How I overwintered ten out of ten

I have been thinking about a post on wintertime prep for about a month, but I didn’t dare write it until spring was here for sure. But on Thursday, when a fur-coated bumble bee alighted on the patio and a bee fly examined my shoe lace, I knew I could call it.

To be more specific, I went into September with nine Langstroths, one top-bar, and three nucs. Today, with April just a breath away, I still have nine Langstroths, one top-bar, and two nucs. Not only are my colonies still alive, they are bursting at the seams. Bees are pouring through the entrances and climbing up the walls. I am elated.

Those of you who have read my blog for a while know that overwintering is my main honey bee interest. I usually manage to overwinter 60-80 percent of my hives. But this year I decided to “pull out all the stops.” I tried everything I could think of to help the bees make it through the winter.

The result, of course, is no controlled experiment or repeatable design. In fact, there are so many variables it would strain the organizational capacity of Excel. So all I can do is tell you what I did and why.

Before reviewing my steps, I’ll give you a quick overview of my local climate. In one of my very first posts on this blog I wrote that “all the challenges are local” and I still believe that. Beekeeping is not performed in a vacuum, and your local climate plays an immense role in the life of your bees.

I live in western Washington in the middle of the Puget trough. The word “trough” reminds me of water, and that pretty much sums it up. It rains nearly constantly in the nine-month period from September through June. It doesn’t add up to a lot—annual averages are about 51 inches—but it rains a little bit all the time. The three-month period of July, August, and September is hot and dry, dry, dry. No rain. Zilch. Nada. Everything is crisp.

Although I live at 47°N latitude, I am in USDA hardiness zone 8, which means it doesn’t get very cold in the winter. It dips down in the teens and twenties, but doesn’t stay very long. We get snow in the lowlands, but only two or three times per year. The average winter day is 40°F and raining.

So here are the steps I took to overwinter my bees, beginning in June 2010.

• By June 30, all honey supers were off my hives.

Comment: I live adjacent to a 91,650-acre state forest and the only farm crop in the immediate area is hay. So my bees forage almost exclusively on spring-flowering trees and roadside weeds. By the time the hot dry months arrive, there is almost no forage to be had. Whatever honey I get accumulates from April until June.

• During June I collected enough swarm cells to begin four nucs.

Comment: I wanted to carry one or two extra queens into the winter in case one of my colonies went queenless. So I started four nucs with swarm cells. Three of these produced viable queens. By fall I had three healthy nucs “just in case” something went wrong with one of my colonies.

• In August I treated for mites.

Comment: First off, I never use any conventional pesticides in my hives. However, if mites are a problem I use one of the all-natural products made from thymol (an essential oil of thyme) or formic acid (an organic acid.) Unlike conventional pesticides, these are difficult and time-consuming to use.

This year I used ApiLife Var (a thymol product) which requires multiple applications over the course of three weeks. Honey supers cannot be in place. But it is the timing of treatments that is important for overwintering.

The thymol and formic acid treatments should be used when little brood is present—so later is better. But you want to treat summer bees for mites, not winter bees*—so earlier is better. You have to make a judgment call. In this case, I set aside August for mite assault.

*In case I lost you here, summer bees live an average of 4-6 weeks. Winter bees can live many months—all the way into the following spring. If you treat for mites after the winter bees are born, it is too late to protect them from viruses carried by mites. In other words, a late mite treatment will still kill the mites, but only after the viruses have been transmitted to the winter bees. This way, you have gained very little. You need to kill mites in the summer bees so the hive is relatively free of viruses when the winter bees are born.

• In September, I checked the hives for honey stores. Any hives that appeared to be short on honey were given some extra frames reserved from the harvest in June, or given sugar syrup mixed with Honey-B-Healthy, or both.

• Entrances were reduced on all hives to protect them from robbing and yellow jackets.

• All Varroa drawers were removed from the screened bottoms to provide maximum ventilation.

• The slatted racks remained in place in the Langstroth hives all winter long.

Comment: I consider slatted racks basic equipment in Langstroth-style hives, so I never remove them in any season. In summer they provide a place to hang out during hot muggy days, and the queen tends to lay eggs further down on the brood frames–apparently because this area is no longer near the “front door.”

In a traditional winter hive with the Varroa drawer in place, the slatted rack adds an insulating layer of air between the brood nest and the Varroa drawer. This will not exist in the same way with the Varroa drawers pulled out. However, during cold snaps (see “weather forecasts” below) –or other times when the Varroa drawers are in place–the slatted racks again provide a “dead air” space that helps to keep the bees a few degrees warmer.

• Each hive was topped with a quilt box outfitted with four ventilation holes and filled with wood chips.

Comment: Of all the changes I made, this one had the most visible result. In prior years I always had condensation dripping down on the bees from the inner cover. This year none of that moisture reached the bees. They were dry and happy all winter long.

Originally I had anticipated having to change the wood chips every couple of weeks. As it turned out I never changed the wood chips. The ventilation holes seemed to play a big part in preventing the chips from getting soggy. About one-inch of the two-inches of wood chips got wet in each hive.

In my opinion, the combination of more ventilation and less moisture accumulation were the two most-important changes I made to the hives.

• As always, I checked my hives every day or two. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular except for fallen trees or bear damage. Usually I just walked by each hive and flicked the dead bees off the landing board.

• It was on one of these routine checks that luck played a big part in this year’s success. On December 15, just as I was about to flick a dead bee off of hive #2, I realized it was the queen. Darn! I knocked on the hive and it was loud and robust. I examined the queen: she looked freshly dead. So I put one of my nucs in a deep brood box and, using a slit piece of newspaper, combined it with hive #2.

