beekeeping equipment wintering

More on triple-deep hives

This post is a follow-up to “Rethinking the triple deep hive” that I ran earlier in the week. One reader asked me to expand on the comment, “The triple-deep nests were more-or-less in a column rather than a sphere. Hive inspections showed the brood nests spanning all three boxes in the very center.”

I made that observation last October when I was getting ready for winter. In the double-deep hives, the bees were generally in a sphere in the bottom box. I say “sphere” because the clusters were seven to eight frames wide and as deep as the deep frames–okay, a slightly flattened sphere, although in some cases the nest extended into the upper box for a few inches.

In the triple deeps, however, I found the clusters in the center of the middle box and extending both into the lower boxes and the upper boxes. The clusters in these hives were in what appeared to be a column about five frames wide in the center box, and three to four frames wide in the upper and lower boxes. These were definitely long and narrow nests, as opposed to spherical nests.

The configuration in the triple deeps irritated me at the time. Since I normally overwinter in double deeps, I had planned to take one brood box off each of the triple hives. But when I got in there, I saw no easy way to winnow it down to two without destroying at least part of each nest. So I just left them that way and, of course, they were the ones that survived the winter.

Scott Famous, a beekeeper from Pennsylvania, wrote in with several interesting observations. Scott overwinters in two deeps and a medium. He says,

. . . I have had clusters survive in that amount of space that were no bigger than a softball. . . . I think it’s just an insulation factor . . . because they’re always smack dab in the middle.   I believe that staying in the middle of those boxes keeps them in “dead air” space better than anything smaller, and thereby allows them the least amount of draft and loss of cluster heat. . . . While the bees do benefit from a certain amount of air exchange, keeping it fresh, WITHOUT any drafts is just as important. Bees need “still air” in their boxes, in winter, with very little exchange, and NO DRAFTS.

I firmly believe it’s all about a balancing act of adequate air exchange, with NO fast moving air. . . . The combs/frames provide the perfect baffles against that type of air flow, while still letting the chimney effect of the cluster heat very slowly “pull” from the fresh air at the bottom, and ever-so-gently refresh the available air supply without active loss of cluster heat. . . .

It is very true that full combs of honey and pollen are very dense and have a high heat capacity. A high heat capacity means that their temperature will not fluctuate rapidly along with the outside temperature. So while the outside temps may rise and fall willy-nilly, the temperature of the full combs will remain much more constant.

If, as Scott points out, you can overwinter a softball-size cluster in a large hive, it stands to reason that all the extra honey is acting not only as a food source, but as insulating material.

The part I haven’t reconciled in my own mind is that a higher chimney has a greater draft. So, in theory at least, a taller hive will have more draft then a shorter one. And more air flow through the hive would remove more heat from the cluster. Yet, people consistently say that tall hives overwinter better. There are clearly factors here that I haven’t considered. If you have a theory, please chime in.



  • This is the second year I have overwintered with two deeps and a medium, and my Buckfast bees are doing better than ever! I was going to post about it, but then was discouraged by the conventional wisdom. I’m glad to see that I’m not alone.

    • Deborah,

      Most things in beekeeping–or any other aspect of life–that are thoroughly entrenched in the the “conventional wisdom” need to be examined. I’m being harsh here, but it seems that most people believe what they want to believe instead of looking at facts. And if the discussion involves science, well, forget that. I buck the c/w so often it’s a wonder I have any readers at all but, to me, it is important. Someone has to do it, Deborah, so go for it!

      Thanks for the shout out and the back link. I like your site.

      • Thanks for the advice and the encouragement! I was surprised that even contrarian Michael Bush was on the side of the smaller winter hive. But as you say, it’s always best to look at the facts!! I look forward to following your site and comparing notes. 🙂

  • Rusty – I agree there is a chimney effect, but there are at least two other phenomena that may totally offset the natural convection induced by the higher stack of triple brood boxes. The first item impedes the induced draft. It is the resistance to air flow created by covers, frames, comb, the bees themselves, quilt racks, bottom boards and screens.

    The second consideration is the decreased surface to volume ratio of the large clusters that you observe in the higher hives. Assume that these ellipsoid shapes approximate a sphere. You will recall from geometry as the radius of a sphere increases, the surface area increases to the power of two, and the volume increase by the cube of the radius. Thus, in the larger clusters associated with triples, a greater percentage of bees are in the nice, cozy, interior of the cluster on bitter cold nights.


      • Good for you Sarah!
        I’m going to follow his method this year with my hives. I was half way there in my mind but his book laid it out for me on the page.
        Fingers crossed!

  • As a new beekeeper, nothing has stymied me more than getting things ready for winter. Differing opinions abound.

    I’ve got two hives of Italians, all on mediums. One of the hives replaced their queen (I think) in July, and it took a while to get going again, so it’s not as strong as my other hive, but I’ve currently got six medium boxes on one and five on the other. I’ve got the varroa sticky boards covering the screens, a slatted rack above that, and 3.5″ tall quilt boxes I made of cedar on top, both filled with pine wood shavings.

    After getting advice online, I certainly tried to reduce my hives early this month after the first frost over here in Pullman, but bees were all over the place. Other than the bees clustering in the packages I brought down from Spokane last April, I’ve never seen my bees cluster. Maybe I need to get in there when it’s cold in the morning. Is that when y’all are observing cluster?

