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The ultimate guide to overwintering success

Honey bees are masters at overwintering. But for the most part, our modern-day honey bees find themselves living in man-made structures that are not like the homes they would have built for themselves. To compensate for the difference, a beekeeper often has to tweak the hives to prepare the bees for long periods of confinement.

And since all beekeeping is local, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for preparing. A South Carolina winter is not like a Minnesota winter, and an eastern Washington winter is not like a western Washington winter. To develop a successful overwintering strategy, each beekeeper must evaluate his own microclimate, which dictates things like precipitation, humidity, temperatures, wind, and hours of sunlight.

But your microclimate is just one parameter. You also need to consider your colony strength, the prevalence and type of wintertime pests, and the type of hive you are using.

Wintertime monitoring

In my own operation, winter prep begins in August and ends in October. However, even after all the steps are taken, I monitor constantly until spring is well established. I check my hives weekly during the winter. Usually I just walk by, flick the dead bees off the landing boards, remove fallen branches or limbs, and listen for the murmur of bees. At other times I examine the debris on a varroa tray or look in the snow surrounding a hive. Clues are everywhere.

If I become concerned, I may check with an infrared camera to see where the cluster is. If the bees are tucked low in the hive, I move on to the next. If the cluster is up high, I may open the hive and check for food stores.

Surprising as it is to me, I have saved a number of my winter colonies just by looking around. One year I discovered a dead queen on a landing board and was able to combine the colony with another. One year, I discovered headless bees with hollow thoraxes in front of the hive, a sign of shrews. When I discovered mouse droppings on a varroa tray, I was able to trap the mice. And many times I’ve found bees separated from their food supply and was able to save a colony simply by moving frames around.

The biggest beekeeping mistake

It’s easy to make wintertime mistakes because we are more removed from our bees than we are in the summer. However, I believe the biggest mistake is inaction.

The most common story I hear goes something like this: “I think my bees are starving, but it’s too cold to open the hive.” Similarly, “I think my bees are out of food, but I can’t add more because it won’t stop raining.”

Honestly, I don’t understand the reasoning here. If your bees are starving, they will soon die. Period. End of colony. If you open your hive and quickly add some food, you may lose some bees to cold and rain, but chances are you won’t lose many and the colony will live to make up the loss.

Always begin with a plan

I have combined colonies at 20 degrees F. I have added mouse traps in the 30s. I have fed bees in the rain, wind, snow, and dark. Is it ideal? No. Can it be done successfully? Of course.

Whenever I have to deal with bees in less than perfect conditions, I first write a plan. What must I do? In what order will I do it? What equipment do I need? If I know the answers to these questions and prepare my equipment in advance, I can often be in and out of a hive in less than a minute. But even if it takes longer, you are better off than the beekeeper who does nothing because of the weather.

Suggestions for wintertime preparations

Even though it is possible to correct problems in winter, it is best to avoid those situations if you can. Below I have listed some things beekeepers can do to prepare for winter. The ones you choose should be based on your particular conditions and hive type. No one needs to do all of them, and you may do some I haven’t listed. I find that my preparations vary even within my own apiary. My top-bar hive gets different treatment than my Langstroths, and my hillside hives are a little different than those closer to buildings.

My wintertime time prep starts with a notebook. After my honey supers are off, I go around to each hive and make a simple sketch of what is there. I put one hive on a page and record just what I see. If any extra equipment is near the hive, I mention that too. That small sketch reminds me of what I need to do before winter. Looking at the sketch, I make my list.

A simple example

So, for example, hive #4 has a screened bottom board with no varroa drawer, a slatted rack, one deep brood box, one medium super, a screened inner cover, and a lid. It also has a robbing screen.

Below the drawing, I make a list of what needs to be done. Here’s a hypothetical example:

Checklist for Hive #4

August:

  • Test for varroa: (record results here)
  • Treat if necessary
  • Cut back weeds under hive

September

  • Remove robbing screen
  • Remove screened inner cover
  • Estimate honey stores (record estimate here)
  • Add mouse guard

October

  • Arrange honey frames so they surround brood nest
  • Add quilt box
  • Add tie-down

Other Notes:

  • Bottom board is beginning to split—order a new one
  • tie-down ratchet needs oil

If paper’s not your thing, you can use software programs and add photographs. How you motivate yourself to do wintertime prep is not important as long as you do it.