Comment: I still haven’t opened this hive except to add feed. But when I get near it I can hear it roar like a caged lion. Luck definitely played a role here, but pre-planning gave me the queen I needed to keep the colony alive.

• I paid attention to the weather forecasts all winter long. Three times the temperatures dropped into the twenties for an extended period (more than a day or two). In each of these three cases, I inserted the Varroa drawers under nine of the hives and put both the nucs and the top-bar hive in the garden shed.

Comment: My husband convinced me the hives would stay a lot warmer with the bottom drawers in, so in very cold weather I gave them a little help. This compromises ventilation, however, so as soon as the temperatures got back into the 30s, I removed the drawers again.

The nucs were small, so I put them in the shed which is about ten degrees warmer than the outside. The rest of the time they were outside, stacked with double-screen boards between each.

I coddled the top-bar hive because it was a July swarm that moved in by itself, and it couldn’t possibly have had a lot of stores. So, when the nucs went inside, the top-bar hive went in as well. But it, too, came out as soon as the temperature climbed above freezing.

• Right around the end of December, I added a feeder rim to each hive. I placed it just above the top brood box, but underneath the quilt box. I added sugar patties to each hive during January and February.

• In mid-February I began adding pollen substitute to the sugar patties. I continued feeding pollen-enriched patties until now.

Now that it is spring and my hives are boiling over with bees, I’m already worried about swarming. Wouldn’t you know it? If you succeed at one thing, you’ve got to worry about something else.


Overwintered ten: I do the same wintertime prep for all my hives, regardless of their configuration.
I do the same wintertime prep for all my hives, regardless of their configuration. Photo by Rusty Burlew

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  • Nice job Rusty. Last year I went into winter with 31 hives and had 29 survive. This year I went into winter with 50 hives and I have 15 surviving. I live in Genesee county in Michigan and we had some very long, very cold spells this year. That, combined with a very dry summer last year causing some weak hives going into winter, spelled doom for my girls this year. The sad thing is I saw it coming too late.

    In early October when there should have been a lot of brood for the winter bees there wasn’t. I should have realized earlier in fall that there weren’t enough bees to raise a lot of bees for winter. I fed like crazy starting in September but to no avail. I believe during the dry late summer period the queens shut down laying more so than normal. During the normal goldenrod flow it was also dry. Often I would pick some of the blossoms and find them crumbling in my hand because of dryness. This is normally an important flow for my bees that just didn’t produce last year. Maybe if I had been more prescient and started feeding earlier I could have made a difference. Hopefully, I learned something.


    • Hi Jim,

      That is so sad, especially after having such a great winter the year before. It’s a good example of how bees and beekeepers are at the mercy of the weather and the local climate. So even when beekeepers do everything right, mother nature comes along just to prove a point–or so it seems. I trust you will be re-building your colonies? Hope so.

      I haven’t heard from you in while. Hope all (else) is well.

  • Thanks for all the helpful info . . . I’ve been thinking about that Warré quilt and why we don’t use it on Langstroths. Meanwhile (also in the NW) trying to balance ventilation and dryness with warmth. Your approach sounds great; I can’t wait to try it.

    • Hi Bob,

      I’m still really excited about the Warré quilts. As I said in my post, it made an unbelievable difference inside my hives. Everything was dry and toasty under the quilt even though the inside of the telescoping cover was drenched every time I opened the hives. And the quilts are easy to make and easy to work around. I’m surprised they didn’t catch on years ago.

  • Rusty,

    Great website. Lots of good information on here and you sure have spent a lot of time amassing it.

    I have some comments from the other side of the spectrum concerning your wintering methods and success. None of this should be taken as criticism, just my perspective and a desire for balance.

    It’s obvious that we beekeepers (as a whole) keep striving for a 100% overwintering survival rate without considering that in naturally reproducing biological systems 100% survival is not only impossible, it’s genetically counterproductive. If wild colonies had anywhere near the success rate you were able to induce with your colonies, the world would be knee deep in honeybees. That die-off is a necessary and natural requirement for continued strengthening of any species. The world is not benevolent. Not everyone or everything gets to live and, though harsh, this evolutionary process has been immensely useful.

    So, from that biological fact, a 100% survival rate is equally unlikely as a near 100% death rate, assuming nothing catastrophic occurred. I’m betting that a natural time-weighted average survival rate of about 50% is more realistic. But, when humans get involved we can short cut that process a little and baby the creatures we “use”, increase their survival rate, and we feel we are either saving money or more successful, or likely both. To that end we come up with all sorts of “fixes” for problems that, in reality, did not exist and, in turn, other problems unlooked for pop up as a result of those “fixes”. Like, say, the way commercial queens tend to be reared; thousands upon thousands of queens that are nearly genetically identical; 100’s of queens from the same colony, all surviving. The shallowing of the genetic pool that big commercial queen breeders use (because it is the only economical way to do so) is stunning. Nothing good can come from this practice, I assure you. Look at the survival rate and longevity of the commercial queens . . . not good. On the other hand, I’ve had feral queens that produced very well into their 4th and even 5th years! I’ve heard rumors of the occasional commercially bred queen lasting that long, but I’ve never met anyone that witnessed it.

