honey bee management

Overwintering success: zero loss and healthy bees

Flir image hive 4 April

I’m hesitant to report overwintering success until April 15, but with only two days left, I’m elated to be at one hundred percent. There were a few times in mid-winter when I was unsure about two of my colonies, but I trusted my IR camera and left the bees alone.

My main interest in honey bee management is overwintering. It has a lot to do with my local climate, which is nine months of rain followed by three months of drought. Okay, that’s a simplification, but it’s pretty close. The winters near the coast are not terribly cold but, being on the 47th parallel, they are dark, long, and ridiculously wet.

How is beekeeping possible in this climate?

When I first began beekeeping in this area, my question was, “How was it possible to keep honey bees holed up for so long?” The spring and fall are often too wet to fly, and the summers are so dry that nothing blooms. That honey bees can live here at all is amazing. My entire management philosophy is centered on how to get the bees through the long drearies of winter and come out healthy on the other end.

Truth be told, I’ve been fairly successful at this, having had three perfect seasons in the last seven and averaging 80-90 percent success in the others. Unfortunately, I find I have to be more and more vigilant every year. For example, I used to never feed supplemental sugar, but now I have to. I used to treat for mites once a year, now I have to treat twice.

Change comes from many directions

I believe the extra feeding is related to climate change, loss of habitat, alterations in local land use, and tree cutting by the Department of Natural Resources. For sure, it’s not from excess harvesting, because last year I took no honey, and the year before I took very little. I got to thinking about this at breakfast this morning when I pulled a ten-year-old box of comb honey out of the cupboard (still perfect!). Although I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel on honey, I’m grateful that my bees are healthy.

As far as extra varroa treatments, I think the increase is caused not by the number of mites, but by an increase in the virulence of the viruses they carry. On the surface, at least, it appears that the same number of mites can make the bees sicker than they did a few years ago.

An evolving strategy

Although I’ve been successful at overwintering, my strategy has not remained constant nor has the equipment I use. I’m always listening to reader suggestions and trying many of them. I’m very much a hands-off beekeeper, so I try to keep the hives closed for the entire winter. But now with increased mite control, I find I have to disturb them a least once during the period from September 15 through April 15. On the other hand, with modern tools, especially the infrared camera, I know where my bees are and how large the colony is on any given day with no disturbance to them.

Because so many people ask, I’m going to detail the steps I took for overwintering this past season. Remember that all beekeeping is local and your primary issues are likely different from mine. As I stated above, my main issue is rain which means in-hive moisture accumulation, mold, and inability of the bees to fly even on warm days. A large number of my winterization steps are designed to combat in-hive moisture, a problem you may not have. So when designing your own overwintering scheme, be sure your local conditions are front and center in your mind.

Steps I took last year

These are the overwintering preparations I made last year, beginning in August.

