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How to prepare your hives for winter: a checklist

How you prepare your hives for winter depends on where you live, so some of the suggestions below may not apply to you. Nevertheless, the list may give you some ideas. Although the calendar still shows September, those long, dark, cold days of winter are just around the corner. It’s time to get busy.

  • Remove empty supers. Make the space inside the hive commensurate with the size of the colony. If necessary, reduce the hive volume with follower boards, especially in a top-bar hive. A proper interior size is less drafty and less likely to harbor intruders.
  • Check for a laying queen. You should see at least some brood in your hive. If you don’t, order a queen as soon as possible.
  • Check for colony size and combine small ones. Come spring it is better to have one live colony than two dead ones.
  • Check for honey stores. If your hives are too light, it’s time to start feeding with a vengeance.
  • Assure that the honey frames are in the right place, that is, they should be on both sides of the cluster and above it in a Langstroth hive. Move frames around if necessary. In a top-bar hive, put the cluster at one end of the hive and put the honey frames next to the cluster on the other side. This way, the colony can move laterally in one direction to find food.
  • Reduce hive entrances if you haven’t already. It’s time for mice and other small creatures to find a snug and warm overwintering place—one filled with honey is especially attractive.
  • Remove weedy vegetation from the base of the hive. Vegetation is a convenient hiding place for creatures who may want to move into the hive and it can be used like an entrance ramp or stepladder.
  • Use an inner cover under your outer cover for greater insulation.
  • Put a slatted rack in your hive if you don’t already have one. The slatted rack adds space between the bottom of the cluster and the drafty hive opening.
  • Put a wintergreen grease patty in each hive. Grease patties won’t control a large mite infestation, but they can slow the increase of mites during the winter months.
  • If you live in a wet area, make sure your lids will keep out the rain. Make any needed repairs now.
  • If wintertime moisture is a problem in your hives, add a quilt box above the brood boxes.
  • Provide ventilation for your hives: air must be able to come in through the bottom and out through the top. I like to use a screened bottom board all winter long.
  • If high winds are a problem you may consider adding a skirt around the base of your hive to reduce drafts. Although you want adequate ventilation, you don’t want a wind tunnel.
  • If high winds are a problem, secure your lids with heavy stones or tie-downs.
  • If high winds are a problem, you may want to shield upper ventilation holes from side winds.
  • If high winds are a problem, consider providing a windbreak.
  • If extreme cold is a problem, consider wrapping your hives with insulation or tar paper . . . but, again, don’t forget the ventilation.
  • If winter flooding is a problem, move the hives to higher ground now while the weather is still dry.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Note: Please see the update to this post: The ultimate guide to overwintering success

Comments

Judd Williams
Reply

Hello Rusty. I am concerned about putting the hive quilt design on, that you have made. I am in Brier/Lynnwood area, above Seattle and thinking about the rain getting in the side holes of the quilt box all winter. We have about 8 hives all together, have telescoping peaked vented hive roofs with inner covers. I am sure you have it worked out but I cannot picture it. Do you have a picture of one of your hives complete with quilt box that is ready to set all winter? …….Judd

Rusty
Reply

Judd,

I will take a picture and post it. But if you have vented telescoping covers, you shouldn’t need the vent holes in the quilt box. As long as the material in the quilt can dry out, it will work fine. My telescoping covers fit down over the vent holes partway, but there is enough air space between the telescoping cover and the quilt box for air to flow through. I’ve never had a moisture problem once I started to use these.

Usually, we don’t have driving sideways rain. On those occasions when we do, not much water goes in. Any rainwater that does get in is absorbed by the wood chips and soon dries out due to the cross ventilation.

Judd Williams
Reply

Perfect. thank you..Judd

Dave
Reply

Hi,
Good list!
Living to the north of you in the Okanagan Valley of BC & being my first winter to prepare for I’m wondering what you would consider enough stores going in to winter. How much weight do you strive for to maximize your odds of bring hive through winter?
Dave

Rusty
Reply

That is the unanswerable question. It depends on how big your hives are, what kind of bees you keep, your micro-climate, whether you wrap your colonies, etc. Were I live we don’t have a very cold winter, but it is long and wet. You may be similar, or you may be colder. In any case, I keep Carniolans which are known for over-wintering in small clusters. Fewer bees eat less than many bees. If you keep Italians, they require more stores.