    I guess I’m rambling on a little too much here, but it’s late and my long windedness gets worse the more tired I get. To close, bees die. As for my methods, I let the bees build their own comb (no foundation), I try to provide a cavity that is as natural as possible within the confines of my scientific curiosity and convenience, I don’t feed them unless I have to and when I do I don’t enjoy it, I don’t treat at all, and for my lack of effort I get 50 to 100 lbs of surplus honey per colony and between a 50% and 80% survival rate (even for nucs) with a small, statistically insignificant apiary of 10 to 20 full size colonies left in the cold to fend for themselves. I doubt that it’s possible to get a 100% survival rate with my no-treatment, sink-or-swim method. When I lose a colony through no obvious fault of my own, GREAT! Good riddance! Weakness removed.

    • Ken,

      That’s a well-thought out and well-written comment. Thank you. I agree for the most part and have, myself, occasionally written about in-breeding, gene pool suppression, and the perils of over-management. No argument.

      On the other side of the coin, I like to experiment and see how far I can push the envelope. I always end up learning something. But I actually have another purpose in writing the overwintering pieces.

      From what I’ve read, approximately 80% of new beekeepers quit within the first two years of starting. They usually quit after losing all their bees during the winter. They get discouraged and decide it isn’t worth it.

      I believe that a world with many beekeepers is good for the bees, the environment, and for environmental awareness. If the new beekeepers stay in, a number of them will make contributions to the art and science of beekeeping–maybe large, maybe small, we don’t know.

      So if I can help some of the newbies make it through that first and second year, then perhaps they won’t give up. By that time, they will have developed their own beekeeping philosophies and will go off their own and develop their own techniques.

      I just try to give folks a sample of what can be done. I try to offer multiple suggestions and let them take it from there.

      I definitely have two types of readers. The first group is interested in the science. They want to know about nutrition, pollination ecology, reproduction, and environmental toxins. The second group–by far the larger–just wants to know how to get through the next beekeeping day. So I try to mix up the posts, not only for them but for me. It’s kind of fun.

      So there you have it: I can be long-winded too. I appreciate your comments and welcome more of them in the future. Please come back.

      • I will vouch for this post. Year later, I am a newb starting my first two hives this April. I am combing all of the posts and filling my brain with bee info. I think I have the initial process down. I’m already looking towards winter. Thank you so much for this website.

    • Best comment ever. I feel too new to contribute to this conversation, but I’m taking notes for future reference because it’s in line with where my thinking is headed (which is usually a lonely place).

  • Ken opens the door to a really important conversation. In my view we could realistically attribute something like 85% of the problems in beekeeping today to sloppy genetic management. Sadly, this is taught almost everywhere you look.

    The art of animal husbandry has historically been one that seeks first and foremost to care for the bloodlines, the carefully raised strains, the *populations*. This entails, always, selective breeding. Only the best of each generation are allowed to make the new generations, sending only the best genetic material down to all the future generations.

    This mirrors natures, where the weaker tend not to reproduce, and the strongest reproduce in far greater numbers. Thus thus strains healthiest and best suited to the present environment flourish, keeping the population as a whole healthy, while those unsuited to the environment for whatever reason are steadily winnowed out.

    If you remove this *process* the result is an ever weakening population. And sooner or later nature will catch up, and remove those individuals unsuited to the environment.

    Today, the effort to maintain every single hive has lead to almost total abandonment of any such process. Even the weakest individuals are treated and mollycoddled through the winter, and the following year their drones spread their inadequate genes into the next generation.

    Treatment, generally, can be seen to be a kind of poisoning.

    These are hard words for a novice to hear (and for many professional beekeepers too). Yet I think this plain truth should be taught from the beginning, and the alternative path shown. Always raise more colonies than you need, don’t treat, and allow nature to sort the strong from the weak. Or, get more proactive, and learn about the signs by which mite tolerance can be recognised; culling non-tolerant queens and replacing them with new and better suited ones raised from your mite-tolerant and thriving colonies.

    To do otherwise is to be part of the great error of modern beekeeping, the perpetual destruction of the natural emergence of mite-tolerance and bursting, self-sufficient health.

    Best wishes,


    • Mike,

      Mosquitoes carry malaria which they transmit to humans by biting them and sucking their blood. They are similar to varroa mites which transfer viral diseases to honey bees by biting them and sucking their hemolymph. Instead of treating humans for malaria, should be have let them all die in hopes of creating a malaria-resistant human? This might work after millions and millions perish, but is it the best thing? Is it the best management philosophy?

      Among other things, your system attacks the victim rather than the vector. Humans are victims of malaria and honey bees are victims of the viral infections. Your system allows the victims to die and the vectors (mosquitoes and varroa mites) to thrive. There has to be a better way.

      In addition, if we allow mass die-offs of honey bees in order to find the genetically perfect population, we will have a short-term pollination deficit until varroa-resistant honey bees are the norm. This could be a few years or many years. How do you plan to feed the world in the interim? How many days are you, personally, willing to go without food?

      Although it is crucial to have breeders work on these problems and develop more resistant strains, we need productive fields in the meantime. So, although it is not ideal, we must keep our less-than-perfect bees working. And dead bees don’t work.

      Not all beekeepers are bee breeders, but there is a vital role for both. It is up to the beekeepers to keep our food, textile, drug, and industrial crops coming in while we wait for the bee breeders to do their magic. To do otherwise could be tragic.

  • Rusty:

    I fully agree with you about using Quilt box. This also help me overwinter 3 hives successfully, including one hive this is very weak and I thought would not make it.
    This is my second year using a quilt box and I have not losses since using quilt boxes. I use a medium as a quilt box, the box consists of burlap topped with crumpled up newspapers. I noticed too in winter the newspaper absorbed moisture very well, keeping the hive warm and dry.