  • Last year I knew early that forage was scarce, so I took no honey and began to feed in early August. This was a change because in the past, I never fed bees at all in the summer or fall. It didn’t take a lot of digging in the hives to figure out stores were low. If I can lift a brood box as easily as a shoe box, I know it’s in trouble.
  • Because forage was scarce, I decided to delete half my colonies. It appears that my local landscape can no longer support the 12-15 hives I use to keep here, so I cut the number in half by combining colonies. For a while some of those colonies were huge, stacked up too high to reach comfortably, but in time they winnowed down to a manageable size. As the colonies contracted, I removed the empty boxes.
  • I separated my remaining colonies as much as possible. This reduces robbing and reduces drift between colonies, both of which aid in mite management. I have three permanent hive stands that hold three hives each. By the time I was done rearranging, each of these stands held one colony and some empty hives. The rest of the hives were on individual stands, scattered as far apart as I could manage. I ended up with seven colonies.
  • In mid-August I monitored for mites with a powdered sugar roll and found that all my Langstroths needed treatment but, as usual, my top-bar hive did not. I treated the Langs with HopGuard II. The decision to use HopGuard was based on my rotation schedule. All beekeepers will benefit if mites do not become resistant to the soft treatments we have available. Best practices, as outlined by the EPA, dictate that treatments should be rotated, even oxalic acid. So I rotate.
  • With mite treatment complete, I used the month of September to continue feeding while I prepared moisture quilts and no-cook candy boards. I don’t use either in the top-bar hive, so that meant I only had to prepare six, which was much easier than fourteen.
  • At the end of October, I added an Imirie shim with an upper entrance to each Langstroth, along with a no-cook candy board and a moisture quilt filled with wood chips. The permanent hive stands have rain roofs, but I added rain shelters to the other hives. I added rodent guards to all but the top-bar hive (which, of course, subsequently got mice). All hives were strapped against wind with ratcheting tie-downs.
  • At that point the hives were on their own, except I monitored them every two weeks with the IR camera. When a cluster got too close to the top, I lifted the moisture quilt for a quick peek and added sugar cakes, if necessary. This happened to my two largest colonies because they went through the sugar faster.
  • On the first warm day after the winter solstice, I did an oxalic acid dribble on the Langs. In and out of each hive took about three minutes total.
  • I continued to monitor with the IR camera until now. I was worried about two hives that never moved up into the candy boards, but apparently they had stored enough honey and/or syrup in the fall that they hadn’t needed the candy. The IR images showed the colonies in the middle of their brood boxes and getting larger in the last two months.

So that’s how I got through this past winter and now all seven are flying on warm days. But this year I have a new mission. After reading Thomas Seeley’s article about Darwinian beekeeping (America Bee Journal, March 2017), I have decided to go for it.

My plan for the coming season

Many of Seeley’s recommendations have been part of my beekeeping regimen for years, so there are not too many changes I have to make. I already work only with my own bees and haven’t brought in any bees from the outside in years. At this point, I wouldn’t want to try it. I’ve also spaced my hives, as I mentioned above.

Other suggestions that I already practice are having my hives up off the ground and minimizing hive disturbance. I seldom inspect hives except if I feel the need to split or combine. I use foundationless frames for brood, which produces plenty of drones, and I use follower boards for extra internal insulation. Follower boards are not the perfect answer to in-hive insulation, but I believe they are a step in the right direction and they work well in my climate.

This year I’m cutting all my hives down to single brood boxes to aid in mite management. I know, I know: fewer brood boxes means less honey. Well, I still think it’s worth a try and I’m actually excited to see how it goes. Management will be easier, if nothing else.

One thing I have not done is roughen the interior of the hive walls. They are already thick with propolis and I have never removed it. I live adjacent to a state forest that is managed for Douglas-fir, so propolis has never been in short supply. Those hives with lots of propolis always seem to do well, so early on I learned to live with it. I may try roughing up new boxes, but I don’t want to destroy the propolis layer on the old ones.

Flir images aid overwintering success by showing the size and position of the colony.

This colony stayed low in the hive all winter and didn’t begin moving up until April. The cluster is about twice as large as it was a month ago. The hive to the right is empty. © Rusty Burlew.

Seeley advises minimizing the relocation of hives. I seldom move my hives, although I did combine some colonies, an act which required some to be moved. But as he suggests, I did it when little forage was available, back in late summer. I also heed his final bit of advice and treat only the hives that need it, and re-queen, when necessary, only from my own mite-resistant stock that resides in my top-bar hive.

Responding to circumstances

As I mentioned above, I change my management protocol every year depending on what the bees, and more importantly the mites, throw in my direction. In addition, changes in weather patterns and climate, whether man-made or natural, dictate that we choose practices that fit the current conditions. Bottom line: our beekeeping practices must constantly evolve.

Since every beekeeping situation is different, as is every beekeeper, it is important that you devise a plan that fits your local conditions, your bees, and your beekeeping philosophy. What I’ve outlined here is what is currently working for me, but there are no guarantees that it will work in the future. It is only food for thought.