I overwinter in ten-frame double deeps and strive for about 80 (36 kg) pounds of honey going into the winter. I can do it on less, but I don’t have to worry about them at 80 lbs of honey. Folks in colder climates often strive for 100 lbs (45 kg). But, like I said, there are many variables. I don’t actually weigh them either. Before winter I remove the upper box and estimate the weight. Then I just lift up the back end of the lower box to get an idea of the weight.

Yes, I realize I’m feeling the weight of box, brood, honey, and bees, but you develop a feel for it over the years. Basically, if all the frames are basically full of something (honey, pollen, brood) and hive is boiling over with bees, you’re good to go. If not, keep feeding until they won’t take any more, which will happen when the syrup reaches about 50 degrees F (10 C).

If during the winter your bees start accumulating just under the lid, start feeding sugar cakes or dry granulated sugar. You can keep them going this way if it becomes necessary.

Alex
Reply

Hi Rusty,

If I have only one deep, would you still use slatted rack and screened bottom board? I live in Michigan. Thank you

Rusty
Reply

Alex,

I would.

Melissa
Reply

Would I have issues with queen acceptance if I combine my two small Italian hives? I am wondering if I should remove the weaker queen or let them hash it out.

Rusty
Reply

Melissa,

My preference would be to remove the weaker one.

Hans Gutbrod
Reply

Hi Rusty,

again writing from the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus. Thanks for this, VERY interesting. We are now thinking of doing an instructional video for local beekeepers here in Georgia. We were wondering whether you could put numbers on anything. For example, on average, how much does good winter preparation increase colony size, or average survival rates? Are there any numbers (or rules of thumb) on this?

We want to explain concrete advantages to our beekeepers, and one or two numbers could really help.

Sorry for this very nerdy question!

Hans

Rusty
Reply

Hans,

No, I’m sorry, I don’t have any numbers off-hand. I do know that when I started getting serious about over wintering, I went from overwintering 50 percent to well over 80 percent. Some years, I get them all through, so it’s made a big difference to me.

Hans Gutbrod
Reply

Rusty, thanks, that already is exactly the kind of rule of thumb we were looking for!!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge & all the best from Tbilisi, Hans

Troy
Reply

Hello, great place hear. This will be my first year with bees. I don’t even have them yet, I will get them in April. My question is I see everywhere to use a screen board and leave it open all winter for ventilation. I live in Northern Ohio and it can get mighty cold. Would it not be better to cut say a 3 or 4 inch circle in the center of the slide out piece of the screen board for ventilation rather than have the whole thing opened up?

Thanks a ton.

Troy

Rusty
Reply

Troy,

Honey bee colonies don’t die of dry cold, they die from wet cold. As long as you keep them dry and well fed, they will easily survive an Ohio winter. Still, they will get plenty of ventilation from a hole cut in the varroa drawer, if that’s what you want to do.

Spoke
Reply

Howdy Rusty. Im aware this is an old thread but I like to ask questions in the appropriate one instead of hijacking an off topic thread. Concerning overwintering and screened bottom boards, should I leave my bb open all winter where drafts can blow up into the hive or should I slide in a mite board (or similar) to block those drafts?

Rusty
Reply

Spoke,

That depends on how cold and windy your local area is and how much condensation you get. Personally, I leave my screened bottom boards open all year in order to help control excess moisture in the hive. If it gets down into the low 20s F for more than a few days, I slide the mite boards in until the cold snap is over and then I pull them out again. Remember, dry bees tolerate cold very well; wet bees cannot tolerate it at all.

