Opening your hive in winter

I have an electronic pedometer that I keep in my pocket. Last weekend the inevitable happened: I ran it through the washing machine. I didn’t realize what I had done until it was in the final rinse cycle, and when I pulled it out it was blank and full of water. Duh.

I decided there was nothing to lose, so I took it apart. Wherever I found a screw, I took it out. An amazing number of treasures emerged—gaskets, O-rings, washers, circuit boards, separators, LCD screens. I lined up everything next to my computer where the CPU fan could dry it all out. After the first reassembly, I had one piece left, but after the second try, bingo. It worked like a champ.

So what does this have to do with beekeeping? Simply this: sometimes we are better off doing something risky than doing nothing at all.

After my last two posts, several people wrote to say they think their bees are low on food but it is too cold to open the hive. They asked me what to do.

Here’s the thing. From the outside you can’t be certain whether they are out of food or not. But if they are, you will lose the colony for sure if you don’t feed it. If they are not low on food—and you work quickly—you will probably not do too much harm. So, if you are reasonably confident they may be low, my advice is to go in and see.

[column width=”1/2″ first=”yes”]The same day as the pedometer incident, I was checking my hives with a gentle knock to the brood boxes. If I listen carefully, I can tell where the colony is. In one of the hives, the colony was at the top. So I went back to the house and got a sugar cake and then I opened the hive. I was right. Just under the quilt about a zillion bees were congregated on the top bars. I slipped the sugar cake in and closed up the hive. Outside temperature: 28° F.[/column] [column width=”1/2″ last=”yes”]I need to do more in there, but at 28° I did something to hold them over until the temperature creeps up. On a warmer day, I may rearrange the frames to bring honey closer to the bees, or I may add some frames of honey I’ve kept in reserve, or I may give them more sugar cakes. The point is, if you have a risky situation you should try to do something even if the conditions are not perfect.[/column]

Having heard thousands of bee stories over the years, I think that more errors are made from not doing anything than from actually doing something. Obviously, you don’t want to be careless. You don’t want to do a complete hive inspection in freezing weather. On the other hand, if you can take a stopgap measure to help your bees along, why not?



  • I love that sound when I give the hive a good thump. It’s comforting… says “We are home!” I keep a stethoscope handy that I picked up somewhere. I haven’t used it yet but I plan to go exploring with it one of these days. 🙂

  • I couldn’t agree more, Rusty. Particularly in a year like this here in Michigan. We had a difficult summer followed by a not so great fall for our bees to put up honey stores. Many of our hives were a little light going into this winter, so it is very important to insure they don’t starve as a result. If you simply lift the top to lay an emergency food source on the top bars for the bees it takes less than a minute. 28 degrees is fine for that maneuver. It is important to remember that bees aren’t attempting to heat the entire interior of the hive. They keep the center of the cluster in the low 90’s if they are raising brood, but the outside shell of the cluster is more like 45 degrees, just high enough to keep those bees from going into torpor. So you’re really not losing as much heat as you may think.

    Again, as Rusty pointed out, you need to use some common sense here and not mess with rearranging frames, etc., unless you have a day in the mid to high 40’s. One more point to make here is, if you do decide to move some full honey frames closer to the cluster, DO NOT place those full frames into the middle of the cluster. The bees need open comb in the cluster. Move the frames to the outside edge of the cluster if you’re going to move frames.

    Happy New Year to all, and may your girls have a successful year!

    Jim Withers

    • Jim,

      Thanks! You make a really good point that I always forget to make: near the cluster does not mean in the cluster. The brood nest needs to be kept whole and not sliced by layers of honey. The colony needs empty cells in the very heart of the cluster for raising brood.

  • I should have mentioned that an emergency food source should either be a candy block (I use pollen infused candy plates) or dry sugar poured onto a sheet of newspaper. Never feed syrup to the girls at this time of year.

  • Thank you both, Jim & Rusty! You have decided me not to wait till Tuesday. My pollen patties arrived today, and the sugar cakes are made up, and I have extra hands to help. Wishing all your hives the best!

  • Checked my six hives last week, temp was 15 deg. I know it was too cold, but I was very concerned they were running low. They went into fall with full stores, but our fall here was so warm for so long, I suspect they were more active than usual and thus consumed more of their stores than normal. That’s why I checked them last week.

