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.


What’s wrong with this picture?

While cleaning out my shed, I discovered several hard sugar cakes which I had removed from my overwintered hives back in February. I had thrown them in a bucket and completely forgotten about them. Since we are into a nectar dearth—and my honey supers are off—I decided to put the sugar cakes out in the yard for the bees to finish.

In just a few minutes the cakes disappeared beneath a teeming mass of honey bees, but no one seemed to be fighting. The bees were just gorging themselves on the windfall, so I took a couple of photos.

While looking through the camera, however, I realized they weren’t all honey bees. Right in the center were two bumble bees of two different species.

I watched these bees throughout the afternoon. The honey bees and the two bumbles crawled over each other eating, grooming, flying off, coming back, and eating some more. They had no animosity toward each other at all. When I finally went in for the night, they were still out there and the sugar was almost gone. Bees never fail to surprise me.


Now that we’re in a nectar dearth, the honey bees are eager for something sweet. © Rusty Burlew.
It seems that honey bees are not the only ones willing to take a hand-out. © Rusty Burlew.

Sea glass bee waterer

Here’s another take on a honey bee water bar. Andrew, from North Andover, Massachusetts, filled a two-tiered plant stand with bowls of sea glass. He adds plain fresh water daily and he says his bees adore it. I love the colors. The blues and greens look icy, almost begging you to take a sip. Thanks, Andrew!

Andrew Graham Sea Glass Water Dish
Sea glass water dish. © Andrew G.

A marble bar for bees

I watered the shrubbery in front of my house and got the concrete driveway wet in the process. Within a few minutes, dozens and dozens of honey bees congregated on the concrete to lick up the cooling drops.

Recalling that honey bees love salt water pools, I made a wading pool for them from a flower pot saucer and a few handfuls of marbles. Then I added water and some table salt—nothing intense, just enough to give it a slightly brackish taste. I set the saucer on an industrial-size wooden spool in dappled shade and soon forgot about it.

They didn’t pay much attention the first day, but the following day I was amazed to see them climbing all over the marbles. Once they found the saucer, it became hard to keep it full. In the photo, the water is just about gone and so are most of the bees. Since then, I added more marbles so the water is deeper and I can fill it less often.

The bees around here have plenty to drink, so this isn’t a necessity but more of a “conversation piece.” They have streams, creeks, wetlands, and water seeping out of the hillsides. Still, it’s fun to be able to watch them up close. With so many hot days ahead, I think I will have lots to watch.


The honey bees finishing their first bowl of water. © Rusty Burlew.


One queen, a few bees, and a dash of skill

During our recent discussion of package bee strength, Bill Hesbach of the Back Yard Beekeeper’s Association (southwestern Connecticut) sent me the following photo of a package of bees he received back in May of 2013. He asked for credit on the order, but then managed to install the few bees that were left because he thought the queen seemed strong and healthy.

Before he took the photo he removed the queen cage and the remaining live bees but, as you can see, most of the bees were dead. With some TLC, Bill managed to nurse the remainder back to health. He said, ” . . . the queen was fantastic. [The colony] came back and built two deeps the first year. They wintered and made lots of honey the second year.”

The bees deaths are sad, of course, but it shows what a little patience and determination can accomplish. Coaxing the colony back to health is so much better than rejecting the order, which is a death sentence for the rest of them.

Nice work, Bill, and thanks for the pic.

One side of the shipping cage of a mostly dead package. Only the queen and a handful of bees remained, but Bill managed to grow them into a healthy colony. © Bill Hesbach.