honey bee management how to wintering

How to over-winter a nuc

After my last post, “How to keep queen bees in reserve,” a number of people asked, “Then what? What do you do with them in the winter?”

Last year was the first year I attempted to keep nucs over winter and it worked really well for me. Bear in mind, however, it was my first year, so I have limited experience. That said, I’ll explain what I did:[list icon=”sign-in”]

  • I kept the queens in two-frame nucs from June until August. This wasn’t my plan. I just assumed I would need those queens before August, but it turned out I didn’t.
  • When it became obvious they would still be around in the fall, I decided to put them in five-frame nucs so they could expand. So I just put each two-frame nuc in a five-frame box and added three drawn frames to each.
  • As soon as I put them in the larger boxes, the colonies began to expand. By early October, each covered about four of the five frames.
  • In mid-October, I gave each nuc a frame of honey from my larger hives. I had to juggle things around—sometimes moving bees as well as honey—until all the nucs had a good supply of food.
  • After I evened out the food supply, I stacked the nucs in a column with a double-screen board between each. The nuc with the largest population went on the bottom and the smallest population went on the top. This arrangement allows heat from the most populous hives to rise up through the less populous hives, which helps to keep them warm.
  • We have fairly mild winter temperatures here, with an average of about 40 degrees F. So I just left the nucs outside under a rain shelter.
  • Three times during the winter, it got into the 20-degree range for several days to a week. During those times I put the nucs inside a shed where I keep the temperature in the 40s. I thought the small nucs might not survive sub-freezing temperatures for extended periods because the winter clusters were so small.
  • In December I used the smallest nuc to requeen one of my large hives. I just combined them using the newspaper method and didn’t open the hive again till spring, except to add feed. That hive, I’m happy to report, is doing great.
  • The other two nucs made it till spring. I fed all my hives—including the nucs—sugar patties with pollen starting in February. In early April, I combined the two nucs because one was looking a bit weak. In early May, I deleted the remaining queen and merged the nucs into a regular hive.
  • [/list]

Study your winter temperatures carefully if you plan to do this, because it doesn’t take much freezing weather to kill a colony that is so small. On the other hand, it is great to have queens available in the winter season. If you don’t have your own, there is no other place to get them until spring.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

17 Comments

  • Thanks Rusty. Very interesting how you stacked them all up to preserve warmth and great to have queens around in winter, as you say.

    Sadly I think my setup wouldn’t allow me to do this – while our apiary has a shed, it’s for the beekeepers, not the bees!

  • Thank you. I am coming to terms with the possibility that my husband wanted bees, but he really doesn’t like them. I think he enjoys killing them, more than anything, actually. We acquired a nuc, and he put the frames into a larger box, but didn’t add the extra frames, so they could expand onto them! It was just empty space in there, when I checked. Now, they didn’t expand, so I think we should put them back into the smaller box.

  • Really helpful, Rusty. Thank you. A couple of questions: you mention you fed with sugar patties in the winter. How did you do this, on the top bars? And if so, how did you create enough space between the patties and the double screen above it? Many thanks.

    • Mitchell,

      I use an eke, also known as a feeder rim, which is like a three-inch deep super with nothing inside. You can sometimes find them called “mountain camp feeders.” Failing that, you can cut a larger super in half horizontally, or your can just build one from four pieces of wood. See “How to use an eke.”

  • Thank you for being such a great source of information, Rusty!

    I just had a nightmare weekend of beekeeping: On Saturday, I noticed that one of my 2 hives was being robbed, so I read your advice on how to stop it and put on an entrance reducer. On Sunday, the robbing frenzy was still going on, and I noticed wasps slipping in along with the thieving bees, so I then promptly made a robbing screen & installed it.

    Decided I’d better have a peek inside, opened up the inner cover & set aside, only one bee on it – the queen! I started the hive from a package in May, and they seemed to be doing so well. I’d agonized about mites before treating with 1 formic acid strip in August, and assumed things were all set for winter. Sadly, not the case at all.

    There were a few bees here & there, plus a couple of wasps in the top box, and ants, but otherwise a ghost town (my previous inspection a week earlier things couldn’t have looked better). The bottom box was just foundation, but there was still a fair bit of honey in 6 or so frames above.

