Beekeeping requires an intimate understanding of how bees operate in different seasons.
And the timing of certain maintenance operations is significant.
Removing supers for winter is one of those tricky beekeeping operations!
It demands good timing. And you need to know whether it is even necessary at all!
Should You Remove Honey Supers For Winter?
Supers should be removed from hives of small colonies for the winter to minimize the space the bees need to heat. However, a honey super can be left on a beehive if the colony is strong and the winter temperatures are not harsh enough to warrant removal.
Removing honey supers from your beehives is part of routine annual maintenance on your hives in preparation for the coming winter.
However, some beekeepers dispute this action using the logic that the bees need honey stores in the super to see them through the cold season.
So which is the best path? What method should you follow for managing your bees and preparing the colony for wintertime?
The answer relates back to your local climate, especially your winter conditions. Areas with mild winters will often have enough forage for the bees in the field during this season.
In those climates, removing supers for the winter is unnecessary. However, in certain areas, such as where I live, we add supers to our bees in winter to harvest honey from the aloes that flower here during our mild weather.
However, not all areas have the luxury of mild winters and sufficient forage for the bees.
In cases like this, you must take steps to prepare your hives for the cold, dearth months. These actions will be good for the colony and ensure you have a robust and productive beehive in the springtime.
Why Should You Remove Honey Supers In Winter?
Removing the honey supers reduces the space that bees need to keep warm during winter. A smaller volume requires less energy to heat, and bees will have to consume fewer stores. Also, in colder climates, there is a risk that honey will freeze, rendering it useless.
Understanding why you might need to remove supers from your hives for winter is essential. Knowledge of your local climate also influences your actions.
As the temperature drops in the hive, the bees need to work harder to maintain a comfortable environment for the colony’s survival. Hot air rises, which results in all the heat generated by the bees rising to the top of the hive.
If your hives have supers on in the winter, the heat rises up to the supers, and the queen, worker bees, and brood remaining in the brood chamber below will get too cold and die.
To prevent this outcome, the bees need to work harder to generate sufficient heat to warm the large space. In these conditions, the worker bees labor to heat the hive, and they will use up their winter resources faster. This could result in no food in the latter part of the winter season.
Taking the supers off the hive reduces the space the bees need to heat. The smaller volume requires less energy to protect the colony from freezing.
Another reason to remove honey supers from the hive for the winter is that the cold temperatures can cause the honey to crystalize in the comb. If this happens, the bees cannot use the honey for food, and it will not be available as a resource for the colony in the winter.
Imagine the result! The super will be an additional space that needs to be heated without even providing any value to the colony.
From the beekeeper’s perspective, it’s also challenging to extract crystallized honey from the comb. The honey frames would have to be heated gently, finding the right balance to re-liquify the honey without melting the wax.
Pretty darn annoying for everyone!
Can I Leave A Honey Super On Over Winter?
Removing all the supers from the hive during winter is unnecessary if you have a substantial colony. You can therefore leave a honey super on throughout winter.
Is it always necessary to remove honey supers from all your colonies over the winter?
Beekeeping involves dealing with many variables, so it’s difficult to implement hard-and-fast rules every beekeeper should implement.
The circumstances for each hive and apiary site will differ, and you will learn what is best for your bees with experience.
Strong colonies will have the strength-of-numbers of worker bees to sufficiently heat the hive in the cold season. They will need the additional food stores in the super to feed all the bees.
During this time, you should remove the queen excluder between the brood box and the honey super (if you use one). This allows the queen to move freely into the super. She can access the resources and the warmest part of the hive.
Should I Remove All Honey Supers For Winter?
Beekeepers should be intimately familiar with their colonies and how they have expanded during the high production season. So you should know which colonies are strong and which ones are weak.
My recommendation is to remove all honey supers from weak colonies. They will have enough honey stores in the brood chamber to see them through the winter. If they run out of resources, you can feed them sugar water and pollen patties, giving them a good boost for the early spring season.