Tim
Reply

Hi Rusty! Been reading through all your blogs. I am a first year beek and am curious about wintering my hive. My bees arrived in April, they built great numbers and swarmed in June. I built them back up to an ok number but not great (3 frames of bees). Moved them back to my house in Roy, Wa. and just dropped them down to 1 deep. I reduced the entrance (yellowjackets were an issue). My hive consists right now of just a standard bottom board, 10 frame deep, inner cover and telescoping cover. It has a fence/wind break on the south and east sides. I am feeding them bee patties as they only really have a couple frames of capped honey/brood. I was thinking what else I need to do. Make an insulated shell? Quilt box vs vivaldi vs Mann lake winter cover? Any ideas? Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

The way I see it, your biggest problem is food and the second biggest is moisture. A small colony like that can easily overwinter in western Washington as long as it remains well fed and dry.

Our climate isn’t cold enough for insulation, so I would not do that. Of the three devices you mentioned, I prefer a quilt box over the vivaldi board or the Mann Lake winter cover simply because the quilt box will absorb and control moisture the best. Of course, the colony is small so it won’t emit a lot of moisture, but even then, that is my preference.

Moisture quilts need to be built properly so the wood chips stay dry, so if you use a quilt be sure to add ventilation ports. Even in my strongest hives, I’ve never seen more than 1/4-inch of wet chips. It’s easy to check because wet ones are darker colored.

I also think a candy board is in order because those bees will eventually run out of feed. You might want to check out “A no-cook candy board. That post explains how you can use a candy board along with a moisture quilt. All my hives are set up this way, the big ones and the small ones.

Linda
Reply

Hi Rusty

I can’t figure out if I need to leave my Varroa drawer in or take it out during the winter. Seems like the bees would get a lot of wind coming in through the opening in the back of the hive if the drawer is out but then again would they get enough ventilation if I leave the drawer in??? I have bee cozies on that I got from Mann Lake because my hives are out in the open and get hit with southwest winds. The back of my hive catches some strong gusts sometimes. Trying to get my girls through the winter.

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

If you are more comfortable with the drawers in, leave them in. Just make sure your bees have enough ventilation to stay dry. Dryness is the most important issue in a mild climate like ours.

Kathleen
Reply

Hi Rusty,
I just finished reading this post on overwintering hives. I have a problem and you mention something in this post that caught my attention. You said to combine two small colonies. I have a pretty healthy two brood box colony that looks pretty jam packed with honey, especially the top box. My other colony has only one brood box and only four of the frames are filled out on both sides with brood and honey. The reason I have that colony is because it swarmed from my original colony. I just started this spring with one colony. A bear attacked it twice, I thought the queen was dead, but she wasn’t as she swarmed a few weeks later. We caught the swarm and put it in a hive with one brood box. That happened during the first week of July. It’s pretty busy but hasn’t filled out the box much. The other colony produced a new queen. I didn’t get any supers of honey, they mostly just worked on filling the two brood boxes. So, my question is with a queen in each colony, can the one brood box colony be combined with my two brood box colony? If not, will the smaller colony make it through the winter? I am going to put a syrup feeder on it and hope it helps. Is there any hope for it? I would really appreciate your help on this. I can’t seem to get much of an answer from any resources I have checked. Thank you so very much.

Rusty
Reply

Kathleen,

You can combine the two colonies, but you will have to destroy one queen. Another thing you can do is buy or make a double-screen board and then put the small colony on top of the large colony. In this way, the colonies remain separate, but heat from the larger colony moves up and helps to heat the smaller colony. Before stacking them, I would perhaps take a couple of frames of honey from the big hive and add to the smaller hive to equalize them a little.

Kathleen
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I just asked a question above this one. I wanted to mention that I live in east-central Minnesota and it gets pretty darn cold here. I will be putting a covering around the hives and they are protected on the west side as they are tucked into a hedge/windbreak. Thank you again for your help.

Kristen
Reply

Hi Rusty. I’m in Peshastin, WA. Very cold and snowy winters. Last year my survival hive was 3 deeps, with the top all capped honey. This happened because I lost a queen in one hive in September and combined this hive with a weak hive, but good queen. I moved frames around to keep all brood in the 2 bottom deeps, but left the 3rd deep full of honey frames.

