Overwintering Honey Bees in the South

By Catherine Urich, EMGV

As the days of autumn begin to shorten, the bee hives prepare for winter. The queen’s production of eggs will decline in order to reduce the number of bees that need to be taken care of during the cold months. A productive hive requires approximately 40 pounds of honey for the bees to survive an average southern winter. Therefore, the hive will be reduced from 50,000 bees to approximately 20,000. The reduction of the bees is due to the decline of eggs laid by the queen and worker bees dying off. A worker bee’s lifecycle is approximately 28 days during the summer and up to 50 days in the winter. All of the male bees are kicked out of the hive kicking and screaming NOOOOO so the girls will not have to feed them all winter long.

Beekeepers will normally reduce the number of the hive bodies and honey supers on the hive so that it’s more compact and doesn’t overwhelm the bees. It’s important to have one brood chamber and one honey super on each hive. The beekeeper will place an entrance reducer on the hive to prevent rodents from entering and setting up housekeeping during the winter.

Honey and pollen are stored around the perimeter of the brood frame for easy access during very cold weather. The colony will cluster around the queen to keep her warm and fed during cold months. They rotate from outside in to create warmth through their body heat to help keep the brood warm as well as the queen and themselves. The internal temperature of the cluster should remain no lower than 45 degrees regardless of the external temperature. There are winters that the bees will starve or succumb to disease even though they have been well taken care of. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. 

Pests like hive beetles are not normally an issue in the winter because they had rather overwinter in the ground below. Some beekeepers douse the area with a pesticide around the hive to kill the eggs of the beetles. Normally bees do not hang out or land directly in front of the hive.

Food supplies may dwindle during the winter months and the beekeeper will feed with sugar syrup, one pound of sugar to one pound of water. The beginning of February or three weeks before the honey flow starts, the beekeeper will provide pollen patties for the bees to build up their energy to be successful in the spring. Even though there could be snow on the ground, trees will still produce pollen and the worker bees are anxious to collect it. The queen will begin increasing egg production around the same time. Spring is on the way and the hive is beginning to re-BUZZ.

Resources & Further Reading

If you wish to learn more about beekeeping, join your county beekeepers club. Durham’s club meets the third Monday of the month at 7 p.m., currently via Zoom.

Getting started as a beekeeper

The classified ads section of the NC Agricultural Review newsletter is a place to find beekeeping supplies for sale

NC Beekeepers Association