A single super can be left on a strong colony for additional resources for the winter season. Still, removing the queen excluder is worthwhile to allow the queen to access this area for food and warmth and give the bees space to cluster.
Do You Remove Partially Filled Honey Supers Going Into Winter?
Sometimes the bees have not been able to fill honey supers. Particularly if you have harvested honey at the end of summer and placed empty supers on the hives in the fall.
If the colony is small, I would remove the partially filled super and store it in my house, where I can keep the temperatures warm enough to prevent crystallization. Then, the partially filled super can be placed back on the hive in early spring.
If the colony is strong, the partially filled honey super can be left in place for the winter.
When To Remove Honey Supers For Winter
The best time of year to remove the honey supers from the hives is in the last two weeks of fall, before the onset of cold winter temperatures.
Honey production in your beehives will slow down as the temperatures begin to drop in the fall. The nectar flow will start to ebb, and foraging will diminish. You do not want to leave it till too late in the fall to remove the supers. Exposing the colony to cold temperatures when you open the hive can be detrimental to the colony.
The heat they have generated in the hive will escape, and the bees will have to work hard to re-heat the hive’s interior when you are finished removing the supers.
You should monitor the weather from the beginning of fall, looking out for early cold spells or early onset of winter, and adjust the timing of the super removal accordingly.
Note: You should also remove supers from the hive before you apply any medications, such as for varroa mites. This applies whether or not you intend to leave a supper in place.
Best Time Of Day To Remove Honey Supers For Winter
The best time of day to remove honey supers will be determined by your local weather, the colony’s aggressiveness, and the hive’s location.
Bees get angry when the hive is disturbed, especially for invasive procedures such as removing honey supers. Suppose the colony is aggressive or the hive is close to human dwellings. In that case, it is best to remove honey supers at sunset.
The coming darkness will cause the bees to settle much faster after the super removal than if you do it during the day.
This will also require the operation to be performed earlier in the fall before the evening temperatures are too low.
Late afternoon is the best time to remove the supers from the hive if the colony is not aggressive or your apiary is not near a residential area.
How To Remove Bees From Honey Supers
Each beekeeper develops their own method of removing the bees from the honey supers for winter.
The best method I have found to work is this:
- Take an empty super to each hive and lay it on the ground next to the beehive being worked.
- Open the hive and remove each frame from the super. Shake the bees off the frame directly in front of the hive. The bees will walk or fly back into the hive entrance.
- The remaining bees on the frame can be gently brushed off using a bee brush like this, and the frame can be placed in the empty super on the ground. Do this with each frame in the super on the hive until it is empty. (Amazon link)
- Then remove the super from the hive and replace the lid.
Can You Use A Blower To Remove Honey Bees From Honey Supers?
A blower can be used to remove bees from supers, provided some precautions are taken to protect bees from getting sucked in by accident.
Some beekeepers use electric or battery-powered mini blowers like this one, similar to leaf blowers, to blow the bees off the super. (Amazon)
If you use a bee blower, the air intake of the blower must be protected to ensure no bees are sucked into the machine and killed.
In my experience, this type of equipment is only necessary if you have several hives to process since a bee blower can speed up the operation.
Hobbyist beekeepers probably do not need a bee blower since shaking the bees off the frames and using a brush works suitably to remove the bees from the super.
How Many Frames Of Honey Do Bees Need For Winter?
The number of honey frames needed by the colony for winter will depend on the size of the colony. Large colonies need a full super with 8 to 10 frames of honey to see them through the winter.
Smaller colonies can survive on the honey stores in the brood chamber and do not need any additional honey supers on the hive for the winter.
Note: It is better to remove the supers off the hive of a small colony and feed the bees rather than leave the super in place.
Beekeeping is not an activity that you can run by following a textbook. But, of course, learning from books is an excellent place to start. Still, you should learn to evaluate your own hives and make the best decision for your bees based on your observations rather than following a set of rules.
That being said!
As a general rule, you should remove honey supers from your hives if the winter temperatures and colony size warrant this action. But a super may be required to provide sufficient food for the winter and prevent die-offs in the cold season if the colony is strong.