    I live in northern New Jersey and came thru a rather harsh and cold winter.

    Thanks for sharing

  • This is our first time ever of having hives. We have two, one is weak, one is strong. We got both colonies at same time from same company. We live in a very rural area of south central Missouri. We are surrounded by forest, hay fields and cattle. Pesticides aren’t a concern. What is a concern is the cell phone tower near by. I read long before we even thought about beekeeping that the signals from these towers interferes with a bees navigational system thus causing the bee to not find its way back to the hive. In doing so, this is what is causing colony collapse.
    Any comments?

    • Wayne,

      Some folks theorized that cell phone signals interfere with honey bee navigation, but scientific experiments have not been able to prove this. In any case, it does not cause colony collapse disorder. Colonies that live hundreds of miles from the nearest cell tower also get colony collapse–a fact that eliminates it as a cause.

      A recent study showed that if you leave your cell phone on and store it in your hive, the bees become agitated. But if you are not doing this, your bees should be fine.

      Having a weak colony and a strong colony is not unusual. There can be any number of reasons for a weak colony, including the queen’s health and genetics, pathogens, predators . . . or sometimes just luck.

      If you are worried about the weaker colony, you can take a frame or two of brood from the strong colony and add it to the weak one. (Be sure not to move the queen.) This normally doesn’t affect the large one but it may boost the smaller one enough to to get it “over the hump.” This technique called “equalizing” is one I use often and it can save a questionable hive.

  • Rusty, I am wondering what is your configuration for overwintering? This wil be my first winter with the bees and have had a great spring/summer so far. I am in Vancouver BC so my weather is not to far off yours. I started with a package in April, had a swarm in June, caught it and started a 2nd colony. Both colonys did well and grew to 4 boxes (2 deeps and 2 mediums on #1 and 3 deeps and 1 medium on #2) I harvested recently and removed both the top mediums. I am wondering your thoughts on overwintering with 3 deeps or 2 deeps and a medium. here in the Pacific North West (yes we call it that here too, which I always thought was weird, shouldn’t it be the Pacific South west)

    • Steve,

      You know, I’ve always wondered about that. I’m always afraid to write Pacific Northwest when I’m addressing a Canadian. It does indeed seem like it should be the Pacific Southwest. At least we got the Pacific part right.

      I like to overwinter my bees in a hive that fits the colony size. At times, I’ve overwintered single deeps. Many times I’ve overwintered one deep and one medium. I think the ideal is a double or triple deep, but there is no point if the boxes are empty or nearly so. Last year I overwintered two nucs, each in a single deep with five frames of bees, pollen, and honey and five frames of foundation. I stacked these with double screens so they could share warmth.

      So if you have three deeps or two deeps and a medium full of bees, you should have no trouble.

      Our winters are not that cold, so as long as the bees have plenty of food and good ventilation (that is, the interiors are not wet), they can do fine. Our temperatures will not kill the bees as long as they are dry and have food. Check frequently for moisture. If it collects under the cover and drips back on the cluster, you have to add ventilation. In late December or early January check to see that the colony is in contact with the food supply. Sometimes you have to move frames of honey closer to the bees, especially toward the end of winter.

  • Rusty,
    I’ve noticed you don’t wrap your hives during the winter, and I assume it’s because your mild Pacific Northwest weather doesn’t make the extra weatherproofing necessary. What are your thoughts on hive wrapping? How cold is too cold for bees?

    • Zoe,

      I took your question and made it into yesterday’s post. Hope I answered your questions. As for “how cold is too cold for bees?” it’s hard to come up with a number. A good-sized colony with lots of food and a dry hive can keep themselves warm in amazingly cold weather. It’s almost always moisture that kills bees, not cold.

      Think of it like this: If you are dry inside your winter clothes, you can survive in cold weather for a long time. If you fall in a creek wearing the same winter clothes, they do almost no good at all–you’ll freeze to death in no time. Same with bees.

  • You mention in your reply to Steve to check on the colony in late December or early January to check that they are in contact with the food supply, and assess moisture/ventilation. My hives are overwintering with 2 deeps and 1 medium each. I am concerned about pulling apart the hive in winter — if they are still in the 2nd deep, then I would have to move the medium to see what they are doing. This could mean smoking them and all around disrupting them, which I would rather not do in the winter. I know this would have to happen on a mild day, but if they are out and active on that mild day, doesn’t that tell me what I need to know in regards to their ability to access the food stores within their hives? If it isn’t mild enough for them to be active, then I shouldn’t be opening their hive, right?

    • Gretchen,

      I never tear apart a hive in winter. I tip up the moisture quilt and inch or two and look inside. If the bees are all clustered around the top bars with no more room to move up, I give them candy. If I can’t see the bees, that means they are in contact with food somewhere down there and they are good to go with no further intrusion.

      You don’t have to go into the hive looking for them. If you can hear them, you know they are there. If they are not clustered at the top, they are not out of food. Hearing but not seeing is a good thing in winter.

      I never tear apart a winter hive unless I know it’s dead.

  • Rusty,

    On a side note it went to 5°C yesterday with no wind and it was sunny. So I decided to look into one of my colonies for moisture. This colony is two standard brood boxes with a medium super. When I pulled off the insulated cover to look down through the inner cover no bees. So I pulled the inner cover off and removed one frame from the medium super. At that point I heard a faint buzz. It appears the bees are in the bottom box still.

    Typically we can over winter in two deep brood boxes. I was wondering if there was any point in keeping the medium super on this colony if they are still in the bottom box at this point in the year? These are honey supers that I didn’t cap and I ended up feeding some sugar syrup to be on the safe side. Apparently I am over safe.

