A checklist for wintertime hive prep

My wintertime checklist keeps evolving, and this year’s list is no exception. Based on the weird weather we’ve had all spring and summer, I expect we may have some strange weather through the winter as well. Here are some things to consider for wintertime preparation. Please note that many of the suggestions are alternatives—you may not be able to use all of the ideas.


Because I believe Varroa mites should be managed by the end of August, I don’t consider mite control as part of my winter preparations. Still, if you haven’t done anything, at least do a sugar roll test and see where you are. If you have a heavy mite load, it is my opinion that tending to them is the most important thing you can do for the coming winter.


Check each hive for a laying queen. Brood nests are smaller in the fall, but you should still see some brood in your colonies. If not, order a queen while there is still time.

Colony Size

  • If you have colonies that are extremely small, consider combining the smaller ones into one larger one.
  • If you want to keep colonies separate, consider stacking small colonies on top of larger ones with a double-screen board.

Honey Stores

  • I like to have around 80 pounds of honey in each double deep hive. We don’t have very cold winters here, but they are long. Rain can keep the bees from foraging right into April. Figure out how much honey you will need for your area, and if your hives are light, feed them.
  • Make sure the honey frames are in the right place. In a Langstroth, honey should be on both sides of the brood nest and above it. In a top-bar hive, the honey should be on one side of the cluster or the other, not both.
  • If honey stores remain questionable, consider making candyboards or candy cakes for winter.

Opportunistic Predators

  • Reduce hive entrances to keep out mice and other small creatures that might be looking for a warm place to spend the winter.
  • Remove weedy vegetation near the hives that small creatures can use as a ladder.
  • All ventilation ports should be screened, and all extra openings should be closed. Remember, the bees won’t leave their cluster to defend hive openings.
  • A mouse guard can be made from #4 hardware cloth.
  • A shrew guard can also be made from #4 hardware cloth. (Only use #4 when pollen is not being collected.)

Too Much Empty Space

Too much space in the hive increases draftiness and makes it harder for the bees to patrol for pests.

  • Consolidate frames into fewer boxes, if possible.
  • Remove extra boxes, especially those that are nearly empty.
  • Consider using follower boards to reduce empty space and increase insulation.


If moisture is coming in from the outside:

  • Make sure your lids fit well enough to keep out the rain.
  • Tip the hive slightly forward, so the water runs out the front, especially if you are using solid bottom boards.
  • In very rainy areas, consider a rain shelter.

If moisture from condensation is collecting inside your hives:

  • Consider using a moisture board in the lid.
  • Consider using a moisture quilt with ventilation ports. (Ports can be drilled at an angle so water drains out.)
  • Consider using a ventilated inner cover and/or a ventilated gabled roof.
  • Consider using a screened bottom board without a varroa tray all winter long.

Cold Temperatures

  • Consider using an inner cover for greater insulation
  • Consider using a slatted rack to add space between the bottom of the cluster and the drafty opening.
  • Consider wrapping your hives with insulation or tar paper, but don’t forget ventilation.
  • Consider using a skirt if your hives are off the ground.

High winds

  • Using a skirt can reduce drafts.
  • Secure lids with tie-downs or heavy objects
  • Shield upper ventilation ports from side winds.
  • Consider using a windbreak, such as bales of straw.


If flooding is a problem, don’t wait: move your hives now.


A beekeeper’s message from sunny Florida

Just an update from what used to be known as “The Sunshine State”… Well, for those of you thinking about your next vacation, it’s been raining here for 18 days straight. We have started building an ark in the barn, large enough for the horses, all the dogs, and our thirty hives!

I bought a jumbo-sized package of rubber washers (the kind you use in faucets) and have handed them out to all our “girls” in their hives. They each now have their own floating life preservers. They are standing by, with their floatation devices tucked under their wings, prepared for the next deluge.

I have promised to take them to a warm and sunny place, just as soon as we can float out of here. Until then we’re trying not to count the record 26 inches of rain we’ve emptied from the rain gauge in the past 2 weeks. Keep smiling, keep busy, and keep buzzing.

Erika Svor

The week in photos

Due to some irritating software issues, I’m behind in adding photos to the website. But here are a few highlights from the last couple of weeks.

First, this unusual hive belongs to Dr. Michael Ishitani. He writes, “For my Italian and Carniolan hives, with a decorative skep, cedar shingle roof and copper peak, national flag, and porcelain bee decoration. My first year…perhaps I went a little too fancy but the girls seem to be doing well!🐝”

Also note the upper entrances and platforms. For more photos of this hive, including a close up of the skep, see Reader Hives.

© Michael Ishitani.

Several more people have sent photos of bees on sunflowers, including this one by Bryan Bender. I love the head-to-head bees, a bumble and a honey bee. More sunflower photos can be seen in the Sunflowers gallery.

© Bryan Bender.

Phillip Cairns of Mudsongs.org generously shared his photos of shrew damage in his hives. This image and seven others can now be found in the post, “The blaming of the shrew.”

© Phillip Cairns.

Are you looking for a new tattoo? Well, here is the latest on the arm of Anthony Planakis. He writes: “It’s an addition to my honey bee waggle dance, so even if I’m not by my hives, they’ll always be with me!” The quote is based on George Bernard Shaw, “Go to the bee, thou poet: consider her ways and be wise.”

© Anthony Planakis.