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  • Congrats, Rusty. And I’m super excited my bees (and I) survived our first winter together. I started with a nuc colony almost exactly a year ago, had a swarm only a month and a half into my beeking, and then summer went along normally. In Sept I bought a fogger and fogged with mineral oil and wintergreen oil every 10 days until about late Nov. I also fed syrup with Honey B Healthy and Mega Bee supplement. They had plenty of reserve food for the winter. I built and installed a quilt box like yours, filled it with cedar chips, and my hive always sits about 2 feet off the ground on a steel patio table just perfect for the hive to fit on. My hive also has a screened bottom board but I kept a mite tray under it to keep out drafts all winter long. I taped up any seams where drafts could get in and used an entrance reducer. Around late Feb I fed a couple small patties of heavy syrup with Mega Bee and Honey B Healthy. And in mid March I did a couple oxalic acid vapes (from UNDER the screened bb). My girls are strong and buzzy bringing in pollen and nectar from the neighboring orchard. I already put on a medium honey super with Q excluder and I installed a slatted rack during an inspection a few weeks ago. I didn’t reverse the boxes but I did scrape off some extra comb along with some drone cells, after which I installed a drone frame. IPM, baby. IPM. So, I’m going to call my first year in beekeeping a success!!!

      • Hi Rusty,

        What type of IR camera do you use? Do you also use a stethoscope as well to listen to the cluster during winter? New beekeeper this year and your forum/blog along with others in the beekeeping community have proven invaluable.

  • Congratulations! Unfortunately I have the entire opposite situation. 100 percent non-survival. Actually, two made it through the winter, one perished early, and the other dwindled till a few weeks ago. (Still not officially making it through the winter). I figured it was queen failure by doing a postmortem. The last living colony had no brood and I was unable to spot a queen during an inspection on a nice March day. Later when checking in on the colony, fully expecting to find a dead out, I found a small cluster of about 20 bees and, popping her head out of the midst of them, the queen. She was a new queen produced from a walkaway split last year that had a very nice brood pattern. Apparently, she was not bred very well as there was no brood this year at all. To be sure, there was an ample amount of bees to support brood rearing in early spring/late winter when I placed the sugar and pollen patties on this hive. I have had smaller clusters make it through the winter before. I have never had this situation happen before. They always teach us new things.

    I have ordered more bees and will continue, revising my overwintering strategies.


    • Ken,

      Whereas sometimes things come together and work for you, sometimes they come together and work against you. I’m glad you ordered new bees.

  • This was my first year wintering a hive. I only have one, but it was successful nonetheless. I had 3 deeps and a full super on going into winter. I left the super on because there wasn’t much stores. I put on a no cook candy board with 10 lbs in it in early Feb, and put 5 lbs of sugar cakes on since. I had no insulation or wrap, in or out, and a moisture quilt box (as per your design). Reached -40F a few days here on the Minnesota/Canadian border and they are thriving! I attribute my success to you and your site. I will be doing a split next month and seeing if I can winter 2 hives next year. I don’t even care about the honey, just hope they make it. Again, thank you for all you do. Take care

    • Margot,

      When I first tried that system, in my mind the board would be flat. When it started to bend, I thought, “Oh no!” Then I realized it was an asset. It reminds me of a quonset hut as well.

  • Hello from London:) Great article, congratulations Rusty.

    I have messaged you a month ago when having drama after I have opened my only one hive to find tiny cluster of bees and no brood or eggs and could not find a queen. Two weeks after I had a look in to hive again and found 2 deep British National frames with brood in different stages. Last few days I observed massive traffic on my hive entrance with young bees orienting:) Beautiful view! I can say today that my hive survived winter and taught me lesson of patience;)

    Thank you for your time to share huge piece of beekeeping knowledge and experience.


    • Lisa,

      No. It was a colony that moved into an empty hive seven years ago. I just never did anything to it, and it’s still there. When I take queens out and place them in other colonies, their offspring does not show much mite resistance. It’s just a mystery.

  • This was our first winter keeping bees. I was terrified whether we’d make it thru winter since I heard the average was 40% loss(!). Took 6 hives into winter, came out with 5. Just going to have to try going into winter stronger this year.

  • Seeing as how our seasons are reversed, I will let you know my percentages in a few months!
    But, congratulations on your A level pass rate.

