Thank you to Thomas Hopkins of Beehive State LLC. for providing us with the following information on overwintering bee colonies.
Three key ingredients for winter survival are:
- Strong, healthy colonies and a healthy fertile queen
- Plenty of honey stores or emergency food stores
- Dry bees
How Much Honey to Leave for Bees?
Utah bees need 90 lbs. + to survive winter. This means one deep super or 2 medium
supers. Stored honey should be located directly above the brood cluster.
In TBH, a small band of empty cells at the bottom of the honey bars and assists the
cluster in moving up the bars. Horizontal hives need the same number of bars, about 10
surplus bars, not including the honey in the brood chamber. You can leave all of the
honey, if you are unsure what to harvest. Arrange it properly for winter and harvest left
over honey in the spring.
Last inspection approximately Mid October check for:
- Amount and position of honey stores
- Extent and pattern of brood area
- Brood and bee health
- Condition of comb
- Condition of equipment
Correct any of these problems NOW. It will simply be too cold to address them after mid-October.
- Check that the brood area is a tight sphere with a band of pollen and honey.
- Cull old, poorly drawn, diseased comb or move them to the outside positions and cull in
- the spring.
- Repair/Replace damaged or leaky hive bodies that will not winter well.
- Continue to feed heavy syrup if weather is mild and bees are consuming it.
- Feed heavy syrup 2:1 and pollen if honey supers are lightweight.
- Combine weak colonies to strong ones if the weak colony is healthy, but not highly
Ventilation and Windbreaks
The importance of a properly ventilated hive cannot be overstated. Moisture or
condensation will collect on the inside of the inner cover and drip down on to the bees.
Wet bees = dead bees.
Beeks should provide upward ventilation in every hive during the winter. Shims, tongue
depressors, sticks or a single 5/8 drilled hole in the top hive body. Raising the inner
cover with the width of tongue depressor works well.
Colonies can survive without elaborate wintering preparations as long as the bees are
protected from winter winds and can vent excess moisture and stay dry. Too many
winter preps may lock in the cold and prevent the colony from responding to temporary
warm periods. Allowing the bees to take advantage on warm, sunny winter days, bees
can shift toward honey and take cleansing flights.
Choose wind free, sunny sites for wintering. Bales of straw, trees or plywood make good
windbreaks. These should not be attached to the hive but to something stationary and
supportive. (a fence or tree) Wrapping hives can be as problematic as helpful. Wraps,
blankets or packing materials often cause more harm than good. Bees can survive
extreme cold if they are dry and have food. A well placed weight on top or strap will
keep the lid on top in high winds. Many local beekeepers successfully winter bees
without an entrance reducer, removing them after temperatures dip and robbing ceases.
You choose what is best in your area.
When temperatures dip below freezing the cluster sometimes will not move even an
inch horizontally, toward food. They will move vertically in the cold even with the top
Dry feeding usually takes place end of November to February.
The most traditional way of doing this is to make what is called a candy board. This
method usually consists of cooking a fondant and pouring onto an inner cover that has
been modified to accommodate the candy. There are endless ways and recipes to make
candy boards. In the methods discussed, a feeder rim is added to the hive configuration
for added headspace so that the bees can access the food storage easily. You can build
your own out of furring strips or buy online.
This is a handy spacer. Here are two different methods that take advantage of extra
Method 1: Add dry sugar by laying a single sheet of newspaper over the top bars. Fold
the edge toward the back of the colony about an inch from the edge. Pour 5-8 lbs. of dry
sugar on to the newspaper on the top bars. Two things will occur; The moisture in the
hive will help the sugar form a hard crust that keeps the sugar in place. The bees easily
chew thru the bottom of the newspaper to get to the dry sugar nourishment. If dry sugar
is placed on the hive before November the bees will try to remove it.