The guide to overwintering

Below are some ideas for winter preparations divided into potential problems. Pick out the ones that apply to you and add those I missed.

Colony Health

  • Check for colony size and combine small ones. Come spring, it is better to have one live colony than two dead ones.
  • Check for a laying queen. Most likely, you will see at least some brood in your hive. If you don’t, try to find your queen to make sure she’s alive and healthy. If you can’t find her and see no sign of her, order a queen or combine.
  • Do a mite count.

Hive configuration

  • Remove empty bee boxes. 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.
  • Remove queen excluders so the cluster can move freely within the hive.
  • Reduce hive entrances if you haven’t already. It’s time for mice, shrews, and other small creatures to find a snug and warm overwintering place—one filled with honey is especially attractive.
  • Consider using a mouse guard over the entrance, such as #4 hardware cloth.
  • All ventilation ports should be covered with smaller screening (#8 is good) to keep out other freeloaders, including large spiders.
  • 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.

Food supply

  • Check for honey stores. If your hives are too light, it’s time to pull out that reserved honey you saved just for them. If you don’t have honey in reserve, you will need to feed sugar syrup.
  • Once the temperature of the syrup (not the air) falls to around 50 degrees F, you need to feed hard sugar instead. You can use a mountain camp feeder, a bag of granulated sugar in an eke, or a no-cook candy board.
  • Candy boards can be made with or without a pollen substitute. However, don’t give a pollen substitute too early in the winter. Pollen given too soon can result in a large population without adequate food stores. However, if early spring rain prevents your bees from foraging, a pollen boost in January or February can help your bees build up for the nectar flows.
  • 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.
  • As an option, you can place a wintergreen grease patty in each hive. I no longer do this because a grease patty won’t control a mite infestation. However, some beekeepers believe the patties can slow the increase of mites during the winter months.

Outside the hive

Grass in front of hive
Vegetation makes it easy for unwanted creatures to climb into the hive. Pixabay photo.
  • 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. Also, vegetation can hold moisture and cause mold to grow on hive stands and brood boxes.
  • Remove overhanging branches or dead limbs that might fall during a winter storm and damage the hive.

Insulation

  • Use an inner cover under your outer cover for greater insulation.
  • Some people like to use a moisture board, tucked into the lid.
  • Moisture quilts can provide insulation and remove excess moisture at the same time.

Rain

  • Make sure your lids keep out the rain. Make any needed repairs.
  • Consider adding a rain shelter over your hive.
  • Ventilation holes in upper structures can be drilled at an angle so rain drips to the outside instead of to the inside.

Internal moisture

  • If wintertime moisture is a problem in your hives, add a moisture quilt above the brood boxes.

Ventilation

  • Provide ventilation for your hives: air must be able to come in through the bottom and out through the top. Ventilation is a give and take. Yes, you lose some warm air, but moderate ventilation helps air quality, reduces air-born pathogen counts, reduces carbon dioxide build-up, lessens the chance of mold and mildew, and keeps the interior dry.
  • If your temperatures are not extreme, consider using a screened bottom board all winter long.
  • Depending on your local climate, consider giving your bees a small upper entrance. Moist air can escape from the opening, and the bees can take cleansing flights on warmer days, without having to travel down through the cold hive to the entrance, and then repeat the trip back up through the cold hive. Warm bees can go out and back quickly, and a steady stream of warm air from the cluster leaves through the opening, preventing cold air from coming into it.
  • Consider using a ventilated inner cover and/or a ventilated gabled roof to keep the hive dry inside.

Wind

Snow at hive entrance
A heavy stone can help hold the lid in place. An upper entrance is helpful if the lower one gets covered in snow. Pixabay photo.
  • 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.
  • Secure your lids with heavy stones or tie-downs.
  • You may want to shield upper ventilation holes from side winds.
  • Consider providing a windbreak, such as bales of straw.