    Sure enough, in each one the cluster was at the top. The most robust colony covered nearly all of the frames of the top box and even at 15 deg there was a small bunch of bees hanging out at the top hole. The weakest had a pretty small cluster off-center.

    I came prepared and gave each a full box of capped honey (taken from my too-many deadouts). I did it quick, they were exposed for less than 10 seconds.

    And I do love hearing that ‘hummm’ through my stethoscope. I use a cheap plastic toy one from my now grown children’s toy box.

  • Everyone says not to feed syrup this time of the year. I live in the south and right now it is 40 at night, and 60 in the day. I gave my bees 2:1 syrup on Jan 1 because they were lite. At these temperatures is it ok to feed syrup?

    • Steve,

      The air temperature is not very important; it is the syrup temperature that counts. Bees can’t eat syrup that is below 50 degrees F because it drops their body temperature to the point where they can’t move. Read this post for a more complete explanation: Also, if you like to understand the science, then read:

      • Rusty,

        Even if it is January or February, if it is warm enough for the bees to take the syrup out of the feeder and store it in the comb, then can they use the syrup? My bees are doing just hat right now. I want to make sure that they will be able to also consume the syrup. Or will it just sit there until it is warm enough to make honey out of it.

        • Steve,

          I looked up your IP address to see where you are and I got South Carolina, so I will assume that is correct. In SC it is probably warm enough for the bees to collect the syrup and store it in the comb. Depending on the relative humidity, they may be able to dry it down to 17 or 18 percent moisture and cap it. But maybe not. If it too cold and humid for them to cap it, it may just get moldy in the comb. Remember, the conditions are very different depending on climate and local weather patterns.

          In any case, bees cannot make honey out of sugar syrup. Honey is made from nectar and sugar syrup is made from refined sugar and they are not the same. If the bees dry the syrup down and cap it, all you have is thick capped sugar syrup.

  • We live in Calgary AB where we have “chinooks” when the temperature climbs up above freezing so perhaps I can take a look on one of those days but it is rare to get above freezing and we’ll certainly see -30 degrees C. If you don’t know Celsius – it’s simply COLD! [-22 F]

    My concern is that I can’t knock on the hives or even listen with a stethoscope (I’ve tried) because we have “Bee Cozy” covers on the hives. So for us to get into the hive it’s a real operation. Do you think we should still have a look? We left them with about 8 frames of honey in the second super plus whatever they had in the lower super so I thought they’d be fine…

    • Andrew,

      Of course I can’t say for certain. But the main problem we’ve had in many parts of the U.S. was an unseasonably warm autumn. Bees burn through more food in warm weather than they do when it is very cold and they remain in a tight cluster. Many beekeepers are concerned—and rightfully so—that their colonies ate their way through most of their stores in the warmish months of October, November, and December.

      If you are experiencing normal weather for your area, and if you were prepared for normal going into winter, you should be okay. You might ask other beekeepers in your area how much honey they usually leave for winter . . . or maybe you already know that.

      Up there in Calgary, I wouldn’t recommend opening the hives unless you have a specific reason to be concerned. If you didn’t experience a particularly warm autumn, I probably wouldn’t worry.

  • I am new to this site but like it! I have a few questions:

    1) When you (Rusty) say that you give your bees ‘some frames of honey you kept in reserve’, may I ask where and how you kept those frames? I am a little confused about how to store honey for emergency feeding in winter . . .

    2) If there is plenty of capped honey, but all below the cluster, would you take those frames and add this honey next to the cluster since they won’t go down to get it?

    Last question: 3) if you find that your colonies are in the top box (queen laying even in the super to be left on) in late fall, would you consider moving the box down so bees can move up during the winter, instead of already being up there?


    • Tricia,

      1) To keep frames of honey in reserve, I wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, freeze them overnight, thaw them at room temperature until all the condensation has disappeared from the plastic wrap, and then store them some place were they are protected from mice, etc. Never remove the plastic until you are ready to give the frames back to the bees because this prevents infestation by wax moths, beetles, etc.

      2) Winter bees go up instead of down so, yes, move the honey to a spot either directly beside the cluster or above it. Never insert the frames into the cluster itself.

      3) Yes, in the fall you can arrange the boxes so the cluster is low and the honey is high. Just be careful not to split the cluster in two when you do this.

