consider are:

i)  Choice of locality / site.

ii) Appropriate stores of honey / pollen.

iii) Adjustment of available space inside the hive.

i) Choice of locality / site.

Most areas of Victoria offer satisfactory locations for wintering of hives. The most suitable areas are in the “warmer” coastal districts where there is usually some pollen available on good flying days and conditions are particularly good in spring around breeding time. A good range of wattles providing nectar, pollen and shelter are often available there.

However early stimulation of breeding may become an issue, if there is no nectar flow to follow, or there are few honey reserves available in the in the hive.

Wintering bees in the drier ‘desert areas” of north-western Victoria can be quite successful as it avoids damper inland areas and frequently provides winter flowering desert plants (mainly banksias) allowing  the bees to use this lower grade honey throughout winter and the hives to come into spring in a stronger situation.

Avoid wintering the hive in low lying, shady places, where there is excess moisture. The availability of pollen is valuable to enhance rearing of brood, but be careful to avoid locations where pollen is available but the associated nectar yielded is thin, causing weak bees for the forthcoming season. Red iron bark trees are a classic example of this!

An ideal site should have a northerly sloping aspect, be well drained, sheltered by a windbreak to the south (and west), and receive good sunlight. If the location slopes away from the site for some distance this will assist with the movement away of cold air. If located at the bottom of a slope, the cold air mass / fog may remain there all day lowering hive temperature and denying the bees a chance to take a cleansing flight.

Critically, ensure that the hive is tilted forward, so that any moisture that may collect in the hive runs out, rather than remaining inside, lowering hive temperature.

ii) Appropriate stores of honey / pollen.

Honey stores.The beekeeper must ensure at the start of autumn there are adequate reserves of capped honey left in the hive for winter as food. The quantity is governed by the strength of the hive and where it is to be located over winter.

As a general guide a double hive should have approx. eight full frames of honey available for winter food.

Single Beehive
Single Beehive

If a hive is reduced to a single box, three or four full frames of honey should be provided!

Uncapped nectar should only be used in the hive if in small quantities, and is surrounded by sealed comb. Place it in the centre of the hive where it is warmest and likely to be used first as a food source by the bees.

It is vital to remember that the availability of nectar collection in winter is minimal. Yet as spring arrives and winter ends, food stores in the hive are at their lowest point. This critical time is when the greatest consumption of available honey by the bees takes place. There is a sudden expansion in hive numbers as the queen increases her egg laying, the older bees suddenly become more active (needing more food) and the newly emerging bees still require food for another three weeks before they themselves become food gatherers.

If the honey (food) supplies are exhausted in the hive before a new flow of nectar can be brought in, the bees will starve, the hive will take a considerable time to recover in spring or may even die out. Using a ‘sugar syrup” supplement (one cup of sugar / one cup of water) is an acceptable honey substitute to enable the bees to enter spring in a healthier condition.

Providing inadequate honey supply over winter can be a critical error of judgment for many beekeepers.

Shades of pollen
Shades of pollen

Pollen stores. – A good store of pollen is essential for bee health and vital to enabling the ongoing low level of brood rearing throughout winter into spring time. As a result, a “healthy hive” can emerge into much more strongly in spring with a colony of both old and young bees, rather than having only “old” bees.


iii) Adjustment of available space inside the hive.

It is essential to reduce the available space in the hive at the start of winter to closely approximate the area necessary for the volume of bees present in the hive.

Leaving empty supers or combs on the hive during winter, simply provides areas the bees will not normally utilize, causing a loss of heat from the bee cluster within the hive. Heat generated by the bee cluster drifts upwards, and if there are any empty supers or combs present the bees may seek out the warmth at that point, moving away from the available honey stores,  resulting in wasted energy in having to move around to access the available honey stores.

Removing surplus supers and frames to compact the hive as much as possible, helps the colony to maintain and control its temperature, which is vital for brood rearing and ultimate survival.

Attempting to “pack down” the hive into a single box may prove difficult, if attempted too early in autumn when there are a significant number of frames of brood remaining. When the hive has been reduced to three or four frames of brood, you can reduce the hive to one box.

Brood frame
Brood frame

Move the brood frames into the centre of the box and place capped frames of honey each side of the brood frames to fill the remainder of the box. If there are insufficient fully capped frames of honey available, use uncapped honey, but ensure it is placed on the inside of the hive against the brood frames.

Place the hive mat on top of the frames to help retain the heat where the bees are.

If reduced to one box, the hive must be “regularly checked” to ensure adequate honey stores are still present. Rather than actually opening the hive to check, which will result in a loss of hive warmth, you can estimate the remaining food reserves by gently lifting / weighing the hive from the rear.

It is also important to ensure there is appropriate ventilation to avoid a build up of condensation over the winter months. Generally the standard mesh air vents in the lid allow sufficient air circulation to overcome any build up of dampness and lowering of temperature within the hive. However, bees will frustrate your best intentions if the mesh is on the inside of the lid, blocking it with propolis. To avoid this, place the vent on the outside of the lid. This appears to deter them from undertaking the “blocking” activity?

Reference:  Beekeeping in Victoria, Dept of Agriculture, Chp 7 . L H Braybrooke

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