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Overwintering success: the one thing I do differently

It’s official: I overwintered all my colonies once again. In fact, in seven of the last ten years I managed to pull every single colony through the bleak northwest winter. Having said that, the questions I’m asked are always the same: “What mite meds do you use?” “How long do you feed?” “What is your winter configuration?” All these queries presume that there is some magic trick to overwintering. If you only buy the right stuff, you will have no more bee problems.

The questions remind me of photography. Every time someone takes a truly outstanding photograph, people ask, “What camera did you use?” as if the camera went out and took pictures by itself. The photographer wasn’t sitting in the mud, all scrunched down at bug level, sweltering in the sun, and not breathing lest he produce carbon dioxide. He didn’t take 853 shots and discard 852 of them. He didn’t spend the next three days charging all the batteries he drained that afternoon. And he didn’t drive 349 miles and burn untold gallons of fuel to get to the place with all the right bugs.

You need to do the work

Like good photographers, good beekeepers actually do the work. Overwintering a bunch of honey bees is an art form. To me, it is amazing that any bug—not in a state of diapause or quiescence—can actually make it through such a long period of incarceration. I think we should be more surprised by colonies that make it than by those that don’t.

But in deference to those who want to know how to overwinter, I had a long think over it. I know what has vastly increased my chances of overwintering—things like moisture quilts and no-cook candy boards. My system evolved over a number of years and weathered many naysayers. I read books and asked question of engineers and architects about how things work in enclosed spaces, things like airflow, ventilation, heat loss, and condensation. Then I asked questions of biologists about nutrition and entomologists about diseases and vectors.

I designed my overwintering system based on science, and so far at least, it works like a charm. But you can’t expect the same system to work for you any more than you can expect the same camera to take identical pictures. It’s not so much what you use, but how you use it.

Furthermore, what is necessary for me here in soggy western Washington doesn’t hold true in eastern Washington or in western Oregon…or anywhere else. Everything depends on local conditions.

The thing I do differently

However, having fulminated over the question “How do you do it?” for days on end, I did come up with one thing I do differently than most beekeepers, or at least differently from the ones I hear about. I was reminded of it again this morning as I was reading through my inbox. A beekeeper wrote that she couldn’t remove the mite strips on time because of the weather. That mindset, the “I couldn’t because,” is the major overwintering problem.

The thing I do differently is simple: I never procrastinate. If something needs to be done for my bees, I do it. And soon. Do you recall the words inscribed on the old post office building in New York, now zip code 10001? It reads, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Think about that. When the post office actually lived by those words, everyone got his mail on time. Now that the post office is afraid of a little weather, no one gets anything on time. Not only that, we have phrases like “going postal” that aren’t all that favorable to the post office.

Overwintering success

But back to honey bees. If something needs to be done, neither snow nor torrential rain nor gale-force winds nor foot-long icicles should stay the beekeeper from his duties.

Years ago a wizened old beekeeper told me that keeping bees doesn’t take much time, but the things that must be done, must be done on time. That simple idea became my beekeeping mantra, and I believe that ethic, more than anything else, has helped me to be successful.

If it needs to be done, do it

For those of you who read this site regularly, this is old news. Although I preach it constantly, that doesn’t slow the flow of emails that are all basically the same. “I needed to feed my bees, but it was too cold, so I waited and they died.” So instead of sacrificing a few, you decided to kill the whole thing? “I needed to split the hive but it was too windy. Next day they swarmed and I lost them.” So instead of losing a few bees, you lost a whole swarm? “The mites were really bad, but I couldn’t treat because of the rain. Now they’re all dead.” And what? You’re surprised?

Excuses, excuses. Get real folks. If it needs to be done, do it. I don’t give a rip if it’s freezing, pouring, boiling, or blowing. If it needs to be done, do it. Yes, you may lose some bees, but you won’t lose all the bees. That’s the point. Admittedly, I cut some slack for people living at forty below because, at those temperatures, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But if that’s not you, you don’t have an excuse.

Whose welfare are you worried about?

I think the excuses are more about beekeeper comfort than bee husbandry. I know the feeling. It’s miserably cold. You don’t want to go outside and feed a colony. So instead of doing it, you convince yourself that it would be bad for the bees to lift the lid and slide in some fondant. So you wait another day. And then another. And another. Until they’re dead.

So next time you’re tempted to think it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, too Tuesday, too Christmas, or too late remember the post office—the old post office—and get out there and tend your bees.