Method 2: Make the feeder rim with the 1/2 hardware cloth attached to the bottom. Lay
a single sheet of newspaper over hardware cloth. Add wet sugar mixture (no cook) on
top of the paper and use a rectangle shaped bowl to mold out a place for a pollen patty.
16 lbs. of the mix can fit in the feeder. Splitting the mix between 2 is recommended or
make a 5 lb. batch following the recipe given. The mixture should dry for 1 week, in a
warm dry space. Stack the rims so air circulates. Spacer sticks are used between the
hardware cloth and the top bars so that bees don’t get squished. You may choose to
add pollen patties and/or grease patties in the rim with the hardened sugar.
Over Management (Staying Out of the Hive)
Over management during the cold months is the most difficult challenge for bees and
beekeepers.The bees need to do what bees do, and at this point, do not need help. A
beekeeper should refrain from opening the colony during the winter months, except
when adding food. Do not break the brood cluster until it is safe to reverse in April.
Try to avoid too many inspections and do not over insulate your colonies.
These practices would be considered over management.
Early spring feeding begins the 4th week in February, until then, a quick peek between
the bars when the temperature allows is adequate. Not opening and looking in the vent
hole to assure it is open and clear is optimum. You may need to scrape propolis from
Undisturbed bees with large populations overwinter best, so pests like mice and over manipulation by beekeepers should be kept to a minimum.
The Beekeepers job is: Strong, healthy colonies and queen, plenty of honey stores or
emergency food stores above the cluster and dry bees.
If curiosity gets the best of you, or you are worried the bees have not survived, give a
good knock on the hive body with your ear against the box and listen for life. There
should be a buzz inside.
Healthy Hives Survive Winter
Healthy and highly populated colonies in environments that have been mindfully set up
for winter conditions, will thrive in the spring. Bees covering all frames in both brood
chambers looks very healthy. Familiarize yourself with your bees being healthy.
A colony that is loaded with bees, but has a high varroa mite load that goes undetected,
will suffer from losses if it survives to late winter. Determine mite count and treat if the
count is too high. Maintain a young productive queen. Do not transfer diseased comb
from one colony to another. Medicate bees if NEEDED. Learned beekeepers say to take
your winter losses in the fall. The reason for this is to not waste energy, yours or the
bees, caring for colonies that are not going to thrive. Studies demonstrate a colony
going into winter with approximately 30,000 or 10 lbs. of bees, if half survive, the bees
have wintered successfully. If they are diseased, mite infested of suffering from nosema
the population with be significantly reduced.
Winter bees are differ from summer bees. They have larger hypopharyngeal glands and
more fat body reserves. This allows a longer life span. These bees also cluster, this allows for heat production and conservation, when brood is present. The cluster will become more compact as temperatures freeze.
The winter set up procedure should be as follows:
- Prop the back of the hive up so the back is higher than the front. This allows water to drain out if you have a solid bottom board. Occasionally check the entrance to remove obstructions.
- Ideally, colonies should be facing east/southeast. However, not having this exposure is not detrimental. A sunny spot and windbreaks are more important.
- Strap the lid down or place a large brick or rock on top to keep the lid from blowing off.
- Bees must stay dry in winter.
- Add an entrance reducer if you are using them. If mice are a problem, you may want to use a mouse guard. Provide an upper entrance. Bees will need to get out quickly for cleansing flights on warm winter days.
- Provide adequate ventilation. Create a chimney effect, airflow from bottom to top.
- Provide wind blocks. Try to avoid facing entrances toward the wind. Check for proper drainage around hives. Pooling water will be a problem as temps rise.
- Add feeder rims/candy boards end of November thru Winter Solstice and again, secure with same straps or weights.
Read and learn all you can about bees and wish for Spring.
Going into winter, refer to this diagram. This is the ideal colony setup, as of Columbus Day and the last complete inspection, as winter approaches.
Diagram from “Honeybee Biology and Beekeeping” by Dewey M. Caron with Lawrence John Connor