    Second question

    Why do you see bees leave the colony in winter, to fly off never to return? Is it they realize they are near death and save the colony stress of not having to deal with another dead bee? Now that I have several colonies I notice this on nice days. It is not even like they are trying to make cleansing flights. They make a few circles, getting bigger with each pass and then are gone. Any thoughts?


    • Jeff,

      That’s great that your bees are still in the bottom box; they must have plenty to eat. You can take off the super if you want, but there is still a lot of winter left so you may want to keep it on hand in case you need it later. As long as you keep tabs on them you should be fine either way.

      Are they really flying off never to return, or are you just missing their return? My first thought is that on warm days they will take cleansing flights and if it’s really warm they may go off for a spin in the sun. On the other hand, old or dying bees are known to leave the hive if they can. Presumably this aids the hive by relieving it of disease organisms and bacterial decay. As I’ve mentioned before, a healthy bee won’t go out and commit suicide, so I’m sure there is some reason for what you are seeing. By the way, on the day before Christmas my bees were bringing in pollen. It didn’t feel warm enough in my opinion, but they had a different opinion and it seemed to be working for them.

  • Outside my four hives, I have about 100 bees dead in the snow. Some are drones from the foundationless hive, some look like normal worker bees. I see them fly out, land in the snow and die. Some fly around the yard, come back, land on the top cover and die. I assume it’s normal. My bees fly up and away and disappear every day, just like Jeff described, even when it’s snowing.

    All of my colonies are in the top brood box now and have been for a while. I thought the brood boxes were filled to capacity with honey stores in the fall, so it seems strange that they came up soon. I plan to feed them as soon as I can just to be safe.

  • Wow,

    We had a cold snap where it was -14°C for a couple of days then it with +5°C, sunny with no wind. On a side note some of my other colonies where probably in better shape than the colony with the bees down bottom but when I removed the insulated cover and looked down through the inner cover and the bees where on the top feeding on the candy board. I laced the candy board with Honey-B-Healthy and the bees seem to prefer this over the stored honey in the comb. Or at least that is what appears to be happening. Otherwise I am in trouble. But the bees had good stores going into winter, plus the first year colonies where topped up with sugar syrup and then the candy boards were added. A bit over kill but the bees seem to be close to the top on these colonies. Yet the other day there were bees removing dead bees from all colonies at the bottom entrance.

    Unless the colonies are that big in size from bottom to top?

    With this being my second winter I’m still green around the ears.

    • Jeff,

      Many, many beekeepers report that bees seem to prefer hard candy and fondant over honey. I have no idea why this is so but I’ve seen it myself. I’ve seen colonies drive right up through a full honey super in order to get at the hard candy. Perhaps it’s a survival strategy: eat the windfall when you find it and conserve the precious stores. Who knows?

  • Thanks Rusty,

    Very interesting thought. That is exactly what I am seeing. I know that the top boxes are completely capped and I did not want to explore the bottom standard brood box. Then the candy board/candy cakes were placed on top. The one colony that is right down on the bottom has no hard candy in it. Very interesting.

    So I assume I shouldn’t be too concerned then. I will take a peak again in mid-March to check activity on a warm day.

    Thanks Very much Rusty

  • An article in the newspaper last spring was about an unfortunate man who started out with 40 hives and they all died.Yet my friend, in the same area, went into winter with 3 and came out with 2. This is my first winter (so far so good) and I just don’t know what to think.

  • I’m learning a lot by reading these posts. You folks are great. I’ve one hive and am going into my second season with them.

    I’m in northern Wisconsin where it gets cold. I’ve more questions then I can fit here but my experience of yesterday makes me submit this one.

    It warmed into the low 50’s F yesterday and cleansing flights were the order of the day. I found a number of workers scattered around in the snow curled up motionless.

    I picked up four, cupped them in my hands and breathed on them. After a bit they all got busy again. I put them by the hive entrance and they went in, I think. There was a lot of action there.

    Understanding that cyroprotectant chemistry comes into play I am wondering if there isn’t something I can be doing in the fall to either move the hive to a warmer location or in some way give these little folks a better chance of survival.

    Any thoughts?


    • Steve,

      One of the reasons bees fly out and die is that they believe it is warmer outside than it really is. Honey bees need temps in the high 50s to fly safely. It was probably that warm around your hive entrance if it was in the sun, or if warm air from inside the hive was leaking out. So the bees fly out to do cleansing flights but then get too cold to return. Just like a human jumping into icy water, they only have a short time before they are too cold to move. Usually this happens to a small number of bees and it is nothing to be especially concerned over.

      However, keeping hives too warm by adding heat can have adverse effects on a colony. Hives that have been kept artificially warm with heaters or light bulbs are apt to have high mortality because the bees are lead to believe that the outside is warmer than it actually is. They tend to fly out and die. It is best to remember that bees do really well in the cold. Bees that don’t make it over the winter usually have a problem like disease, mites, or a lack of food. A good strong hive seldom dies because of cold weather unless you are very far north or unless the bees get wet.

  • Hi Rusty,
    Thanks for the great information. I am caring for bees in a similarly wet and fairly mild climate. How many lbs. Of honey do you leave the bees for overwintering?

    • I have never actually weighed my hives. I like to see at least 8 of the topmost 10 frames filled with honey. If I can barely move it, that is good.