    There are some keepers of bees out there that will poo-hoo your result and claim you are breeding a line of soft molly coddled bees. They expect winter losses and consider it a necessary “cleansing”of inferior genetics. My own opinion tends to differ somewhat and I believe your methods to be very sound for your environment, indeed, many of your methods I copy for an entirely different hemisphere!

    You bring up many sub topics that could be (and have been) discussed in much further depth. One that struck a chord with me was the well propolised colonies often being the best at overwintering. Over here there is a large swing toward propolis gathering and removal from the hives as a serious revenue gathering product. Most commercial queen breeders have for generations bred away from propolis gathering in excess. Perhaps this is one direction the industry has gotten wrong?

    I for one, will be very interested to read how your single brood box colonies go. Many commercial keepers do so here, especially if looking to increase numbers, but invariably they all use queen excluders between the single FD brood box and any subsequent honey supers. If not using an excluder, I am willing to bet you will geed brood in super frames at peak flow periods?

    I am tempted to try single FD’s next Spring, but perhaps with a half box (shallow super) on top, similar to the British National standard of old.

    • Jeff,

      I will definitely be using excluders. And I will be writing more about propolis in the near future.

  • You should require those who comment to include their location.
    Your present post evidences the importance of local weather conditions.
    Buzzing off,

    • Sorry Debbie, I’m down near the very bottom of the globe, near the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand. Not much stops the weather from Antarctica getting here without losing much intensity.

  • Hi Rusty,
    Well my bees in Ajax Ontario made it through the winter as well. I was really scared that they were going to starve after reading so much about that particular problem. So we had one warm day mid March and I swooped in a filled the top feeder with 1:1 syrup. Yesterday I opened the hive and the bees hadn’t touched the syrup! I’ll be splitting my hive in May and installing my new Flow Hive from Aussie, be able to compare standard against the flow hive. Will keep you posted. By the way, in your opinion, when should I treat for mites?

    • Ken,

      I think it’s a good idea to monitor for mites three or four times a year, and then treat them only if they need it.

  • We were at 100 percent with our two hives as well until 12 days ago! We have one very large hive consisting of a brood super along with 4 additional supers for honey. (This was a thrice split hive in one single season!) We chose to leave the approximate 120 pounds of honey to our bees due to the size, we’re first year bee owners! This hive wintered over wonderfully! Our second hive, it was a single brood super along with a honey super. It did amazing as well until about 12 days ago! We had two warm days in a row. Nearly 80. We didn’t have the spare moment to remove the winter insulation (northern Illinois) from our 2 hives. The small hive, very sadly, suffered. We lost the entire hive! The large hive thrived! We can only suspect that this was our error as the small hive stayed too warm. The hard bee candy melted along with some comb.
    We were lucky to have a quality supplier that had a couple of extra boxes this late in the season and we purchased one. The new bees and queenie seem very content, and it’s only been 5 days with a fully made up hive only needing some repair!

    Thanks for all of the information that you pass along with this blog/page! We truly appreciate all of your knowledge and the time you take for us!

  • Hi, would an oxalic acid dribble be effective and healthy for my bees if used immediately upon receipt and hiving of new packages? There would be no brood and I would like to clean them up before there is. Pls advise, package arrival will be April 22. If there is some reason not to use oxalic acid, would a different treatment be advisable or is arrival time not so good?

    Location: north of Bremerton on Puget Sound.

  • Hi Rusty:
    Yesterday after installing three new packages the new bees were flying around when it suddenly POURED. I wasn’t worried about the queens inside the hives, still in their cages, but worried about the bees flying who may not have had time to figure out returning to the hive yet. Also, I wonder if rain after installation helps reduce absconding since it keeps them in the hive, at least for a while,,,?

    Last Rusty, I do pay attention; I live near Portland OR.

    Thank you!


    • Jerry,

      Suddenly everyone is paying attention! Thanks The rain may help, or maybe they think it’s a terrible place to live because it rains too much. Maybe they’re thinking, “First nice day and we’re outta here!”

  • Hi Rusty,

    Wonderful news about your hives!