Extreme cold

  • If extreme cold is a problem, consider wrapping your hives with insulation or tar paper . . . but don’t forget the ventilation. Improperly wrapped hives can get soggy from the inside out. Remember, your bees need a source of clean, fresh air.
  • Consider using a skirt, as for high winds.

Flooding

  • If winter flooding is a problem, move the hives to higher ground now while the weather is still dry.

The rest is up to your bees

Once you’ve done what you can, the rest is up to the bees. You should relax, catch up with your wintertime reading, and let the bees get on with it. You hear all kinds of scary statistics about winter losses, but if you prepare in a way that is appropriate for your local conditions, and you do it on time, you can overwinter your bees with excellent results.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

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Comments

Cathy Wilde
Reply

Rusty, you are such a gift. Thank you!!!!

Jenny Werth
Reply

I completely agree!

Irwin Venick
Reply

Do you have any recommendations for preparing a top bar hive for winter other than what is mentioned above?

Rusty
Reply

Irwin,

Not really. My top-bar hive overwinters the easiest of any of my hives. They’re going into their eighth winter, which is much longer than any of my other colonies have survived. I put in a solid bottom board, close the lower entrance except for a one-inch hole, and leave their upper entrance in place. I move the colony to one end so it moves in one direction only. Last year I caught a bunch of mice in there, but the colony did fine anyway. I have space under the roof for candy cakes in case their food runs short. But really nothing special.

Donald Rideaux-Crenshaw
Reply

And here in the upper Midwest, we leave one opening so that the bees can take cleansing flights on those rare days when it’s warm enough. October through April is a long time to hold it.

Besides, those brown stains in the snow tell you the colony is still alive.

Jenny Werth
Reply

Excellent post! Thank you. Can you define “extreme” winters? I know everyone has swings of lows that dip well below “normal” winter temps-but in general, what is extreme?

Also, I need to add an upper entrance, do I just drill a hole and cover with screen?
Thanks

Jenny

Rusty
Reply

Jenny,

Hmm. Judgement call. To me, extreme is -40°.

If you want an upper entrance, you drill a hole and do not cover it with screen.

Charles Green
Reply

To quote Rusty Burlew “And since all beekeeping is local.”

I suggest that you insist that readers submit comments or questions first stating the locale where the hive is located and its USDA climate zone.

Rusty
Reply

Charles,

If I had a dime for every time I made that request during the last 8 years, I would be one rich beekeeper.

John Zone 5
Reply

I have one weak hive (3 frames of bees in a single 10 frame box) that I was thinking of wintering over a strong 2 box colony. It would go from bottom up- bottom board, slatted rack, double deep colony, double screen, single weak colony, insulated /ventilated cover. All wrapped with bee cozy. Both would have honey stores and add winter patties as needed. Any problems with this? Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

John,

That’s exactly how I would arrange it. I assume the strong colony can come and go through the lower entrance. Does your double screen provide an entrance? Most do, but some don’t.

Margot Rideaux
Reply

What’s the double screen?

David Robertson
Reply

As always wonderful timely information

Peter Hadeka
Reply

Here in Vermont we can get some extreme weather, sometimes -20. I have discovered a product sold by Loon Apiary in central NY State. This is an L shaped plastic vent that allows moisture out, due to the turned down L, but helps keep heat in. The bees can also go in and out through this vent. Works for me. Check out the Loon Apiary web site. (I am not affiliated what so ever to Loon, I just like the product).

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

Thanks for the tip. I will check it out.

Sarah
Reply

Wonderful post, thank you!

We’re attempting to overwinter a single 5 frame nuc – would you recommend locating the honey frames on one side of the cluster (as with the top bar hive), or one frame of honey on each side? Likely we’ll need to feed them sugar at some point.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

Since a five-frame nuc is not very big, I would put the honey frames on each side because they will provide a bit of extra insulation.

Julia L Cipriano
Reply

What is a double screen? What is the purpose?