  • Hi, Rusty,

    I keep re-reading this and the post about preparing hives for winter. You said that bees cannot fly at lower than 50 degrees. During these cool nights, sunny days, I find bees that seem to have “fallen asleep” on a sunflower late the previous day, and as the sun hits them, to “wake up” and begin harvesting again. Suppose if it got cold enough, they would just have died during the night. How cold would it have to get?

    My biggest worry is a weather phenomenon that we have seen in recent (otherwise mild) Winters: a reversal of the normal diurnal cycle. A cold front moves in fast and temperatures drop during the day. A friend has pictures of bees which died going in and out of cells right in their hive (which he lost). So it wasn’t cold enough early in the day for them to get into a cluster, and then it was!

    If it got cold while the sun was high, a lot of foragers would be caught out.

    Have you done a post on temperatures specifically? Or do you know of a source? Thanks!

    • Nan,

      Somewhere in a massive pile of journal articles and research reports I may have something on temperature that gives specifics. But offhand, I don’t know. I will put it on my list of topics. I do know that honey bees are more temperature sensitive than some other species. Both bumble bees and mason bees, for example, can forage at much lower temperatures than honey bees.

  • Rusty,

    Very good article. This is exactly the type of data I would like to prove true by running side-by-side tests of same type bees and strength of hives, 5-10 hives with slatted racks, quilt box, etc. versus 5-10 hives without. I noticed you had a couple that needed feeding to go into winter. I can only imagine what the result would have been without the slatted racks and quilt boxes. Those needing feed not being fed plenty early in the fall to fan the high moisture feed down to the wax capping moisture would have just been trading feed for nosema, and high moisture in the hives, which is what kills and weakens bees. I would guess that out of the 10 that survived you had little to no dysentery because the hives were kept dry, fed early enough, and provided good ventilation and a way to keep excess moisture out of the hive.

    I have seen time and time again beekeepers, if they can be called beekeepers, in moderately cold winters (where temps drop down below 15 degrees for more than a week) feed bees so late the bees can hardly take it down let alone fan it down to the proper moisture to cap, and they scratch their head and wonder why their bees died through the winter.

    I remember seeing in the eighties a yard of 40 commercial beekeepers hives in which 19 of them survived a brutal winter in northern ND. Extremely good considering they were abandoned not wrapped, treated or anything. Hence my belief in the truth that cold does not kill bees, moisture does. A hive with plenty of stores of honey, pollen and a good queen, good ventilation, 10 out of 10 is not all luck, it is good beekeeping and knowing the wants and needs of the bees. It tells me you put the needs of the bees above the what’s easiest for the beekeeper. Good Job. Keep up the good articles, and have another prosperous and good year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Years to you and all those who contribute and learn from your research and articles. Thanks Ron

    • Ron,

      Thank you so much for your high compliments. You pretty much sum up what I believe are the problems with overwintered hives. In my opinion, moisture is the number one winter problem, hands down. Wet bees are dead bees.

      Merry Christmas to you, too, and a healthy and prosperous New Year to you and your family.

      Thanks for writing and thanks for reading!

  • Rusty,
    I almost gave up beekeeping after 5 years. The spring was always a tramatic time for me. How many colonies had I lost this winter? I’m on an island in Lake St. Clair, a few miles North of Detroit, Michigan.

    As an architect I decided to come up with an insulation system that would remain on the hives all year round. (because I am too lazy to put it on, take ioff, store it, etc.) In the fall of 2010 I installed permanent insulation on 1 of my 4 hives. Only the insulated colony survived that winter. I bought two replacement packages. The following fall I had 3 hives and insulated the two that still needed it. All three survived the winter. In the summer of 2012 one swarmed into an old hive stored nearby. I insulated that. As of yesterday, March 10, 2013 all four colonies are doing fine.

    I do not feed or medicate any of my bees. I do as little management as possible. My primary goal is pollination, not honey production. I agree somewhat with the above comments by a reader about not overprotecting the bees because that could lead to weakened genetics in the pampered survivers, however, when I compared the natural protection provided to feral bees in trees to the miserable 3/4″ thick wood we were giving them for protection I decided my managed bees deserved a fighting chance at least equal to the feral colonies.

    The year-round insulation system I came up with is fully DIY with materials from any home improvement store. It costs about $30 per hive and so far has lasted 3 years and probably is good for 5 years, maybe more.
    I have details on my website at

    I like the thoughts expressed about the quilt box. I don’t think I have any moisture problem, but, I’m going to look carefully for any indications of moisture over the winter and maybe try the quilt box.

    Thanks for all the good discussion.

    Bob W.

    • Bob,

      Amazing how one change can make all the difference. I agree that many of our problems are due to the flimsy nature of our hives, and I compared a tree to a Langstroth in Ventilation Part 1: A hive is not a tree.

      Your site looks interesting! I will spend some time with it as soon as I have a few moments. Thank you for all the info.

  • Hi Rusty,

    We just installed our first 2 packages. Magical.

    As usual, with my free time, I have been roaming HBS and have been reading your thread on ventilation and insulation. I wonder, did you read Bob W’s website on his permanent hive insulation at Stewart Farm? If so, what did you think? It would not be out of laziness or lack of management responsibility that I would do this. It just seems to make sense. You successfully over wintered your bees by checking weather forecasts, moisture quilting, adding food stores, etc, but it seems like we could make it easier for our house guests and ourselves if we provided them with better insulated homes in both summer and winter and also would take a lot of the guesswork out. It amazed me that he had so few dead bees and that they consumed so much less food. Any thoughts?

