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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

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.

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