  • Rusty, I have 3 medium supers bees seem fine and its January 25 the supers are so warped that the bees can crawl through the gaps can I take out the frames of honey and put them in a new medium supers?

    • Steve,

      I would pick a day that isn’t too cold—at least above 50 F and above 60 would be better—and work fast. The danger is exposing the brood to the cold. The worker bees can stand some chill but the brood can’t. Alternatively, you could just stuff the gaps with something until it gets warmer.

  • Clean rags and duct tape will work too. It won’t gain you style points for the Garden Society but it will do a lot to shutdown the draft with no risk to cluster/brood in the process.


    Kent WA

  • I have some supers where the most outside frames are empty. When you say to move frames next to the cluster, do you mean just putting a few full frames on either side of the cluster or do you mean putting full frames all the way to the outside edge of the super?

    • Alex,

      It would depend. If I had enough to fill the box, I probably would. Then, as they ate through it, I could move the empties to the outside and the full ones in. But if I was short, I would just put the frames on either side of the cluster. Frames full of stuff, honey or pollen or even brood, have a higher heat capacity than empty frames. A higher heat capacity means your daily temperature doesn’t fluctuate as much.

  • We are new to keeping bees and have some questions.

    We are not sure what the safe temperature is for opening up our hives.

    We just purchased 4 established hives from a person who didn’t have any success with them. He lived in an area that didn’t have much food for them. He said they made some honey, but never enough to get them through the winter. He fed them with front feeders.

    We have had them in their new location (Colorado Mountains) for about a week. There are live bees in all four hives. We opened just the lid and inner cover and added a 2″ spacer and gave them bee candy and pollen patties. We haven’t gone any deeper into the hives.

    Our main concern is what size entrance opening should we have? Right now we have the entrance reduced to the smallest opening and are unsure about ventilation and temperature. This time of year the the temps vary wildly, days can get up in the 70s and nights can still dip below freezing.

    Our other question is when should we go deeper in the hive to assess their condition?

    And lastly, the hives have solid bottom boards that are in bad shape. We have new screened bottom boards to put on them but we are not sure when or how we should do that?

    Thanks for your input, Cyndi

    • Cyndi,

      There are no exact answers to this, but as a general rule you should be quick below 50 degrees. Giving them feed supplements or changing a quilt box etc. is fine, just do it fast. Temperatures above 50 give you a little more time, but I wouldn’t start pulling out brood frames or anything until it’s above 60. Since spring is coming and 70 is warm, I would open the entrance reducer to about four inches so they are not too congested. On one of those 70 degree days you can change bottom boards, inspect the brood, and make any other changes you need to make.

      To get to the bottom board, just take off the boxes one at a time, stack them up turning each one a quarter turn (to minimize squishing) until you get to the bottom. Replace the bottom board, and stack them up in the same order they were in before.

  • I was cutting up a down tree in the woods this winter and I found a honey bee hive in it and it has been below 32 degrees I called a local bee keeper but no return call. I hope to do something but it has been three days. Is there anything I can do at this point. glenn

    • Glenn,

      If the hive is still within a piece of the tree, I would just leave it alone until the weather warms a bit. You may have to protect it from predators though. Lots of things would like to eat the brood and honey.

  • I have two hives where the bees are congregating on the top bars. It was about 46 degrees outside yesterday, Dec 30,2017 in Springfield OR. I have quilt boxes on all hives. I lifted the quilt box off one of the hives to add sugar cakes and a handful of angry bees left the hive. I managed to get the cakes in place quickly and the quilt box back in place but that left a couple dozen bees outside. I slid a sugar cake in the bottom of the other hive along with some candy canes as it has a lot of bees on the top frames and I did not want to have them all fly out. My quilt boxes have screening with cloth over it and then shavings. This way I can lift up a corner and get a peek inside the hive without them being able to get out.

    My questions are should I have smoked them first? and will they be able to use sugar cakes or cane if it is placed in the bottom hive entrance? I do think they may be getting low on food. I also got a flir one pro for christmas and it is fantastic. I can really see where they are.

    • Bonnie,

      Bees at the top of the hive usually have eaten through their food. They move up because that is where it is warm, so they often abandon any honey remaining in the side frames. So feeding is a good idea. Usually some bees slip out when you add feed under the quilt, but that can’t be helped, and it’s better to lose some than to lose all. I wouldn’t worry about the ones that fly out, just try to minimize it.