RandyKeel
Reply

Thanks, great information

Mary
Reply

Rusty,

I have a hive with a laying worker(s?). I have heard two different approaches and would love for you to share your thoughts.

1. Combine this queen-less hive with a queen-rite hive with newspaper in-between. They will chew through the paper and become one, no problem!

2. Add a mated queen to the queen-less hive, wait a few days….then take ALL frames out of the hive and shake all bees off the frames onto a sheet at least 100 yards from the hive’s location; remove the drone brood frames (feed the brood to the chickens I suppose), release the queen from her cage, start feeding, and hope for the best. I guess the idea is that some of the bees will make their way back to the hive but not the laying workers.
Does either approach sound like it would work or shall I just let nature takes it’s course?

-thanks for sharing your wisdom so kindly, Mary

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

See “How to fix a laying worker hive.” Also, if you check the index under “laying workers” there are several more articles on the subject.

Long story short, I don’t think they are worth messing with.

Charles Green
Reply

Come on y’all! Give enough information about the locale of the hives so that readers can figure out the climate. So for example, USD zone, state and area, even the town; don’t be afraid of hive robbers. Otherwise, the sharing of experience at best is meaningless and at worst misleading.

When I lived in Vermillion, South Dakota, we didn’t have extreme winters, just typical winters. I do remember one somewhat unusual winter though. It didn’t get above freezing for a stretch of six weeks and there was no snow whatsoever for almost the entire winter. Just blue sky and sunshine! But only during the day, so it wasn’t extreme.

Now I am in Auckland, New Zealand. An extreme winter is one in which it rains every day, for much of the day, for stretches of a couple of weeks rather than almost every day. And night. And all winter. We get two or three light frosts a year. We did get a really good hail storm this year for the first time. The local beekeepers do talk about preparing hives for the winter to keep the bees warm.

Rusty, how about setting up the blog programme so that locale shows up at the beginning of a post automatically, together with the name of the poster?

Am I ever happy I caught the Spoonerism!

Rusty
Reply

Charles,

Last year I hired someone to re-code the comment form and include “location.” The result? The whole site crashed. If I could find someone to do it, I would.

Charles Green
Reply

Make it part of the name field? So what shows up is Charles Auckland NZ?

Rusty
Reply

I’ll give it a try.

Jeff, bottom of NZ
Reply

Charles, if you can convince everyone to do it, get them to add their location after their name in the box provided at the bottom of this page where you leave a comment and it will appear like mine does. As you can see I am at the other end of the best country in the world.

Debby Newby, Auckland NZ

Jeff: “I am at the other end of the best country in the world.” (New Zealand)

My wife’s family came to NZ after the War from England. Devastation, terrible winters after the War, a smashed economy; there was still food rationing. They had a choice from among Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay Canada (at the end of the Great Lakes), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and New Zealand. They went to NZ, to Waiouru. Directions- go to the end of the earth, turn left. His ticket into NZ was to join the NZ Army. They loved it. Everything that they left England for was not in NZ. By far they outlived all their siblings who stayed in England. As for me, I was born in Poland after the War and my parents were the sole survivours of their families.

Nate M
Reply

Do you use any grease patties (without the wintergreen) at all anymore?

Rusty
Reply

No.

John Zone 5
Reply

Yes my double screen has entrances, and so does the insulated cover.

Everyone who comments can add their LOCATION/ZONE where their name goes (on the first line of a comment). No need to re-code anything. It remains on every time you comment.

Sarah [zone 8b]
Reply

Thanks, Rusty. Very much appreciate the energy you put into this blog!

Mark
Reply

Mouse Guard Questions:
1. when do I put them on?
2. when do I take them off?
3. they knock pollen off legs of the bees, this cant be good, is there a style that doesn’t knock pollen off?
4. will the small opening of a entrance reducer stop the mice from coming in
thank you
Mark

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

It all depends on where you live and how bad the mice are.