Clearly a waste

The first line in the Huffington Post story reads, “An amateur photographer has captured an amazingly rare sight in his own back garden—a bee urinating.” No doubt, the photo by Mark Parrott is awesome, but is the bumble bee actually urinating?

In fact, the bee digestive system does not divide waste into solids and liquids—instead, all of it is collected in one place. The bee digestive system is more or less a straight line.

The mouth is connected directly to the esophagus, and the esophagus extends through the head and thorax all the way back to the abdomen. In honey bees, after food goes through the esophagus it travels into the crop (or honey stomach) where it is stored for transport back to the hive.

At the end of the crop is a one-way valve known as the proventriculus. Anything that passes through this valve moves on to the ventriculus (also known as the true stomach or digesting stomach) where it is digested. But anything that goes through the one-way valve cannot go back the other way. So food that is digested cannot re-enter the crop, and this is why nectar is not bee vomit. Nectar that will be used to make honey never makes it into the digesting stomach, only the crop.

The ventriculus is lined with cells that secrete enzymes that digest any nectar and pollen that has passed through the one-way valve. At the far end, the ventriculus is attached to the ileum, which is like a small intestine.

Right where the ventriculus meets the ileum, about one hundred malpighian tubules connect to the digestive tract. Malpighian tubules act like our kidneys. Just like our kidneys filter waste products from our blood, the malpighian tubles filter waste products from the bee’s hemolymph. This liquid waste, which is analogous to urine, is dumped into the ileum where it joins the solid waste from the ventriculus.

The ileum removes nutrients from the digested food and moves the waste further along the digestive tract. From the ileum, the waste products from both the ventriculus and the malpighian tubules move into the rectum where it is stored until the bee can defecate through the anus.

All bees are built in a similar way, but the crop is more developed in those species that carry nectar back to the nest. The flow of food and waste through a honey bee looks like this:

mouth↔esophagus↔crop (honey stomach)→proventriculus (one-way valve)→ventriculus (digesting stomach)→ileum (intestine)→[waste from malpighian tubules joins food waste in the ileum]→rectum→anus


So back to the photo, I would say the bee was defecating rather than urinating. But clearly she had a lot to drink that day. Who knows? Maybe she was getting ready for a mandatory drug test and was trying to flush away all the poppy nectar she drank.


Related posts:

The blaming of the shrew

Athough I’m not a hundred percent sure, I believe we are blaming the wrong shrew for damage wrought on bee hives in Canada and northern parts of the United States. Both Fletcher Colpitts, Chief Apiary Inspector of New Brunswick, Canada, and the Bee Informed Partnership website are blaming the European pygmy shrew, Sorex minutus, for the destruction. However, I can’t find evidence that the European pygmy shrew even lives in these areas. It seems more likely that the native species, the American pygmy shrew, Sorex hoyi, is the culprit.

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the American pygmy shrew is found throughout much of Canada and in certain northern parts of the United States. It is an extremely small mammal, averaging about 3 grams when fully grown. According to the University of Michigan, this shrew can grow to about 90 mm in length, although about a third of that is tail.

The problem for northern beekeepers is that the pygmy shrew, which survives on a diet of invertebrates, has discovered that honey bee hives have much to offer: a nice warm place to eat with lots of fresh meat on the menu. They can squeeze through a hole less than 1 cm in diameter, so standard mouse guards won’t keep them out.

I didn’t know anything about shrew predation until I began asking other beekeepers what I was seeing last winter. During the coldest months, when no yellowjackets or similar predators are around, I was finding legs, wings, and headless bees with hollow thoraxes on the landing board of one particular hive. Other hives in the area were unaffected. Each day I would brush the entrance area, but by the next day the body parts reappeared.

Phillip Cairns, a beekeeper from Newfoundland and author of Mudsongs.org suggested it might be shrews, and I believe he is correct. Not only is the evidence consistent, but I see dead shrews once in a while—courtesy of my cat—so they definitely live in my area.

Shrews apparently have a very high metabolism and have to eat constantly in order to keep going through the winter. From accounts I’ve read, the shrews hunt at the outer surface of the honey bee cluster, snatching those bees that are cold and slow. Once captured, the shrews like to consume the contents of the thorax. They get into the thorax by pulling off the bee’s head or drilling a hole right through the exoskeleton, leaving it hollow, and scattering wings and legs in the process. They also leave a trail of fecal matter wherever they go.

Those who have dealt with shrews in the past find that a quarter-inch mesh (6 mm) will keep them out. The problem with quarter-inch mesh is that it will knock the pollen loads from the honey bee’s legs, so it can only be used when pollen collection is not occurring. At other times, a larger mesh must be used, at least 3/8 (10 mm).

In the past, Phillip has lost a number of hives to shrew predation. My colony survived the winter, although it was small and slow to get restarted in the spring. When I opened the hive on a warm day, I did not find a shrew, but I did find many more of the hollowed out bodies and piles of poop, especially on the top bars. It is still not clear to me whether the shrews spend the winter in there the way mice do or if they come and go, but they definitely disappear in spring when the bees get feisty enough to chase them away.

I will definitely be screening that one hive and maybe the ones near it. And if anyone can shed light on the species issue (Sorex minutus vs. Sorex hoyi) I’m eager to know the answer.

The following photos showing shrew damage in a winter hive are courtesy of Phillip Cairns of MudSongs.org.