Winter might not be a busy time for bees, but beekeepers have no shortage of chores to tend to. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The blooming plants that attract honey bees can seem a long way off in the middle of January in Maine. But there’s still plenty of beekeeping things to do even in winter for your existing hive and for any new bees coming in a few months.

While the honeybees take time off from making honey in winter, it’s still a busy time for a beekeeper. Winter is the perfect time to look in on hives to see how the bees are doing. It’s also the perfect time to prepare for the upcoming beekeeping season. Here’s what you should be doing.

Ordering bees

Beekeepers and wanna-be beekeepers typically place their bee orders in January and February. This is the time of year when beekeepers who sell packages of live bees start putting those packages together.

There are two options for ordering bees. You can order a package with a queen and 10,000 worker bees. Or you can order nucleus colonies — often called “nucs” — which are already established making honey and rearing young on several frames ready for your hives.

Ordering now will ensure you get the breed and number of bees you want. Delivery usually happens in the first part of May.

Winter feeding

Depending on how much honey your bees stored up in their hive last fall and how much they have needed to consume since then, you may need to supplement their food stores. This can be especially important during a mild winter when bees take more opportunities to leave the hive and fly on more temperate days. Flying burns calories and they may be eating more honey than winters when they are stuck inside because it’s too cold.

To determine if your bees need extra food, carefully lift the back of your hive and estimate its weight. If it feels like it weighs under 60 pounds, they need some more food. The easiest way to provide it is with a simple sugar-water mixture.

Clean up old hives

Most old hives and frames can be reused from season to season, but they have to be thoroughly cleaned before you place any new colonies in them. This is especially important if the former hive experienced a die-off. According to Michigan State University, most bee colony die-offs occur from Varroa mite infestation or the bees starve. In those cases, the empty hives and frames can be reused. Brush off any dead bees from the walls of the hive and rap the frames to dislodge any bodies from the cells. Don’t worry if a few remain stuck as the new occupants will clean those out. Make sure to store those hives and frames covered so they don’t attract wax moths.

If there is any mold on the walls of the hive or on the frames, it can be wiped off with water that has a little bit of salt added to it. Let the clean frame and hives air dry and, if possible, freeze in the open air before reusing them.

However, if your hives were hit by the fatal disease American foulbrood, they cannot be reused. Instead, the hive and frames should be burned to prevent the disease from spreading.

Hives covered in snow at the Maine Honey Exchange in Portland contain thousands of bees all doing their part to keep their queen warm and comfortable for the winter. Credit: Courtesy of Phil Gaven

Build new hives and take inventory

Winter is a great time to put together new hives and their components. Materials for hive boxes, frames, foundation, entrances and bases can be ordered online ready for assembly. It’s also a good time to make sure all of your beekeeping tools are clean and put away where you can find them this spring. Items you are going to want include your beekeeping suit, hive smoker, bee brush, hive tool and frame gripper. You don’t want to be scrambling to find all these things at the last minute when your new colonies arrive.

Read up

No matter how much you know about bees, there is always more to learn. Check out the newest beekeeping books, online videos and resources available from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Connect with other beekeepers in your area to discuss what works and what challenges they face.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.