That, in a nutshell, is how I overwintered all my colonies this year and in many of the preceding years. There is nothing magic, no secret formula, no incantations, just dogged persistence and attention to detail. As I always say, your bees will do the hard part, you just have to do your part—and do it on time.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

My camera took this photo of a bee on a pea. I had nothing to do with it. © Rusty Burlew's camera.
My camera took this photo of a bee on a pea. I had nothing to do with it. © Rusty Burlew’s camera.

Comments

Heather Wunderlich
Reply

I did a fall mite treatment, sugar board with a pollen patty at the top, and a moisture quilt; and opened my hive this spring to more than double the amount of bees and only a little left of the sugar. Not only did they survive the Utah winter, but they thrived. A few spring like days mixed in where they could go out and relieve themselves didn’t hurt either. Problem is they ate all the sugar and then filled the sugar box with comb, those buggers. Then the queen laid eggs in the comb. Waiting to see if I still have my (unmarked queen) after having to remove the comb and shake all the bees back into the hive.

WesternWilson
Reply

First of all, Heather that wild comb makes a decent slatted rack/wind baffle! Or melt it down to add wax to new foundation…I use extra deep inner covers in summer to push the bees to make extra wax comb I can harvest.

Rusty, well said. I do a lot of rescue calls and last year heard from a few new beekeepers that they do not treat for mites nor feed the bees because that “poisons” their bees and also supports the existence of “weak” bee stocks. We are on the 49th parallel, we have no nectar flow after June, and a lot of mites from pollination bees drift locally: what is “poisoning” when the average life of a local untreated hive is 6 months? And starvation does nothing to alter the genome. Your advice, to give timely aid and care, should be inscribed on the flyleaf of every beginner beekeeping manual!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Janet. And I like your idea of the deep inner covers. Last year when I accidentally left an empty three-inch deep candy board on a hive, the bees filled it with the best, most tender comb honey I’ve ever tasted. I might try that again as well as your idea for extra wax comb.

Phillip
Reply

You got me on that one. The worst winter I had, when shrews got into my most of my hives and, you know, ate all my bees, I could have stopped it if I’d torn the hives apart and scared the shrews away. But I thought it was too cold to open the hives, let alone dismantle them and poke around every crack looking for shrews. I wouldn’t hesitate today.

I’ve virtually done full hive inspections since then, pulling out frames full of bees while it was snowing. It’s kind of amazing how much the bees can take.

Rusty
Reply

To my readers: In case you don’t know, Phillip lives and keeps honey bees in Newfoundland. He is proof that opening hives in winter can be a successful strategy.

Thank you, Phillip. And I agree, the bees have an amazing will to survive.

Chris Tornow
Reply

Well Rusty, you nailed it again. In doing some soul searching this winter I came to the conclusion just about every problem I had was due to my not dealing with things when they needed to be because I thought it was too cold, too stressful on a new queen, etc. the list goes on. So my New Years resolution was to realize the things that can happen are usually worse than the possible disruption from taking action. The bees wait for no one.

Re: The quilt boxes I have to say that really makes checking them in the winter and adding sugar blocks is so easy to just lift that up and slip one in and I don’t feel like the bees are much disturbed at all.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

You’re right about the quilt boxes. They make it so easy to check the bees, say hello, give them some feed, and close back up—all in about 10 seconds.

BeeHappy
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I used the quilt box this winter, on several hives. I made it from a shallow super with 1/8-inch mesh on the bottom. I then placed a cloth inside stapling it to the side walls, to keep the fine particles from dropping down on the bees. I noticed this spring that the bees had propolized the cloth starting at the outside edges working their way in toward the center. Finally the question… Should I just leave it for next year? Some are 1/2 blocked or replace the cloth every year. I had thought/assumed there was too much air flow and the bees blocked part of it. So it should still work partially blocked. I also have 2 5/8 inch holes in the top of the quilt box, on each side (4 total) with 1/8 inch mesh over them to help with moisture removal. It would not be too much work to change the cloth, but if the cloth is allowing too much warm air out, then, presumably, they will just propolize the new cloth again. I can supply a picture if it would help.

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

I think they propolize regardless of the amount of ventilation. Whether I have a lot of ventilation or a little, they do the same thing. But remember, propolis is not just for air handling; it is also for disease prevention. Personally, I put in new cloth every year and clean the screens with a heat gun. But that’s just me, I’m sure you could leave it for another year if that’s what you want to do.

Karen Hunter
Reply

It is just that simple!

Granny Roberta in nw Connecticut USA
Reply

Oh, Lord, the excuses—that’s me in a nutshell. It’s too cold, too hot, too wet, too dearthy, too windy, oh and I’m too sleep deprived just at present.

