bee stories wintering

Too many bees for the middle of winter

Too many bees for the winter months.

My bees have lost their sweet little minds

This morning, after a week of advising everyone else to check on their bees, I decided I’d better do the same. I figured there would be no excuse if everything went wrong. I couldn’t say no one told me.

So I made some sugar trays just in case and began doing the rounds. The top-bar hive was first and it seemed normal except lots of bees flew out when I opened it up. This surprised me, so I looked at the thermometer. Hmm. Forty degrees F and raining.

The sound said “too many bees!”

Now forty isn’t freezing but it’s not exactly balmy, either. I gave them some sugar and proceeded up the hill. When I got about ten feet from the first Langstroth I heard a sound that reminded me of a generator in the distance. I thought about it for a moment and decided it was a generator in the distance because this is January, and in January I have to lean close to the hives and tap to hear anything at all.

But the closer I went, the confused-er I became. I have never heard bees make that kind of racket at this time of year. The entire hive seemed to vibrate and a vast number of dead bees littered the landing board that I had cleared only two days ago. I removed the lid and figured I would lift the edge of the quilt and slide in the sugar tray, just like always.

The instant I lifted the quilt a quarter-inch, they started foaming out like soap bubbles from an overflowing washing machine. I had opened the dike and they spilled forth. They oozed over the top and down the sides. Three stories down bees squeezed out of the hive opening and melted over the landing board. The dog left.

Just under the quilts I keep a three-inch feeder rim just in case I need room for feed or pollen patties or grease patties . . . whatever. This feeder space was absolutely full of bees end to end, side to side, and top to bottom.

Now all I need is a plan

I replaced the quilt without adding the sugar tray because I needed a moment to think. This maneuver immediately squeezed about fifty bees, so I opened it up again only to have all the spilling, oozing, and flowing start all over again. Ultimately, I tried to slide the sugar tray under them, but there were so many bees in there it sort of floated like a rowboat on a lake while the bees moved around under it.

All this was just the beginning: every subsequent hive was exactly the same and, honestly, I don’t understand. In previous years, my triple deeps have done the best which is why they are all triples this year. They had tons of honey going into winter and I didn’t think I would need to feed. But like many other parts of the country, we’ve had a warmish winter and the bees are burning through their stores in record time.

Still, how will I keep these huge colonies fed until spring? It is so early in the year that I will need a dump truck full of sugar to keep them going. What I really need is a strategy . . .

Honey Bee Suite


  • Quite different here east of the Cascades in Ellensburg. Warm fall until a month ago and typical cold since with 12″ of snow +. Yesterday I opened the two Warres and one Lang. Many dead bees at the entrances but easily cleared. No moving bees on the frames and only a few between the frames or between the combs on the Warres. Can they have starved already? Seem unlikely. Candy and pollen patties placed.

    Will check again in a week.

    Any ideas appreciated.

    • Tom,

      It’s that “warm fall until a month ago” that is the problem. Still, it is hard to say what is going on with a quick glance. You did the best thing you can at the moment by giving them the candy and pollen. The rest is up to them.

      Usually hives don’t starve in the first part of winter because they have at least some stored food. It is the second half that is more problematic. But with a warm fall, they can eat most of their stores by Christmas.

  • I am fairly new to beekeeping & I don’t understand your comment as to why a warm fall would cause them to eat most of their stored honey early. I realize that a warm fall would allow for more outside the hive activity, but it would also allow for the bees to gather more food & pollen. Please explain your reasoning.

    • John,

      The major problem with a warm fall is that the bees will spend hours foraging for something that is not there. The flowers are gone or have stopped producing nectar and pollen, but if it is warm enough to fly, the bees go looking for it anyway. They burn more food energy than they end up finding. In the end, they eat a lot but collect little. It would be like you driving a car over and over again to an empty grocery store: you would burn a lot of gasoline but not find any food to bring home. The result is a net loss.

      When the bees stay in a tight cluster, they burn less energy than they do when they are outside the hive. They even burn less energy than they would if they were working inside the hive. That is one of the reasons they cluster—it is a very energy-efficient way to stay warm.

  • Rusty,

    I found a cluster of dead bees in one of my hives today (all of them). Right above them was all the honey they could have wanted, but there was not any on either side of the cluster. Why would they not have just gone upstairs to get what they needed?

    I checked some of my other hives and found that the bees had all moved into the top box that had honey stores.

    • Tom,

      When bees behave oddly like that (not moving up) I always suspect queen problems. It is possible they went queenless sometime earlier and there weren’t enough bees remaining to keep the cluster warm. It may have been a lack of numbers, rather than lack of honey, that finished them off. I’m just speculating, of course. It’s hard to say without taking a closer look, and even then it may be impossible to know.

