Preparing a Top Bar Bee Hive for Winter

Summer is winding down here on the east coast of the United States, and as temperatures creep downwards and we head for that first frost, here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania beekeepers are preparing hives for overwintering.

Here are a few recommendations. I'm sure you are already on it, but in just in case here's a few things to consider:

  • Feed your hives a heavy sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water); it's a good idea to use gallon water jugs and prepare syrup using the water containers. Make large batches of sugar syrup and put this mixture back into the water container. These are easy to carry and pour your syrup into whatever kind of feeder you are using is also a simpler task.
  • Consider adding supplements like Honey B Healthy to your sugar syrup. The natural ingredients, extra protein and essential oils will help boost bees immune systems while also encouraging survival behavior as the hive shrinks. This time of year, the drones are kicked out and they will not be fed by the worker bees. Sugar syrup feeding alone may get your bees through, but from an organic beekeeping perspective it's helpful to provide more real nutrition, including some form of pollen / protein. When buying pollen from a commercial outlet, do the best you can to determine the pollen source. If at all possible, avoid pollen sources which may be contaminated with pesticides. Think about adding a pollen trap to your hives next spring. Then you will know your pollen source for fall / spring feeding.
  • Have materials on hand to make your own fondant. When the night-time temperatures are consistently at 45 degrees and falling, feed fondant to the bees on days when you can safely open the hive 40 degrees F or higher. Check to see how long it takes your girls to eat the fondant.
  • Get your hive insulation materials ready! With top bar hives, you can purchase insulation and tuck it into the roof of your top bar hive, or simply lay it on top of the top bars and put your cover back on. Purchase sheet of styrofoam, pack them into large trash bags, seal the bag edges with a heat source (an iron works if you put a thin towel on top of the plastic first). Tape these insulating panels in place using a tie down strap, making sure not to completely obstruct the hive opening.
  • You can also use fiberglass insulation under the roof portion of your hive. Cut the insulation into sections so you can easily move them around on days when you can work the hive to feed your bees.
  • On a mild winter days, your girls may take cleansing flights to eliminate waste. They need a way out of their hive, so do not block the hive entrance with insulation or any tarp you may use.
  • With top bar hives, once you have insulated the roof from the inside, tuck an insulation panel (described above) underneath the body of the hive and tie all down with tie down straps. A dog run screw inserted into the ground beneath the top bar hive will hold the hive in place in the event of strong winter winds.
  • Have a supply on hand for making fondant. On mild winter days when temperatures climb above 40 degrees, you can safely open the hive – quickly – and leave fondant in the hives. Again, consider adding essential oils such as lemon oil to the fondant. Think of the herbs bees love for forage on during the summer – thyme, peppermint, sage – small amounts any of these essential oils are safe to add to your sugar water or fondant and they will help keep your bees' immune systems in better shape.
  • Look for supplements that will help stave off Nosema and bees developing intestinal issues that lead to diarrhea in the spring. Bees can not process the water in sugar syrup below a certain temperature, so stop feeding with sugar syrup when temperatures drop below 30 degrees.
  • Make sure your bees can reach their honey stores! Your queen will continue to lay eggs during the cold months and all the bees are going to need a food source. How can you set up your hive frames so honey and pollen stores are interspersed within the hive?
  • Check in with your local extension service and / or beekeeping club for more information on how to overwinter hives on roof tops and in other urban settings.

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