I am a very bad beekeeper.

Wait, I just today went into four hives to remove queen cages, even though it was Too Late In The Day.

I’ll just give myself a medal now.

Rusty
Reply

Roberta,

Good for you. I’ve been going to check my hives all day, but I’m too busy writing about it!

Marilyn Holt
Reply

How do keep the bees dry if you open the hive when it is raining? How do you keep them dry? I get the idea of an umbrella, but is that enough? I am certain that I lost a healthy hive because there was a heavy mist when I opened the hive.

Any tips on how to open the hive in rain will be welcomed. I am in Kitsap and there is a lot of rain from October to April.

Rusty
Reply

Marilyn,

Usually I just lift the quilt box and they don’t get wet at all. But getting a little wet won’t hurt the bees if there is something important to do, like feed them. Bees get wet in nature, in fact, nearly all animals get wet from time to time. Don’t worry about it; just work quickly. I’m 100% positive the heavy mist was a red herring. It had nothing to do with anything.

Alice
Reply

“Years ago a wizened old beekeeper told me that keeping bees doesn’t take much time, but the things that must be done, must be done on time.” I am going to keep this.

I was checking on my bees all winter, every 7-14 days, peeking in to check on/add sugar, listening for the hum, checking the moisture quilts for moisture, cleaning off landing board. I was able to save a colony this spring that had gone queenless because I ventured to do a full inspection on a day that was “too cold” and opened another hive to get frames of eggs, brood, and food and transfer some bees.

Newbee question, if a colony goes queenless but there are still a couple frames of worker bees and they raise a new queen with eggs from another hive, can it still be said the queenless colony “overwintered”?

Rusty
Reply

Alice,

I think so. After all, it didn’t die. You saw a problem and made a management decision, which saved the colony. I call that good beekeeping.

Alice
Reply

Then I say yea! My first winter I have 3 for 3 in SW Ohio. Thank you, Rusty.

Cal
Reply

By what magic did the new queen get mated in the cold weather? Or, was the original queen still there, just taking a break? How was the “queenless” condition assessed?

Bill Patz
Reply

Rusty – regarding the do it now approach, with the first sustained burst of warm weather (Pacific Northwest) and bees actively cleaning house, one of my hives was busy shoving out a boat load of bees with deformed wing virus. The hive showed a high mite population in the fall and I treated with oxalic acid (vapor). The came through winter well and there are plenty of bees but I’m concerned about the early evidence of the mites coming back strong. I’m thinking of getting on the problem right away with a couple OA treatments before they get into the thick of filling the honey supers I’m about to put on. Any thoughts about whether or not this is a good idea?

Thanks.
Bill

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

I think you should do it, otherwise they may be too weak to give you much of a honey crop.

David R
Reply

Bill I had a similar experience with the deformed wing showing up while brood were present and did three OA vapor treatments seven days apart as recommended in the presence of capped brood and that brought the mite counts back in line. A “couple” means different things to different people and just wanted to suggest you do at least three to go beyond the period that mites would be protected in capped brood. Good luck!

Debbie
Reply

Congrats @ successfully overwintering. Candy boards and moisture quilts are the best. After reading about them on your site, we used them every winter after that and we too were successful at overwintering. You end up with strong, bursting colonies come February. We even use them on small nucs that we make up in the early spring, and for just about everything. They warm up the bees and keep them toasty over winter. Love them things ! Thanks Rusty for sharing all your knowledge.

Lindy
Reply

I, too, had an overwintering success rate similar to yours. Until this winter. My three production hives were flying during the northeast’s mild February. Even though all hives had fondant beneath the quilt box, only one hive ever had bees up top. (Two deeps and one medium.). This week, however, I went to remove mouse guards and quilt boxes to find all three hives being massively robbed. No viable brood anywhere. Each had lots of capped honey and pollen. While I had only used formic acid, this past summer I used oxalic acid (drip) for my late summer treatment. Thinking that was a mistake… Anyway, I am taking this disaster as permission for me to retire from beekeeping. It has just been too hard on my aging back for several years now. I know I will miss the sounds and smells of being with my girls on a hot summer day. And I wanted to thank you for your time, for sharing your experience and knowledge. I did almost everything you recommended and I believe I became a competent, successful beekeeper. I will now be a ‘virtual’ beekeeper as I continue to enjoy your blog.

Rusty
Reply

Lindy,

That is really sad, although I do understand. Every winter I think that if I lose all my bees, I will call it quits. Sometimes things come to a natural conclusion that saves us making difficult decisions.