I was thinking of experimenting this year with a couple of hives by removing the outer frames of honey in the brood boxes (which the bees never seem to move out to) and replacing them with foundation frames. I will then add a 3rd deep with all honey. All my hives get wrapped with 2 inch insulation or roofing paper.

Your thoughts on this crazy idea?!

Rusty
Reply

Kristen,

The outer frames of honey are excellent insulators because honey has a high heat capacity. So even though they don’t get eaten, they provide a vital service. Since your hives are wrapped perhaps it doesn’t matter, but if it were me, I would leave them in place.

Mykayla
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I am an amateur beekeeper. I was hired in April by a man who had bees and didn’t know how to keep them, so he asked me to take over. I have only taken honey out of each hive once, but I think I’m done harvesting for the year. Next year I will hopefully harvest more.

What I have a question about is how small is a small colony? I have one hive that is composed of one deep and one shallow. Does that qualify as small? If so, how do I combine it with another colony?

I’m 15 years old.

Rusty
Reply

Mykayla,

The question is not how much space is available, but how many bees are in that space. I like to have at least 10 frames of bees heading into winter. For example, if you have eight deep frames full of bees, plus four or five frames of bees in the shallow, that should be enough. Then, making sure they have enough food becomes the major issue.

On the other hand, if you want to combine the colony with another, use the newspaper method after removing one queen.

Karen
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m stressing. Can you guide me as to what to do? Here in Maine we should have arranged the frames in the hives to prepare for winter in August. We have (2) 3 deep Langs that are 1st year hives. We were planning to get into the hives this weekend to check things out. My son feels as though we should leave the hives as is and not disrupt what they have done all summer long. I realize none us know exactly what is going on in the hives until we open them up. We need to see honey stores for possible feeding and arrangement of the boxes as well. What do you think? Thanks Rusty for any help.

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

Did you read yesterday’s post? It is based on this one, only extended. One of my main points is the danger of not doing anything.

It is possible that your colony is in the top box with nothing below. They could have a lot of stores or not. They may not need the triple configuration. Too much space is an invitation to predators.

Especially as first-year beekeepers, you need to see what is going on inside. You may be surprised. If you don’t check now, you will be stressing until when? March? That’s half a year! By all means, check on them. That’s the only way you will know what to do for them.

A lot of people say you should not break the propolis seal before winter. That’s nuts. The propolis will re-seal in a matter of hours. Read yesterday’s post, and then go for it.

Karen
Reply

Thank you thank you thank you Rusty! I will read yesterdays post. I was stressin’ too much and missed it!

You’re an amazing, knowledgeable lady……

Karen
Reply

Hi Rusty,

We opened up the hives today. I am so glad we did. But it was heartbreaking for 1 hive. We thought it looked a little quieter then the other hive. There were very few bees, no queen and we could see a few mites on bees. The 2nd hive was much better. Lots of bees, honey stores and some brood. There was also some sign of mites. We organized the boxes and frames for winter and we’ll be putting mite strips in the boxes. We really did not want to do treatments but we also want this hive to make it through our Maine winter! We’re hoping that will help. In November we’ll wrap the hive and add a moisture quilt and bottom board. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to put the bees from the failing hive into the 2nd hive. Seems like we would just be increasing the mite load in that hive. What do you think?

Thanks Rusty.

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

I hope it works out for you. By the time you actually see mites, the situation may be irreversible. Under ideal conditions, you want to get rid of the mites before your winter bees are born, which usually means before September. However, since your second hive is still strong, it may manage to get by.

You are right that adding the additional mites to your good colony is not a good idea. It’s not the mites that are the problem, of course, it’s the viral diseases they carry that do the damage. Once the bees are infected with viruses, killing the mites will not save those bees.

Let me know how it goes.