      The hard candy on the bottom of the hive will probably not be eaten for two reasons. First, the warmest place in the hive is right above the cluster, so they are not going to leave that area to search for food in a cold part of the hive. If they normally did that, they would be able to find the honey that they usually miss. Second, for bees to eat hard candy it has to dissolve first. This happens when warm moist air from the cluster lands on the candy. That warm moist air moves up, not down, so condensation will not dissolve the outer layers of hard candy down at the bottom. It will be of no use to your bees.

      I usually don’t smoke them first in winter because that warms them up, which causes them to leave the cluster. I just have the candy cakes all ready, lift up one corner of the quilt and slide in the candy. Takes about 2 seconds and I lose only a few bees.

  • I have been keeping bees for over 70 years, since I was 15, and have never stopped learning. I find your advice very helpful to the new beekeepers I assist. Great work, keep it up.

  • It’s 4 degrees Celsius here in southern Ontario. On checking my hives I discovered that one was a dead out. They had lots of food. But total number of dead bees was only a few hundred. There was only a few hundred dead bees in total? I put the frames of left over honey into an empty box and added it to one of my other hives. I didn’t see any signs of disease so I’m hoping that they were too underpopulated to get through winter. I’m hoping I did the right thing by adding another box to an existing hive?

    • Sandy,

      What you did is most likely fine. Lots of food but hardly any dead bees sounds like varroa mites. If so, there will be no varroa left in the dead out.

  • Thanks Rusty. Didn’t think of varroa as the problem. I did do an oxalic acid dribble in the fall. But maybe too little too late.

  • I am really bummed. The hive I fed cakes to and changed out the quilt box Dec 30 may be gone. I checked them yesterday (peeked under the quilt fabric) and no bees in sight. There were still sugar cakes present but I could also see frames full of honey which I did not see before. This was a very strong hive going into winter. Anyway I decided to clean out the bottom and there were a lot of “dead” bees. I brought them inside to get a better look and lo and behold after a bit some started moving.
    I put several back into the hive, about 50 degrees outside, and the other two are flying. Thru out the day there have been more waking up. I have about 7 that are still alive this morning. A few had got stuck in the honey I dropped in the container for them and are gone. I guess I will try and put them back and hope that the hive is still alive, although I think probably not. They have not been flying at all like the other two hives.

  • Hello Rusty,

    After following you through my first year of beekeeping I finally have a question !!
    I live in Melbourne, Australia, and its winter over here. While checking my hives yesterday I heard some noise inside like a mouse running around. I was wondering if it’s okay to lift the two brood boxes together off the bottom board to try to get rid of the mouse? The temperature is around 53 fahrenheit lately.

    Thanks for your help.

  • I am new to the beekeeping world and also enjoy and find this website very educational. I live in central Minnesota, has been cold for the last month 0 to 10 degrees f for highs, today we have a warm spell with daytime temps in the high 30’s. I went to check on the hive and found a few dead bees outside. My question is all the dead bees came out of my top vent hole and nothing at the entrance, does that mean that the cluster have moved to the top box? I am debating weather to open box and add a sugar cake.


    • Melvin,

      It doesn’t necessarily mean they are all at the top. The bees will use the entrance that is warmest, and that will be the top one. Warm air rises from the cluster, so given a choice on a cold day, they will select the top. The best way to know for sure without a thermal camera is to just open the lid for a quick peek. Or, just put in a sugar cake proactively. If they start eating it, you will know they are probably high up and looking for food.

  • I’m in Northern MN, zone 3. The bees are not able to take syrup anymore, as the temps are in the low 40’s for daytime highs. Since you don’t put your sugar cakes in till the winter solstice, should I just let them eat their honey till then, or pop in sugar cakes that I have prepared?

    • Sheila,

      You can do either. I don’t add sugar cakes early that contain pollen substitutes, but plain ones would be no problem.

  • Just curious if I move a hive in winter (temps in 20s and 30s) 30 yards will I have to worry about the foragers going back to the original location once the temperature goes up or will they reorient to the new location when it’s warm enough for them to cleanse?

    • Pat,

      It depends on how soon the temperature goes back up. If it’s just a few days, they will return to the original location. If it’s a couple of months, they will reorient to the new location.

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