Susie Skinner
Reply

Can you send a picture of your “quilt box”? I went into winter with 2 weak hives and one strong one. The strong one came out with flying colors, actually grew over winter. I did not wrap, fed them all winter, and made sure they had good ventilation. My goal this summer is to have strong hives entering the fall and winter but maybe add your quit boxes to them…I did worry about them on cold, wet, windy nights.

BeeHappy
Reply

Folks,

I place my hives in a location that I can drive to. The obvious reason is to haul in the boxes and haul out the full honey supers. Due to my schedule. I have checked for laying queen (finding eggs) and did splits, and pulled honey at night. I point my car at the hives leave the headlights on with the car running, and go for it. You need to experiment with the distance, real close is not the best 10-15 yards works for me. Actually the head lights work really good for finding eggs. So if any of you have schedules that seem full, some activities can be done at night. I have not tried but I would think a lantern would also work for places where you cannot drive to. Where there is a will there is a way. Also works good when it is hot and the comb is really soft, it is cooler at night. Less chance for robbing, all the bees are in the hive, there can be good reasons for the night visit.

BeeHappy

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

I’ve done night beekeeping, too. In winter, it’s dark here by 4 pm, so sometimes night is the only chance I get.

Heather Wunderlich
Reply

Bee Happy,

I made my quilt box the exact same way and when I opened this spring the bottom of the cloth was also covered in comb. One thing though was that the inner cover on the quilt box was covered in mold so I was sort of happy that it seemed to do it’s job, drawing moisture up and away from the bees and keeping the heat in so much that the queen was still laying during a Utah winter/early spring (in that comb.)

Rachelle
Reply

Haha! loved the caption under your bee on a pea pic. The picture too.

Jon Sumpter
Reply

Procrastinating beekeepers kill hives. I didn’t this year and did not lose any (of 2 colonies). This idea finally got through my thick head. Thanks for the reminder.

Cathy
Reply

Hi Rusty, How right you are!!!! I kept putting off opening my hive due to the temperature not going over 50! Mistake!!! Finally temperature went up a few degrees and I went into my hive, they overwintered beautifully! There were a couple of queen cells but I was going to wait and see, the very next day they swarmed! I captured some, but as of today (4/26/18) the rest are in a tree above my koi pond and I can’t get to them. To make matters worse now it’s raining! This is my second year of beekeeping and I am so angry at myself! Just wanted to blow off some steam!! And to also thank you and your wonderful site! Cathy

Rusty
Reply

Cathy,

That is so frustrating when you can see them in a tree, but you can’t get to them.

Dan
Reply

Perfectly said Rusty. In speaking to other beekeepers and reading about so many preventable issues, it’s nice to have a solid article like this one to point them to. A lot of new beekeepers just don’t understand how important those words really are “If it needs to be done, do it” or as I like to say to them, in beekeeping If you wait your late. The set it and forget it days are long gone.

Great read Rusty

Gordon Cromwell
Reply

Rusty, my modification is to simply add insulation to the telescoping cover. Pink insulation (dense, about 1” thick, from Home Depot) cut to fit up into the cover and glue in place. This eliminates any moisture collection in the wood chips. Thanks for all of your good ideas.

Amy Sharaf
Reply

I’m quite intrigued about the comb in feeders. My normal winter prep is very little – just an empty super with a 5# bag of dry sugar lying on its side and opened in an X across the broad side. This not only provides emergency feed but absorbs moisture as well…but that isn’t what I wanted to say.

Two years ago, I became highly allergic to stings and couldn’t go near the hives until I had reached maintenance on my shots. That left the empty supers on top…which the bees filled to the brim with amazing thick slabs of comb honey. Much appreciated by a few sisters and friends who prefer their honey in combs.

Nate (New Brunswick, Canada)
Reply

Hi Rusty! I made it through winter and all 5 of my hives survived (which was shocking, considering that we still had 2 feet of snow last week and almost 2 straight months of -30 Celsius temperatures). I personally think your candy boards made a world of difference. A lot of other people in my province had losses as high as 60%. My hives were bursting with bees when I first opened them. They had all eaten 50% or more of their candy boards (and still had lots of capped honey left). Your advice has been priceless. I had one question. I know that you had said before, that we can re-use (for syrup) any sugar that the bees didn’t eat. I noticed that the bees had pooped on several places on the candy board. Nothing major (like dysentery). Just a couple dots, here and there (definitely not over 5 – 10 poop dots per candy board). Is that safe to mix into the syrup? Or should I try to cut out those pieces? Thanks again for all your advice! You helped make my first year of beekeeping a lot less stressful.