      • I had the same heartbreaking situation — a starved out hive with 20 pounds of honey just out of reach. My theory is that if the population is too low, they can’t break the ball to go forage even a couple inches away. But the bigger problem is that studies have shown that the heat they’re generating in the ball doesn’t spread, so even inches away the hive temperature is ambient. In the winter, that means the honey may be frozen near solid, and the energy it takes to warm it up just isn’t there in a weak colony.

        • Mark,

          That all sounds correct to me. Also, the smaller the cluster, the less heat is generated, the more bees die. When more bees dies, even less heat is generated, which means even more bees die. It’s a vortex that can’t be stopped once it starts.

  • I’m feeling very blessed to live in sunny Florida! My hives are doing well, I have been giving them some sugar water with pro health, but I also left LOTS of honey for them. Checked them last month in December on a warm day. Both hives had eggs and larvae and capped brood. I even watched the girls going in and out today and saw quite a bit of pollen coming in.

  • Un-naturally warm here in Taiwan too! Not that beekeeping ever closes down completely like in the west. But we do have a few flowers to keep things going. But even I am forced to feed every week using fondant.

  • It looks like you might have found a problem with the triple deep model, they have got the heat retention and volume of stores to allow them to just go crazy because they think it is spring already. I don’t know what you can do if you have huge colonies now and nothing in flower to feed them on. I know you’re not keen on feeding sugar either.

    Here in the UK we had the wettest year in 100 years, the worst honey harvest in at least 50 years, and now a mild winter. The weather is all over the place and nature is following what it thinks are normal climate triggers of spring. I checked my hives last week and they are all out of stores apart from one. We’re just about to have another cold snap, and I’m hoping that will calm them down. They have fondant which I hope will keep them going, but I’m going to have to cross my fingers quite a bit in the hope they make it through.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I have looked at a lot of ways to do sugar cake dry and pollen substitute, just would like to know why you don’t mix the two together.

    Manuel new beekeeper or trying

    • Manual,

      When they need both, I do mix them together. See

      If they have plenty of honey but just need pollen, I make separate pollen patties.

  • It was 59 degrees F here in South Dakota yesterday and I opened up my hives to check. Two of the three were dead with very few bees in either. The one had eaten most of their honey, but left the fondant alone. The strongest had quite a bit of honey and they had been at the fondant some. The weakest hive that I was worried about had lots of bees and were very active. I even got my first sting of the year with my suit & veil on! Regardless what we read in Little Red Riding Hood, having big ears isn’t a good thing! I think my bees all froze to death because we’ve had lots of warm/cold cycles all fall and early winter. I guess I’m a bee watcher, not a keeper!

  • Yes, in the UK we have had mild, but we also had some unseasonably hard frosts and freezing weather before Christmas. So, I have been checking my hives and even though I think there are still stores there, I have left a little fondant just in case….

  • Same here in Virgina. Bees are gone, been feeding and it still looks like they starved as I did see some little bees with their head in and tails out of the comb. Down to three hives, still feeding . . . I’m a watcher now, not a keeper as I have gone from seven to three. Don’t know what to expect come spring . . .

  • Hello Rusty.

    Thank you for some interesting reports, makes for fun reading and learning.
    Any recent research that is been done on superparamagnetism in nano particles in relation to direction finding, would be appreciated, eg the magnetic moments carried by the atoms in pollen could be a source of “GPS”. This may aid Von Frisch’s bee dance accuracy, which currently has a few dubious areas.

    Kind regards.


  • Rusty,

    I know I am late or very early on this thread, however I am planning for winter. I did not read from any of you about a bee hive heater.

    I know they sell them; I have been reading about the pros and cons on them. I was debating with myself about getting one and only using it when it got below 28 degrees or so.

    I do understand that they can worsen a varroa mite problem, so one would need to be careful on the balance of usage.

    A thought on varroa mites: read an obscure article somewhere written by a professor – varroa mites don’t like the smell of lavender.

    So when I beeswaxed the girls’ hive, I dumped in Grosso Lavender Oil. Still don’t find mites on my bees. I find the bumble bees covered in them, crawling on the ground. I do what I can for them which entails puffing them with powdered sugar. (Taking care of them takes care of my girls and the native bees….)

    Back to bee hive heater – have you or any of your readers used a heater – and does it work with moderation?

    • Monica,

      It is nearly impossible to answer your question without knowing where you live, but unless you live in the extreme north I wouldn’t recommend a heater. Bees do an excellent job of keeping themselves warm. If they have ample food, they will do fine in most temperate areas. The biggest drawback with a heater is that if the bees think it is warmer outside than it actually is, they may fly out and die almost immediately when they hit the icy air.

      At 28 degrees F, I even leave the screened bottom open to the outside air—that is not very cold for a hive of bees.

      If you live in any area with extremely cold winters, I would recommend an insulating wrap rather than a heater.