Karen
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you again for guidance. I will note that in my journal about mite treatment before September. I just came in from checking the hives and now there are scads of yellowjackets going in and out of the failing hive and it looks like they are also doing the same with the stronger hive. Maybe not in as great numbers. I was feeding sugar syrup to both hives (started a week ago) but just took off the failing hive feeder as it was only feeding wasps and bumblebees. I had put entrance reducers on a week ago and now have further reduced the entrance to the stronger hive. I’m not sure what else I can do at this point.

I did spend a few minutes trying to kill some yellow jackets like a crazy woman but…..

Any advice you can give is always appreciated.

Terri
Reply

Hi Rusty, I really enjoy your site, it has been very helpful to me as a 1st year beekeeper! I live in Indiana and am preparing my hives for winter but have several concerns. I have 2 hives, the 1st hive is from a pkg I purchased in early May this year and the other a swarm I caught in June. They 1st one has gentle bees and has a queen that was a good layer but always had supercedure and queen cells (which i always cut out) even though there were 5 empty frames available. I put a 2nd deep on to try and avoid swarming. In July I decided that maybe they know best and left the the queen cells in. several times the current queen killed the new ones that hatched but believe they finally succeeded in letting the new queen live. They would never fill out all the frames on the ends in the first or second deep. I have been feeding them all along but feel the colony is too small and not enough honey stores. The 2nd hive is very strong and robust but aggressive and don’t like being messed with. I have a bee suit so I still do inspections but not as often. I feel this one is prepared for winter. Considering the second hive is agressive and a different breed, would it be a good idea to combine them using the double screen method or should I take a frame of honey from the 2nd and give it to the 1st hive continue feeding and see what happens ? Also the last 2 times I opened up my hives there was a robbing frenzy and a lot of dead bees. It was suggested to me to not open them up again except for feeding and hope for the best or i may start another robbing frenzy. I have a short window of good weather and really need advice, any suggestions?

Rusty
Reply

Terri,

1. The early supersedure cells were a warning that all was not right with the queen. Early replacement was probably a good idea. If you’ve read many of my posts, you know that I’m totally opposed to cutting queen cells because, in nearly all cases, the bees have better judgement than we do.

2. “They would never fill out all the frames on the ends in the first or second deep.” That is pretty typical, especially if they have room to expand upwards. If you want them to fill out the ends, you need to wait on the next brood box. Or you can just not worry about the ends.

3. I can’t tell you what to do with the honey stores without any numbers. Indiana has cold winters, so I expect you need somewhere around 80 or 90 pounds of honey per hive for the winter. Do you have that? You can estimate a full deep frame (both sides) at about 9 pounds. Estimate partials from there. If you have enough in the larger hive, you can give some to the smaller one. If not, you might be best combining or feeding.

4. If robbing is still a problem, you can wait for a cooler day when bees are not flying. Just know what you’re going to do and do it quickly.

Terri
Reply

Dear Randy,

Thank you for responding. I checked back several times but for some reason I was not able to see your response right away.

My first hive in the bottom deep only has approximately 4 frames of bees with very little brood and empty cells back filled with nectar and approximately .5-1 frames of capped honey on either side of that and blank frames on each end. The top deep has approximately 4-5 frames of capped honey directly above and blank frames on either side. A local beekeeper suggested that bees prefer to go up to get honey and to leave the honey in the 2nd deep. Not sure if this arrangement is a good idea or if it leaves too much open space or not?

It’s mid November now, we may have a few days left here or there that may reach 50-60 degrees, at this point would it better leave this hive alone or wait for a warmer day and move the honey down and remove the top deep box?

Thank you,
Terri

Rusty
Reply

Terri,

I think you could go either way. The bees do tend to move up in the winter, but if there’s no place to go, they (of course) stay below.

My personal preference would be to move the honey down to the lower box and remove the upper one. I think that would keep the hive a bit warmer and less drafty and it would eliminate extra space the bees have to police for predators, etc.

However, you can leave it as it and the cluster will eventually move into the box. In any case, I would check the hive now and then to make sure the honey is close to the brood nest. If you have warmish days in winter, the bees will find the honey. If all your days are really cold, they may stay clustered and “forget” where the honey is.

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