Rusty
Reply

Nate,

Bees are different. The workers routinely clean up the feces of queen and drones, and it seems to be a normal part of their lives. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about the droppings, but if they make you uncomfortable, just dig them out.

Peter
Reply

Rusty,

Well put about being timely with your work, don’t procrastinate, and what works here might not work there.

I think folks were probably looking for a little more detail on how you actually do things (I know I was). Though I suppose the links within your article were for that purpose…

I’ve kind of come to expect less conjecture and more substance from your posts.

And while our postal system may not be on top any more, it’s still better than nearly 3/4 of the worlds systems:
https://www.statista.com/chart/9877/the-worlds-best-postal-services/

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

Sorry to disappoint you, but the specific things I do won’t help most people because beekeeping varies so much from place to place. However, doing things on time will help wherever you are. I encourage you to find a website more suited to your taste.

Heather Wunderlich
Reply

Rusty, I did the OA dribble yesterday based on your article. Of course I can’t report results yet, but being timely (pre too much brood) allowed me to implement a very simple and inexpensive mite treatment.

Li
Reply

I agree, timing is critical. The bees have their own timing, after all, and they don’t wait on us. It also takes, as you pointed out, research, persistence and tracking and analyzing your own data to find out what works and what doesn’t in your own corner of the world. Even with all that, many uncontrollable factors, such as weather changes, will impact the outcome of beekeeping seasons. I appreciate you pointing out that all your work is specific to your locality. Sometimes experienced beekeepers who have figured out the key to success with their own local variables, think that others can follow in their footsteps to the same results. Seems like they would realize that if it were possible to just do what someone else does, then beekeeping would be easy and everyone would be successful.

Quentin
Reply

Hi Rusty, we opened up 3 hives yesterday for the first time this spring. It’s been a long cold spring here in Southern Ontario. Happy that all three hives appear to doing well – we had four going into winter so we did lose one. We saw some new brood both capped and uncapped. Foragers we’re bringing in some pollen and we had added pollen patties earlier. The thing that puzzles me however is that most of the frames are full of capped honey. I doubt that we have more than 4- 6 empty frames in any of the hives. Our hives are composed of two brood boxes each with 10 frames (deeps). We went into the winter with about 80-90 lbs of honey in each hive.

I am concerned that once the queens starting ramping up egg production, they’ll run out of room quickly. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts on why we have so much honey at this time of year and what should we be doing now if anything?

Rusty
Reply

Quentin,

They could be preparing to swarm by backfilling the brood nest. Why not replace some of the honey frames with empty drawn comb or foundation? That will give them so more room, and you an always replace the frames later.

Quentin Day
Reply

Thanks Rusty, we will definitely try that. Do you have any advice on how many empty frames should be available in the brood boxes in early spring?

Rusty
Reply

Quentin,

That will depend on how large the colony is. But I think at least one or two empty frames on each side of the current brood nest. Or three or four above it.

Quentin
Reply

OKay – thanks again Rusty.

Bonnie
Reply

Excellent post with good advice! The “Do it now” philosophy is so important.
We’re new beekeeps and came through our first winter 2 for 2 in Minnesota! It feels like beginners luck, but we were obsessive about everything with our new bee children: feed sugar water in fall; oxalic acid drip in October; sugar patties in winter; pollen patties Feb-April; mouse guards; straw bale windbreak; southern exposure hives. We were thrilled to open the hives and find lots of bees, some honey, and 6 frames of capped & uncapped brood. We’re going to make our first hive split next week – wish us luck.

Linda
Reply

I’m a third year bee keeper. I lost my first colony (a nuc from Randy Oliver) due to waiting too long the following spring to do mite treatment. I lost the second one in the fall because…. I don’t know why. I treated for Varroa when the brood was very low in the fall. The bees seemed to leave (or perhaps slowly died off – with fall attrition, hard to tell) and left behind a hive full of honey and pollen. No obvious pest signs but I’m pretty new at this. No signs of robbing a failing colony (we watched this happen in our first colony). The hive stayed empty through the winter. In March, bees started entering the hive, I thought to perhaps rob the dribs and drabs of honey left behind after we harvested. The numbers increased and it started to look an awful lot like a normal colony (assuming I know what that looks like – which is perhaps a stretch). We could hear them in the hive at night. I did an inspection last weekend and sure enough, we have what looks to be a healthy colony with a low mite count. Who knew? My question is – what are the chances these are the same bees from the colony that left (if that’s what happened)? Or did we just get extremely lucky to have attracted a swarm without doing a thing?

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