As winter approaches and the weather becomes cooler, your colony of bees will need less space than they did during the warmer months. Therefore some frames and supers (boxes) will need to be removed and stored securely until Spring. This is known as the winter shutdown.
The climate where you live will determine when your winter shutdown begins. Here where I live in southern Australia, we begin the process towards the end of April to mid-May, but in other parts of Australia and in countries where there is snow in winter, then the process will be different, as will the way in which frames are stored.
As well as the climate variations, the shutdown is influenced by the plants in flower.
Bees Need Fewer Supers During winter
Bees don’t hibernate in the winter but follow a certain pattern of behavior to keep themselves alive.
With the arrival of cold temperatures in Australia, usually, in late fall, you will notice your bees will start to form a cluster by grouping together to conserve heat. The queen is in the center of this cluster and the cluster fills some of the gaps between the combs.
A compact outer shell of bees helps to retain the heat generated by the bees within the cluster, whereas the bees in the center can move about freely.
An extra super and frames on the hive mean your bees need to warm that space as well and in doing so, they use up a lot of energy and therefore need a lot more food to keep themselves warm.
So to help them survive the winter, you need to remove excess frames and supers so they don’t have to heat such a large space while ensuring they have enough honey to survive.
Then you safely store the frames to keep them free of disease until they are needed again.
What to leave and what to take
Here in Australia with such variations in climate, there’s no hard and fast rule on how many frames you should remove over winter. It also depends on the strength of your hive as a strong hive has extra mouths to feed so you may need to leave more full frames of honey on the hive.
As a general guide, I leave four to six full frames of honey in the hive over winter to feed the bees until Spring. The rest are taken and stored.
Below are the steps I take to prepare them.
How to store full frames of honey and frames of drawn comb
Storing frames full of honey and those with empty drawn comb is essentially the same.
Frames full of honey can be stored for your colony as emergency food supplies in case their stores become low during the winter.
Each frame is individually sealed in a large, clean plastic bag I get from the supermarket.
Before I place the full frames into the plastic tub, I put the frames in the freezer for two days to kill Wax Moth and other pest larvae. Unless you have a large freezer with plenty of space you will have to place them one at a time in the freezer.
For frames with only drawn comb, they too are placed individually in clean plastic bags, taped up, and placed in the freezer for two days before storing them in the airtight plastic tub. I have a tub labeled ‘drawn comb’ and one labeled ‘capped honey.’
What to do with partially filled frames of honey
It’s usually not a good idea to leave partially filled honey frames in the hive during winter, unless there’s not a lot of it, because uncapped honey left on the hive can take in moisture and ferment.
The same thing can happen if you try and store these frames in clean plastic bags over the winter, not to mention the fact that the bag becomes very sticky inside and you’ll have a mess on your hands when you try to get it out of the bag and into the hive.
You can use a method if you don’t want to store any partially filled frames. Get the bees to clean them up for you!
Remove each frame in turn, score the capped comb’s surface with a cappings scratcher, and then return the frame to the super. Do this for each partially capped frame.
The next step is a bit tricky. You must carefully invert this box of frames upside down and place it back on top of the hive. Because the cells are now facing downwards all of the honey will flow out into the hive and be cleaned up by your bees.
Make sure you put a queen excluder on top of the frames before turning them over to prevent them from falling out of the box.
The bees will store the free-flowing honey elsewhere in the hive because they cannot replace it in the original box as the cells face downwards.
After a few days, you can remove and store the frames because your bees will have cleaned them up.
If you want to leave the frames of uncapped honey to your bees over the winter, move them close to the bee cluster so the bees will not have far to go to use up the uncapped honey. Your bees won’t want to break the cluster as they can lose too much heat doing this.
Storing frames of honey and drawn comb is an important part of hive management and is most often done during winter.
Knowing how best to store them is necessary, so there is a minimum chance of pests invading the frames during the storage period.
Having frames of drawn comb and frames of capped honey ready to return to the hive gives the bees a good head start as the weather warms up.