    • Helen,

      If you want to try the permanent insulation, by all means, go ahead. Just remember that insulation is one piece of the overwintering puzzle. There is still ventilation, condensation, food stores, diseases, pests, predators, mites, hive beetles, viruses, dysentery, and on and on. Conditions are very local, and one year is very different from the next. I would never put too much hope in one aspect, but try to do the best with as many aspects as you can think of. After your first winter, you will have a better appreciation of how difficult it can be.

      • This is Bob Williams, designer or the Stewart Farm Year-Round Insulation system. Rusty, you are right on track about winter survival being much more than the insulation alone. Here’s a few quotes from the powerpoint I do on winter survival.

        “A colony of bees is able to survive cold temperatures for extended periods of time if they are healthy, are of sufficient size, have enough food, both honey and pollen, can get to the food and are not exposed to excessive moisture.”

        winter prep
        “Protected from strong winds
        Shrubs, fence, straw bales, other windbreak
        Straps, bungees, props, top weights
        Remove dead trees or branches
        Critter protection
        Bear fence
        Mouse guards
        Bungee the supers”

        “Strong, healthy colonies
        Young, productive queens
        Brood nests at the bottom
        Pollen near the brood nests
        Lots of honey, fairly centered, above the brood nests
        Frames aligned full height (all 9’s)
        Start early (Don’t disrupt the bees plans for the winter)”

        “All excluders removed
        Lower entrance openings to be turned up
        Mouse guards in place
        Upper entrances / ventilation open
        Insulate ”

        other options
        “Fall feeding
        Provide absorbing material under the top cover
        Leave more space between the center frames
        Stack the honey frames and install solid wood dummy frames on the sides
        Winter feeding if the conditions are right”

  • Rusty,

    Great blog and great idea with the quilt box – definitely going to build some for my hives this coming winter and buy slatted racks. I live in the same area as you, just a hundred miles north and I lost 3 of my 4 hives last winter (was my first year) but recovered 2 large swarms this summer. Moisture was the primary problem but I also had a Varroa infestation.I’ve been looking into WBC hive enclosures like the ones in Great Britain and I’ve seen on a site where Steve Moye made some modifications and produced ones that accepted Langstroth boxes. These would allow dry air circulation around the hive better I believe, even the rain . What do you think of them?

    • Tom,

      Sorry, but I have no knowledge of them. I don’t have any moisture in my hives since I began using quilts, so I’m going to stick with them. They are quick, easy, cheap, and work perfectly.

  • Your site has proven invaluable to us in our first year endeavor.

    We are first year bee keepers and have been working things with books and luck. We started with 2 nucs and put them into 10 frame langstroths when we got them home (may 1). We had both hives swarm, one in late June and one in late July, and one of us was within 25 feet of the hives when they started. Both swarms landed in small trees a few yards away from their start and we recovered them both. Evidently they had the same book we did. We have been concerned about winter and am intrigued by the quilt box. We want to build them for each hive. Our question is the size of the wood chips. What is recommended? Suggested source?

    • Henry,

      I don’t think the size is too important. Most people I know buy bags of animal bedding from a feed or pet store. They are often white pine or cedar.

  • Hi, I am in Eugene, Or. Worried I may be lacking ventilation in my tbh’s. I have end entrance holes with inch vent holes on the upper hive body sides on the opposite end. I replaced the screened bottom this spring with a solid bottom. I installed a sheet of rigid insulation in the top cover this summer, it leaves about 1 1/2″ space btwn that and the top bars. My other tb has end entrance holes with hive body side vents on the opposite end, as well as 2 vents on the end. One hive is full of comb except for a couple bars. The other has about 4 bars of empty comb. Thnx

    • Melissa,

      I don’t have moisture problems in my top-bar hive, but I have three entrance holes in the main body and a screened bottom. I leave the screened bottom open all year long. Your winters are probably even warmer and wetter than mine, so I suspect a little more bottom ventilation might be a good thing. Once it gets colder, check on them for condensation. If you find much moisture, you may want to revert to screened bottoms. Since all tbhs are slightly different, it’s hard to generalize.

  • Hi, I am in my first year, with one package. Thank-you for the wealth of information you provide. I am in the North Sierra, where winters can be any combination of heavy snows, very cold temperatures, fierce rainstorms, and fog. I have two ten-frame deeps with a ventilated moisture quilt (per your excellent design) on top, all securely strapped together, and the bees seemed to be doing great (I could hear them buzzing) until we got a couple of fiercely windy rainstorms last month. I could no longer hear them buzzing, so the next mild day, I lifted the lid and found that the wind had blown rain in through every ventilation hole. The wood chips were soaked, and removing the entrance reducer revealed a lake of dead bees on the bottom. I changed out the wood chips, cleaned and dried the bottom, and peaked between the frames. I could only see a few lethargic bees, but they had plenty of honey and had definitely been eating the candy board. For a couple of weeks I was still finding new dead bees at the entrance and seeing bees on cleansing flights on mild days, but now that has stopped too. I’m afraid it is too late to save this hive, so I am wondering how to prevent it in the future. The whole hive setup is far too heavy for me to move them into my shed for storms, so I am thinking of building an alcove onto the south side of my shed that I could temporarily board up during storms. The south wall gets hot in the sun, though, so I worry that it will heat the hive and fool the bees into coming out on cold days. What do experienced beeks do to protect their hive from wind and rain? Thanks!

    • Eva,

      That is so sad. Some people slope the ventilation ports when they drill them, so the water drains down and out. My ventilation ports are about 2/3 covered by the telescoping lid, but the lid fits loose enough on the sides that the quilts still dry out. Also, you could make a rain shelter with a piece of plywood and a tie-down. See A very simple rain shelter.