    • Trent,

      Why do you have your sticky boards covering the screens? How does that work? The screen separates the bees from the stickiness and allows the mites to drop through and get stuck to the board. You don’t want your bees to have access to the sticky board . . . or am I misunderstanding your statement?

      Also, you don’t really say, but I’m assuming someone told you to shrink your hives? That would depend on how many bees you have. You can’t make blanket rules for how many boxes to have on a hive because it depends how many bees are in the colony.

      Bees cluster around the brood nest when it gets cold enough. The cold that matters is inside the hive, not outside. So if you have a lot of bees in there keeping the temperature up, they will cluster later. I’m not sure why you have to see them cluster; they will do it when they are ready.

      • Sorry…I didn’t word it properly. The boards are indeed below the screens. My point in making that comment was that I don’t have them open. Perhaps it’s irrelevant to the conversation, but I thought it would affect hive temps.

        Anyway, I guess the reason it bothers me that I haven’t seen the cluster is because people talk about it online. When I search for or ask on forums how to configure my hives for winter, the question is asked about cluster size (basketball size good, softball size bad…unless they’re carniolans, but I have Italians), and I don’t have a clue because the bees are all over the hive.

        I appreciate your reply, and I infer from it that I’m probably jumping the gun a bit; it’s currently sunny and in the mid-60s with further clement weather to come for the next few days or so. I think I need to be a little less panicky and a little more calm.

  • Ask 5 beekeepers a question, you may get 15 answers in all possible directions.

    Some have called a 3 deep brood hive, unlimited brood chamber. Three is the max to use for noticeable gain, 8 or 9 frame set ups will not see the same potential as 10 frame.

    To me, beekeeping is space management according to colony strength. Some people are honey farmers, manipulating bees in less than optimal ways and methods with bee health and hive strength less then a priority.

    Most commercial bee keepers “honey farmers” make as small a hive as possible, and as many as possible, they get paid per hive to pollinate. They take every possible drop of honey, and feed high fructose corn syrup. Mono diet malnutrition, and lose high percentages of hives over winter, as a direct result of incompetent mismanagement. Transporting weak malnourished hives across country is a recipe for spreading disease, infection, parasites. Annual restocking winter losses with packages from long infested southeastern states is compounding and spreading numerous issues.

    Unless hive strength becomes weak, it seems to me reducing the hive brood area is several steps backwards. Be it 3 to 2, or 2 to 1, doing this only to winterize is illogical to me.

    Adding the third brood box, makes them deal with stocking it before working up in a honey super. Once its on and part of their system, removing it for winter, and putting it back on in spring, disrupts its full potential for using it. Instead of having the head start it being on all year can provide in spring, adding it back on can slow them down each time its done.

    Timing splitting from a 3 deep hive, how many hives you do, how many hives you remove brood or stored supplies from to make 1 split, or to strengthen a weaker hive, how often, to minimize delay to honey super potential should be considered. Completely removing one stocked brood chamber from a 3 deep, and replacing it with an empty box of frames, rather than building it from multiple hives, brood and bees from one, honey frames of capped brood and pollen without any bees from others, can make a strong split, with minimal setback to any of the hives at once.

    Opening the hive when the bees are clustering, because of cool temps, is risking the hive, and potential to chill the brood. We don’t open hives if temps are consistently below 60 F. Taking the cover off brood chamber when its cool, lets all their built up heat out, cool drafts in. Propolis doesn’t get tacky and becomes brittle when its cool, separating seams and joints then, makes hive less sealed in every area disturbed.

    We keep screen bottom boards open year round. As Fall begins, we skirt hives mid way on bottom super, to the ground, with old pool solar cover, or roofing tar / felt paper. Not sealed tight, but able to prevent wind or snow from being an issue, and entrance landing board cut out. Fastened only with rope around top, and bricks rocks or logs holding bottom to the ground. No large gaps tears or openings. As we finish for the year inside hive, last honey supers removed, and inspections, we wrap another layer below top cover, down overlapping the lower skirt. This stays on until spring temps will be above 60 F. If we get a winter warm spell, we will go open top, and check for issues, population, and supplies stored. Otherwise, they were winter prepped and supplied when closed, or they weren’t. Second guessing and opening at a too cool time, can make new issues, and set them back or worse.

    We still use the queen excluder on 3 deep hives, our queens are laying full frames of brood in the top brood box, and would possibly cross on up into honey supers.

    Stand is 2×2 angle, bed frame metal side rails size, sides and back, with cross brace in front. Four one inch thick 4 inch long bolts as legs, on 4 cinder blocks, 1 under each leg. Bottom board sits between leg bolts, front to back. Ground under hive is covered year round with 50 pound dog food bags, plastic or a non porous weed barrier, to keep weeds in control, and catch falling varroa, or small hive beetle larvae, keeping shb larvae less likely to get into soil to next stage of life cycle. Ground around hives is treated with beneficial nematodes that feed on small hive beetle larvae. Chemical free only dusting with powdered sugar for varroa treatments spring and fall.

    Fifth year back in beekeeping never lost a hive over winter. 200 miles south of Chicago, average temperatures have ranged from a low of 19 °F (−7 °C) in January to a high of 88 °F (31 °C) in July. We do get stretches of below 0 F winter, and 100 F summer.

    This will be the first winter using three, 10 frame langstroth deep brood boxes, per hive. Previously we have only ran 2 deep.

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