Australia is a vast country with many climate zones. While it’s snowing in Alpine regions, we might still be honey harvesting here at Flow HQ in northern NSW!
Depending on where you live, packing down your hive may (or may not) be necessary. If you are unsure please check into our Flow Forum or ask your Beekeeper mentor.
It’s nearly winter in Australia and it’s important for the health of your colony to know how to prepare your Flow Hive for the colder months, especially in southern and alpine areas. Don Muir outlines what to do to make sure your hive is as strong as possible in time for the sweet bounty of spring.
Winter will soon be setting in and it will be getting cold in many parts of the country, which begs the question, “Do I pack down for winter, and how much honey do I leave in the hive?” Fortunately, our winters, though cold and wet, are not as severe as some, and do not affect bees as much as in some other parts of the world.
Most bee books are written in the northern hemisphere where winters are much more brutal. This makes hobby beekeepers in our region worry unnecessarily about “packing down” for winter. Let common sense prevail. When the weather is cold and wet, bees don’t fly and gather nectar or pollen. When it’s cold and raining, bees stay in their hives and eat any stored nectar to survive. If bees don’t have ample stores of nectar honey and pollen they can starve during extended periods of inclement weather.
To me, winter packing down means ensuring you have left enough food for your hive to last the next 12 to 16 weeks until early spring. I usually winter with three boxes – two brood boxes and a honey super. With a smaller colony, I might just use one brood box and one honey super.
Based on the rule of thumb that the brood boxes would normally have two outer frames of capped honey in each box, that’s about 10kg (22 lbs). The other 12 brood frames average 1.25kg per frame (that’s about 15kg) and the full honey super above gives me a total food resource of approximately 40kg – enough for a long, cold winter. It can never be too much. If winter turns out to be not too bad and the bees have been able to gather some winter pollen and nectar, then the leftover honey gives them a good start to next season. Honey left in the hive is as good as money in the bank.
There is a view that three boxes provide too much space for the bees to warm during winter, but I disagree, so long as they have plenty of food to fuel their exertion. Show me a feral hive that closes off half their tree so they don’t have to warm as much space! Feral hives, of course, usually have good food supplies, not stolen by man. I have wintered in three or four boxes every year, leaving good food resources and have never lost a colony and always had good strong colonies to start the new season.
Natural honey is far better than sugar syrup so I do not believe in artificial feeding unless environmental or other conditions outside my management control necessitate. We are fortunate in Australia to have access to winter sources of nectar and pollen, and this usually means bees can survive the winter without feeding on sugar, so I urge you to take advantage of our winter resources and leave the sugar on supermarket shelves.
While a bee’s natural diet consists of fermented pollen, nectar, and honey (their main food source in the winter), many bees are fed artificially because they are being transported and travelling or because their honey stores have been harvested. There is a common but erroneous belief that sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey are all the same. In fact, raw honey is much more structurally complex, containing 181 natural ingredients including vitamins, enzymes, and microbes that have been shown to aid digestion. Sugar and HFC, on the other hand, are processed at high temperatures, void of any nutrition whatsoever, and linked to several human health problems namely obesity, Type II diabetes, insulin resistance and even some cancers. If sugar and HFC can do that kind of damage to us, imagine what kind of damage they can do to a smaller more delicate creature like a bee.
I always try to situate my hives to get winter sun and protection from the winds. Cold wind is a bigger problem than most people realise. Cold winds can kill. The sun warms the hive and helps the hive maintain a consistent temperature. If your site is prone to southern or cold winds put up a wind trap (a piece of shade cloth or similar) for that extra little protection or wind deflection. When the hive is cold, bees cluster and shake their bodies causing them to use energy which they have to replace by eating their stores.
I have heard of people painting their lids black for winter and insulating the sides and back of the hives with foam or other insulation. I have no evidence this is of any great benefit in moderate winters. But nothing beats having your hive well sited for winter sun and protected from wind, raised off the ground to ensure no water ingress, and plenty of food.
In your last inspection before winter, it is also a good idea to do a final disease check and place new hive beetle traps inside the hives. Most of my hives have a 100mm – 140mm entrance openings. I don’t bother reducing these openings and just leave as is. I also have open or screen bottom boards on all hives and I leave them on all year.
Wintering with a Flow Hive is much the same as with conventional Langstroth equipment.
TIP: A way to tell if your colony is thriving during winter is to “heft” (lift) your brood box. Simply put, if you can feel your brood box becoming lighter, feeding may be required.
Don Muir has been keeping bees for 10 years and cares for seven hives. He’s long been fascinated by bees, and is especially intrigued by the way they live and work collectively. Don is also president of The Beekeepers’ Club, based in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.