  • Hello. I am overwintering 4 hives for the first time in Wisconsin, until recently I had 100% survival but over the past couple of weeks I lost one for sure and maybe two others. My last one remaining tipped over today due to the ground thawing and shifting. Thankfully I put them back together and they still had a decent cluster however I noticed they had very little to no honey left. Would it be safe to add a medium of honey from the deadout on top of this hive? I see people add candy boards and dry sugar and such but can’t find anything about adding a entire filled super on top during the middle of winter. I just really really do not want to lose what might be my last hive. Intuition tells me it should not be a problem but I want to confirm so I do not make a bad situation worse. I have dry sugar on top now but I am thinking the honey would be a safer bet, let me know your thoughts!

    • Fred,

      Honey is always the preferred food for honey bees. Most beekeepers don’t have extra honey to give their colonies, so sugar makes a good substitute, but it’s certainly not as good as the real thing.

  • Hi Rusty:

    I managed to get two hives overwintered out of six, using quilts for the first time. Not a great percentage but better than I’ve done for many years. I still have the entrances reduced because we are still having some very cool and rainy weather up here in Massachusetts.

    I am wondering when to do an inspection and add a super on to them. The bees have been bringing pollen (and I assume nectar) on sunny and warmer days.

  • Hi Rusty

    This is an old post so you may not respond I know, but I was wondering – do you use wooden hives or poly? Any thoughts on this? I had heard poly improved winter survival.


    • Matt,

      I try to keep plastic products out of my hives, so I use only wood. I think the poly hives are more popular over there in U.K. than here. I’ve only seen them once or twice, although I know they are available.

  • Understood, yes they are more popular over here although wood is still by far the most common material amongst smaller scale beekeepers at least. I think the commercial guys are mainly poly now. Anyway, thanks for the feedback. I have my first hives this year and am trying poly so we will see how it goes.

  • I attended a local beek meeting. last evening and there ensued a lively discussion about overwintering the colonies. The debate was about offsetting the broods by 3/8 inch. Wow, has anyone even heard of this or tried it? We are in upstate NY and have always tried to seal up and insulate the hive, while providing adequate ventilation. Any thoughts on this radical idea?

  • Brood temperatures not coming down in one of my hives…….

    Hi Rusty, you can tell how valuable this article is. You wrote it and have had posts for over 7 years. Fantastic and thank you. I need your thoughts on one of my hives I am overwintering. Since locale and technique are important, here is what you need to know. I am a B2 (Second year beekeeper). I have my hives in the midwestern plains. Winter when it really kicks in will maintain daytime highs in the mid 20s. We usually have a week where the high will be below zero. That’s the worst. We don’t get much snow in the winter. It is a frozen desert with low humidity. I am a hobbyist. So my goal is not squeezing blood out of a turnip for maximum yield. I monitor and manage my bees. They are treated for diseases and routine hive inspections are performed. I have Arnia monitors on all three hives so I have 1.5 years of data now which provides very useful pictures of what is going on inside. My hives this year are insulated (versus wrapped), quilt boxes, and have candy boards on top by now. Now the question / problem…..

    One of my hives has maintained a very constant internal temperature consistent with brood. Temp probe placement is fickle in the winter as bees will move up for food. However even with that, the internal temp will drop in the winter and the drop is very consistent across my hives save this one….this year. Its internal temp has remained right around 95 degrees. No, not an error. Lift the top and stick your hand in and it feels like a dry sauna. It is this hive that also has hundreds (not thousands) of dead bees being carted to the entrance daily. They have food, they are disease free. The dead bees appear health visually (except they are dead). They are not emaciated or looking starved. Just dead. There are quite a few drones in the mix. So….in my B2 mindset…the temperature being high and in December I have drones would make me think my queen is still laying brood. So why? Does this happen? Is it a sign the queen is having some kind of problem?

    If I put this in the wrong thread, please feel free to move it. Since it is kind of an overwintering question….I put it here. Merry Christmas!

  • Hello
    Regarding your (“ten out of ten”) recommendation to feed in January, I gave my bees pollen patties in late December as well as fondant on top of the supers. I have one super on each hive. I checked today when the weather was moderate (1/11) and the fondant was gone in one hive and mostly gone in the other. I added more fondant. Should I remove the pollen patties until February? They don’t appear to be eating it.

    Also, how much fondant at a time is good – 1/2 pound per hive?


    • Pam,

      The brood nest starts to expand, slowly at first, soon after the winter solstice, which is when I recommend to begin feeding pollen supplements, if think you need them. Some colonies will do fine without them.

      The amount of fondant doesn’t matter much. A small amount like 1/2 pound means you need to open the hive frequently, so that’s a consideration. You can always save leftover fondant if you happen to put in too much.

  • I have had 3 swarms this September. The hives seem to have plenty of room. I have captured 2 of the swarms and given them new homes. I now have 5 hives and am not sure as to what is causing the swarming in September. I live in central Maine.

    • Larry,

      Honey bees normally do not swarm in September because there is usually a lack of food, and often there is a lack of drones making it difficult for a virgin queen to mate. Often, what looks like a swarm is actually an absconding colony.

      Normally, the interior of a hive has plenty of room in the fall because the colonies shrink before winter, so I doubt the amount of space has anything to do with it. When bees leave in the fall, it is usually because something is not right. They may be low on food or they may have an excess of predators. Have you checked for mites, brood diseases, and wasps? Have you checked the food supply? Do all hives, new and old, have a laying queen?

      Check carefully. My guess is that something is wrong.

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