    I went to my other hive (different location nearby) to see if they had anything to do with the crime, but no – normal activity & bees still bringing in pollen, a deep & medium full to the brim of bees. Made an emergency call to my beekeeping friends & they came & captured the lonely queen, then made up a cardboard nuc with 2 frames of bees & brood, the 2 best frames of honey from robbed hive, and follower boards. The queen is in a cage plugged with marshmallow, and I’m typing with fingers crossed that this desperate remedy works!

    So now I (hopefully!) need to figure out a way to get them through the winter, and I don’t think the cardboard box is the way to go. As I see it, I’ve either got to buy or make a wooden nuc, or could I simply reduce the amount of space in a 10 frame deep? (I already have a complete hive set up for that, alas, recently vacated). If I use some thick insulation on each side & block off access with plywood, shrinking down the available space to maybe 5 frames, then I’d have a nice setup for feeding them, and they’d have a warmer, more durable home. Would that be an option?

    I’m in the SF bay area, by the way, where today we finally saw some rain.

    • Andrew,

      Why don’t you use all six frames of honey that were left and use a normal-size deep box? That would add a lot of thermal mass to the colony and help with temperature fluctuations. You can still use the follower boards, but I think all that insulation might be overkill in your area.

  • Thanks Rusty,

    The packing on the sides was more to reduce the space more than for insulation, and the remaining frames aren’t full of honey – but I’m happy to give it a go. I added a top feeder yesterday with some extracted honey from nearby colony & was wondering what to do next.
    Thanks, as ever, for your wonderful site.
    I’m fortunate enough to have joined the Marin beekeepers’ club, through which I’ve met a 16 yr. old boy genius & his mother, who stepped in to help last week. Without their help & yours, I’d be floundering!

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • I have seen you mention a two-frame nuc several times now. What do these look like? I can’t seem to find any that are sold online. I am interested in keeping a few on hand for the instances that you use them for (spare queens, etc.).

    • Izzy,

      I have two types, both came from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm. One is a stand-alone 2 frame nuc with bottom board and lid, just like a regular nuc. And one is actually called a “queen castle.” It is a regular deep box with four division and four entrances, one on each side of the box. The divisions make four, 2-frame spaces. I like it and it’s worked well for me. I keep just tiny nucs in there, and then if I go queenless or something I just combine the two-framer with the larger one.

    • Neil,

      I wrote about that in a different post. I found the queen on the landing board on a cold December day.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Would you say there is a higher number of bees for the volume of a nuc compared to the number of bees for the volume of a regular hive over winter. Is the answer different comparing a nuc against either a single or double brood hive?

    Many thanks, Dave.

    • Dave,

      All colonies are different sizes. I don’t think the size of the container has much influence, especially in winter. You can hive a baseball-size cluster in a triple deep or a basketball size cluster overflowing a nuc.

  • Thanks for all the good info on your nucs there. I lost all my bees last year (2018) way before Thanksgiving when the temperature dropped to minus 10 F. I think my bees paid the price of me not treating for mites last year and maybe things would have been fine if I had only done so. I am picking up two over-wintered nucs from Betterbee ($500.00) probably in May to get started all over again. I would like to remind folks just how valuable a successfully over-wintered hive really is and of the utmost importance of controlling mites. From this day forward I am a mite keeper as much as I am a beekeeper. I love the idea of the two frame nucs and will make a couple up this year in order to have reserves on hand. Today (3/23/19) we have nearly two feet of snow in the woods and maybe a foot in the pasture. We saw winds chills approaching 50 below zero F this past winter with multiple feet of snow here in the Adirondacks. Sometimes I think I should move my bees for the winter because a mere 18 miles from here the winter season is 6-7 weeks shorter. They are cutting grass with dandelions and I still have snow, ice, mud, and nothing is green. Just don’t like the idea of not being able to keep an eye on them without a big hassle and a lot of time to do it. I’ve had bees for at least 25 years but this past winter my wife and I took separate classes in beekeeping. We are kind of isolated and have had to learn everything the hard way. Not like there are any beekeepers around that we can network with. Hope everyone has a great 2019!

  • Hi Rusty

    I’m in the UK and my hive died but my queen landed on my bag and I now feed her honey at home. There are no other surviving bees and I have no other hives. What could you suggest as everyone says squish her she will die anyway but currently she’s eating and breathing.

    Kirst

    • Kirsteen,

      Honey bees are social animals that cannot survive for long on their own. She will soon die without a colony to take care of her.

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