Overcome wintertime beekeeping worries with a good self-preservation checklist

In the 2003 romantic comedy, Love Actually, there’s a scene where Juliet (Keira Knightley) visits her husband’s best friend, Mark (Andrew Lincoln), to borrow a video tape of her wedding. Although everyone believes Mark doesn’t like Juliet, the video reveals otherwise. In the awkward scene that follows, Mark admits, “It’s a self-preservation thing.” He uses a façade of dislike and antipathy to keep himself from going to pieces.

That phrase, “self-preservation,” resonated with me because it’s something I recognize in myself. Like most humans, I have ways of dealing with stressful situations that help me stay sane. Mostly. But sometimes they collapse for no apparent reason.

How self-preservation relates to bees

Yesterday I went walking in the wet winter woods with my husband. Rich kept hollering from behind me, “Slow down! Where are you going in such a hurry?”

But I couldn’t slow down. Out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, I had suddenly decided my bees were starving to death. I had to get home immediately and check on every hive and feed them. I’d nurse them with eye droppers, if necessary. For the moment, I was oblivious to everything else around me.

Where this idea came from and why it surfaced at that moment, I have no clue. Clearly it was a breach of the self-preservation thing I do with my winter colonies.

Winter bee anxiety

Nearly every beekeeper I know has some degree of winter angst. During the warm months, you see your bees each day, you open the hives as often as you like, you feel the pulse of the colony. But in the winter, you are forced to step back and wait. You begin fearing the worst, and unless you hold the bad thoughts in check, they will make you crazy. They will keep you up at night. They will have you fearing the worst.

My self-preservation checklist is the thing that keeps me sane, the thing that prevents me from going to pieces. It’s the reason I can (usually) appear aloof toward my bees even when the truth is quite different.

Write a self-preservation checklist

The checklist is a compilation of wintering techniques that work for me. During the many years in which I was able to overwinter all my colonies, I developed a protocol to use as my roadmap. Once I’ve checked everything on the list—mite treatments on time, good queens, plenty of honey, candy boards, pollen substitutes, moisture quilts, upper entrances—I should be able to relax. After all, the rest is up to the bees.

But once I start second-guessing myself, I’m toast. If I think too much and let my mind wander into the bleak abyss, I can imagine all kinds of Apis-related disasters.

Other worriers are out there

I know for a fact I’m not alone in this predicament. Just last week I was answering questions—one right behind the other—from a new beekeeper. No, scratch that. He hadn’t even started yet, but he was awash in winter anxiety. What about bears? What about nosema? What about cold temperatures? What about queen failure? What about dysentery? What about wind? What about AFB? What about? What about?

It seemed silly to me at the time, silly until I got this lightning bolt notion that my bees were starving to death. It didn’t matter I’d done my best winter prep. It didn’t matter I had checked and fortified their stores a few days prior. I couldn’t talk myself out of it until I actually lifted the lids.

The moral of the self-preservation story

In today’s world of endless threats to bee colonies, we can’t always blame ourselves for winter failures. We have to recognize that it’s possible to do everything right and still have colony losses, that it’s impossible to guard against every last threat. Anyone can have a windstorm, flood, bear invasion, vandal attack, wildfire, earthquake, or queen loss where there is no realistic prevention. Any colony can pick up nosema or foulbrood without your knowledge.

As beekeepers, all we can do is our best. We need to prepare for the most likely problems and accept the rest. Beekeeping should be fun, something that is hard to remember when your self-preservation software is on the fritz. So relax and take a deep breath. Spring is on its way. I think. Unless…

Honey Bee Suite

Self-preservation: It’s always a relief to see the bees on the first warm day of the new year.
It’s always a relief to see the bees on the first warm day of the new year.


  • Oh my gosh! I’m so glad you published this! I thought I was the only one making myself crazy during the winter months ?!

  • But you’re the GOOD beekeeper. Whatever your fears are, multiply them by a gazillion for those of us who are screwups!

  • It’s so nice to know that there are lots of beekeepers out there who suffer from WBA (wintering bee angst). When I prepped for winter (mite treatments, Bee cozy, moisture quilt box, upper entrance, winter pattie, fondant blocks) I told myself I did all I could but it didn’t help. Every time it gets to 50° I drive to the hive and low and behold there they are flying?

  • OMG! So true! I was out of the country 2 weeks ago when I saw a warm trend at home. “Can you run by the house and eyeball the hives for activity” I texted a friend…. never mind the sun, sand and beach!!! How are the bees!?

  • What struck me first is that you have a Rich, and I have a Jim and they are synonymous. ? How true, anxiety till we can lift the cover. For me, as the sun peeks in mid-morning from behind the mountain and shines on my hives one hive at a time warming up the hive, that’s when I see the bees checking out the weather and sunshine. Whew!