      By the way, you say you haven’t found mites on your bees. Have you done a sugar roll test? Mites hide between the segments of a bee and are difficult to see. Unless you do thorough testing, you are unlikely to get a clear picture of your mite load.

      Also, I don’t understand your comment about bumble bees. Bumble bees do not get varroa mites. Bumble bees get other types of mites, but not varroa mites—their life cycles are completely incompatible.

      • Good to know about the heater. I live just a hour south of Eugene Oregon. I live on top of a mountain exposed to wind most of the year. It does like to get down to 10 to 12 degrees for a while up here;everything freezes solid. I am assuming its because of all the moisture in the air. And of course the wind chill factor.

        It is for those couple of weeks I would want to close the entrance to the hive and slip the heater in from the backside of the vented bottom and warm it up 10 to 20 degrees. My thoughts are coming from the idea of my hive is still small. What can I do to increase their probability of making it through the winter with as little loss as possible?

        As for the bumble bee, when I found them on the ground covered in little mites I took it to the extension service. That is where they informed me it was varroa mites and that is what has been killing out honeybees. I guess the girl was just mistaken and gave me good info about the wrong species.

        And yes I have done the sugar test. Just two weeks ago Sunday. No mites!

        I do find them but not in abundance when I check the sticky boards under the vented bottom. So I know they are picking them up from the flowers and other bees. The thing I get concerned about when doing the sugar test is it’s coating the bees with sugar so logically it would cover the mites also. Could I miss seeing them? But I can say with confidence that there are less mites now than before I painted the base and inside of the hive with the wax/lavender mixture.

        The constant I regularly find true is that for every natural evil there are natural remedies. It is just a matter of finding it.
        For example: I love roses – aphids love roses – I hate aphids! I cut and make horsetail (plant) make a strong tea and spray roses – aphids dead – and no harm done to environment. TaDa – a natural solution to a natural problem.

        If the lavender oil helps then no harm is done and my bee girls don’t mind the smell of the lavender – it seems to be working for me. ; )))

  • Please if anyone can help me, I would appreciate it.

    Speaking of bees losing their minds…

    There is a small hole in our hollow statue and they have decided to make a home in the statue. How can I deter them from it as it is a danger, being my son and his dog have a dangerous (epipen on hand) allergic reaction to stings.

    I truly want to keep them because I have a great love for bees, even saving them from the pool and putting a low blowing heater on them finding I have a 99% success rate rather than about 50% without the heater.

    I was excited being I am home-bound at the thought, as it happily passed through my mind as if it is meant to be, but quickly dashed when my son said ‘no mom’ He is right, safety first for all parties… son/dog/bees.

    P.S. I even told them they could break/take the statue because the bees’ health is more important than a plastic 3′ tall angel statue.

    • Susan,

      A few things: I don’t know where you live, so I don’t know if winter is coming or not, and I don’t know how cold it will get. I also don’t know what kind of bees they are, or if they are bees or maybe wasps. In your e-mail you said a removal company wanted to charge $150 to remove them.

      So, here are some ideas: 1) Plug the hole at night and then remove the statue the next day. 2) If they are not honey bees, wait for the first frost, at which point, they will die. 3) If they are honey bees, call a beekeeper. Most beekeepers will remove them for free, especially if they can take the statue with them.

      The important point is that how you handle the problem depends on what kind of insect it is and what your climate is like.

      • Hi Rusty,

        Thank you for your answer; I appreciate it more than you know. I live in Southern California where the temps are 80 to 90’s in the days. The night are from mid 50’s to low 60’s. They are honey bees for sure. I was surprised also thinking someone would come and get them for free, being California is having bee issues.

        I called a company with beekeeping supplies after many attempts calling people in the bee community with no replies. She gave me much needed direction and names. I have not called So Cal bee clubs yet because of a conversation with my brother yesterday I learned his co-worker is a beekeeper. So I am hoping he will take the statue or place a box for them to move into and take it and give them a new home.

        My focus is and will never be other than for the health of the bees. They are not aggressive at all and I can be right next to the statue. I just worry for the dog, for he is a happy curious lab! I am thinking of putting chicken wire around it to keep him away if this goes on much longer.

        Thank you for your reply again and let’s hope he takes them!!

  • Hi Susan,
    Where in So. Cal.? I know several people in the Los Angeles area that would take them off your hands.

    • I thank you Nate for trying to help me. I am in Granada Hills which in in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County.

      The bees have been her for approximately 3 weeks time and they are busy busy!! I wish I could send or attach a picture I have taken to this note. Thank you again for any help! I was watching the Disney channel and they said there are bee rescues that will come get it for free. If I don’t figure this out within a week’s time, I will call them. I hear they get more aggressive when the hive is established, is this true? I can go up to them at this point with no issues at all.

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