1. Put them on before the mice move in.
2. Take them off when the weather warms in spring and mice would naturally move outside.
3. You can try #4 hardware cloth.
4. Depends on the species, but small mice can get through an entrance reducer. Their bones and joints are flexible, unlike ours.

Todd--PacNW
Reply

Thanks!

Debby Newby, Auckland NZ
Reply

It worked!

Rusty, have “town and state” show up on the name field and be replaced by a real entry. This should be reasonably easy. Even this is not replaced, it would be OK.

Can you send back posts and ask for resubmission with town and state?

Rusty
Reply

Debby,

No. Sorry. Most days comments and emails add up to about 100, so I can’t add stuff to do.

Debby Newby, Auckland NZ
Reply

Then maybe town and state in grey letters to be typed over?

Rusty
Reply

Debby,

I’ll give it a try.

Buddy Irwin
Reply

It is the middle of October and I have a honey super full of honey on my hive. Should I remove it? Harvest some honey from it? Leave it alone? This hive is new this year and the bees have outperformed themselves. The population is still strong but I wold love to harvest some of that honey.

Rusty
Reply

Buddy,

You need to go through your hive and estimate the amount of honey in there. You don’t say where you are, but if you have a cold winter, the bees may need 80 or 90 pounds.

Buddy Irwin
Reply

Rusty.

I’m sorry. I hit the send button by mistake long before I was finished with the post and question. Please let me start over.

I live just outside of Louisville KY. I started a new colony of bees in May and fed them religiously through the summer. They did wonderfully. I had not added a small honey super but the hive had a load of honey by the time I quit feeding them to go on vacation for a month. I left August 9 and before I did I added a honey super just to see what would happen. I knew the bees had enough stored on their own to make it until I returned after Labor Day.

Two weeks after I returned I inspected the hive and the honey super was almost full of capped honey. That was mid September. I need to treat for mites but this hive is healthy and still out foraging as of today October 14.

I was thinking of stealing a few frames of capped honey form the honey super and replacing them with blank frames since the bees are still so active. We won’t see a killing frost here until about November 10 or so.

Thanks for your consideration and advice.

Buddy Irwin.

Rusty
Reply

Buddy,

Yes, you can certainly replace full frames with empty ones in your super. The best result will be to replace a couple near the middle.

You mention mites. If your mite count indicates you need to treat, don’t put that off too long. If you decide to treat, use one of the treatments that allows you to leave the honey supers in place. Otherwise, remove the super and treat. But only treat if necessary.

Buddy Irwin
Reply

Thank you for your response.

Buddy

dave handsbury. louisville ky
Reply

This is for Buddy Irwin. I’m outside Louisville KY and I’m new to beekeeping also. It would be nice to have someone close to work together with. I’m on Facebook Dave Handsbury my profile pic is a bee and the other has my wife and I in a wedding pose. Thank you

Brandie
Reply

Rusty,

I’m in Western North Carolina and I made a huge and costly mistake with my mite treatment. I treated much later this year than in previous years (I won’t go into detail) and it really took a toll on my hives. They are all fairly weak, although I do believe they are strong enough to make it through the winter. I have combined some hives, but others I believe will be ok. Most all of the hives are down to one single deep box, with the second deep box being only empty drawn comb now. My question is, should I just remove the empty drawn comb box and leave them in one deep with food on either side of the small amount of brood that’s in there? I don’t want to give them too much space, but I have always heard that bees prefer to “move up” in a Langstroth hive as winter gets closer to spring. I assume they will move lateral as in a top bar hive if they have no stores above? Temps are still in the 60’s and low 70’s during the day and at night in the 40’s with an occasional mid 30’s night.

Rusty
Reply

Brandie,

You have it right. The bees move up as they eat their way through the honey stores. If there is nothing there, they won’t go up. Empty boxes should always be removed because they provide housing opportunities for wax moth, hive beetles, mice or whatever. If your bees are short on food, however, you may consider supplying a candy board or sugar cakes.

Brandie
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you so much for your response! Your website is incredibly helpful. It answers most all of my questions and even the questions I didn’t know I had.

Thanks again!

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Brandie.

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