  • I had my bee anxiety affliction two weeks ago. We had a nice day and as you state, I had to open every top and look! Glad I did, the one moisture box was wet and when I looked below, the colony was massive for this time of year. Heat just radiated from this hive. Good queen and winter nurse bees. Added another moisture box and now all is well. What I find is sometimes when you get these thoughts, they are correct and something needs done. A walk in the woods does wonders for BSS … Bee Stress Syndrome. I believe most of us think they are our pets, ha ha! We all need medication.

  • The “self-preservation” article so resonates with me. I am usually fine until another beekeeper starts asking questions or discussing their fears…then boom! I’m there too.

  • I’ve been feeling it pretty desperately over the past week. When our long-range forecast called for above average temps for the month of January, I thought I’d give my 6 hives (especially my two weakest) a head start by giving them some pollen substitute early. They took the pollen like crazy, A week later, the forecast changed and we had a week of lows in the teens and 20s. Highs in the 30s. I wasn’t sure how they would fare with keeping brood warm (at least my weaker hives), but the temps took an unexpected jump to 50 today so I went out to take a peek. All of them were still alive and well with plenty of sugar cakes remaining. This is only my second winter. My single hive survived last winter, but I have been nervous because I went into this winter with two pretty weak hives.

  • I’m so happy I’m not the only beekeeper who stresses over her winter hives!! After 18 years, I’ve never lost a winter hive due to starvation. I give them so much sugar over their capped honey boxes, they are spoiled. And yet, I still worry. Is there a bee-aholics anon anywhere????

  • Last winter, our queen died and it was not until we opened up the hive during an unusually warm day in February that we discovered that all were lost (literally). So sad. It was warm last weekend and while I was resetting a fence I put up to keep raccoon invaders at bay, I was delighted to see several of our “girls” out on the hive entrance basking in the sun. It is always an anxiety producing time when you don’t know what is happening and such a delightful relief when you find your fears are baseless. There is probably a larger life lesson there somewhere if we just take time to notice.

  • I had a bad case about a month ago. So bad that I even picked up a single deep which seemed to be in trouble according to the Broodminder readings, and brought them into my heated workshop. Made a special stand and installed a tube for them to be able to get outside and made special sugar cakes topped with honey and gave them a bit of pollen patty. I thought, well, they are dead anyway with no hope of making it through an Adirondack winter, so what the heck- DO SOMETHING NOW- IT’S PANIC TIME!! My wife was sure I had lost it. The cluster seemed to be small with temps in the 30sF at the sensor but now I’m in uncharted waters as they are raising brood while the thermometer falls to minus 10 F. Shop is in the low 50’s. I lost all my hives last year and have expended considerable resources to be bringing 7 colonies through the winter now. With windchills approaching 40 below I wake at night and cringe as the wind literally howls. I have engineered a brand new winter hive setup which took days to implement and two trips to the local building supply outfit, a trip to purchase a massive sheet metal brake up by the Canadian border, and many hours doing things which I thought I would never do. Thanks for the post because I have been unable to figure out what type of re-hab I should be considering and now I know I can spare myself those thoughts. Jeff in the Adirondacks.

  • Hi Rusty,
    Thanks for your kind words. I have the winter angst, but also a bit in summer. Nice to know I am in good company.

  • Hi.
    I managed to expand my only one tiny colony in to 9 colonies over last 3 years and extract a lot of honey from them still. This year is the first year I had massive colonies going in to winter and I’m a bit worried too, but it’s end of January, honeysuckle already bloomed, crocuses and snowdrops are out as well as prunus. Bees seem to fly every day already and bringing pollen and rest nectar. London (UK) is great for bees:)

  • We are first year beekeepers. Sunday, we are expecting a high of 70 degrees in East Texas. Because February is a common time of the year (I’m told) to lose whole hives, we will be opening our three hives to inspect their resources. While I have a touch of winter angst, bees are already humming in the elm trees that are budding out. I just don’t want the queens to think spring is here, start laying, and then next week we get an arctic front that plummets temps in the 20s. We have learned so much this past year. Thank you for this blog (newly discovered from a shout out on thehivejive podcast).

    • Hi Susan,

      Don’t worry too much about those low temperatures. The brood nest starts to build up this time of year in order to be ready for spring nectar flows. Most colonies that die in spring die of starvation because of a combination of low food supplies and a lot of baby bees. If you keep them fed, they will do fine.

  • Like several of the posters here, an increasingly serious issue for us during the winter is the marked increase in temperatures. This causes all sorts of issues like nosema risk and starvation simply because there are too many bees for the amount of forage and on many days they can’t get out and fly because it’s raining. More bees also gives us the very real issue of damp in the hives to the point where we’ve decided to pinch the idea of moisture or quilt boxes used on Warré hives for our large, Dadant hives. Who said old dogs can’t learn new tricks 🙂

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