    I’m curious where did you overwinter your hives and for how long? I moved our hive here in Anchorage Alaska into a 35 deg dark and heated shed just before the first day of snow 10/20/2016 until 04/06/2017 (5 months 17 days or 168 days) later.

    I had to snow-blow an area then place tarps on the snow drifts in front of the hive this April. I was surprised at the strength of the colony that emerged!

    Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your wealth of information as it has helped me become a better beekeeper way up here.


    • Eric,

      I’m not sure I understand your question. My bees are outside and not locked up or anything like that. They do what they want, when they want.

  • Funny. My climate is a lot like yours. How do you cope with those short days and all the dreariness of winter in western Washington state?

  • I lost 1 Langstroth and what was my strongest top bar hive. o er the winter. 6 other top bar hives made it. Fall/winter feeding saved at least 2 other hives. I am in southern California and my biggest issues have been wax moths and ants. I use “tangle foot” for the ants, but don’t know how to deal with wax moths???? Any suggestions?

    • Dave,

      Wax moths are scavengers that normally invade weak colonies. The best deterrent to wax moths is strong, vigorous colonies.

  • Ha Rusty great article, I live in Poquoson Va and I do the same things u do for winter. I did have 4 loss. I think they froze to death plus starvation they had plenty of stores plus a candy board, the breed was Russian. I have Russian and Italian the Italian did great. it got 16 here and they tried to keep the brood warm and would not cluster I would freeze to if i did that we have mild winters here for the most part so the hives had brood in all of them it would go in 60s and stay there for god time then drop and stay there I do treat for mites Thanks for your work u do a great job. have a wonderful weekend

  • I live about 60 miles north of Houston, Tx. and we had a very usual winter this year. Of course we did, this was my first winter as a Beekeeper. I have 4 colonies, 2 in boxes, 1 in the hollow of a cable spool and 1 in a hollow log. Late September/early October, I was called on to remove bees from a man’s yard. Turns out that they were in a hollow log, which was lying on the ground. He said that they had probably been there for 3-4 months. Being so late in the year, and the fact that they had reportedly been in the hollow log on the ground that long, I decided to try wintering them where they were, instead of transferring them into a box that late in the season, as we were in a dearth. Believe it or not, they wintered just fine, as I had placed a hooded cover over them for protection. All 4 colonies made it through our VERY mild, wet winter, just fine. In mid to late March of this year I checked on everything, and everything was fine with all 4 colonies. I switched the boxes on the 2 boxed colonies & checked on the colony in the log, as well as the other colony. I finally had the time needed, in early April, to transfer the log bees into a box, but they had had enough and left. It had only been one week since I last check them. The colony inside the spool is still there and I have to assume they are doing fine, as I cannot access the inside of the spool. So, I guess one could say that I made it through my first winter with no losses, except for the colony that just up and left. I have placed a deep on top of the spool with some a frame or 2 of drawn comb, along with some frames with bare foundation, trying to coax those bees into the box. There has been some interest in the box shown by those bees. Interest being, they have ventured up into the box and starting to build wax on the bare foundation. Any recommendations on how to get them to completely move into that box would be greatly appreciated.

    • Larry,

      It will be hard to get them to move up there. Most likely they will use that box for honey storage.

  • Apologies for not giving my location before. Guess I am one of those nonpaying readers you are talking about :). We are located in mid east Alabama near the Georgia line. I lost two hives in the fall to absconding, which I think was due to mites spreading DWV. I started with three; two in my backyard and one on our family farm. The one hive that did overwinter well is at the farm. I like to think they have been successful in no small part to the fact that they superseded their original queen and raised their own. I am still learning as this is my first year as a beekeeper. Hopefully, my numbers will be better after this year; especially since I am using swarm traps to increase my numbers. I am fortunate enough to be close to several areas that offer large unpopulated areas where good survivor colony genetics could be located.

    P.S. Rusty, I purchased Seeley’s book “Honeybee Democracy” after reading how highly everyone thought about it. Now he is kind of one of my heroes.

  • Hi Rusty,

    What do you do with all of your full supers if you don’t extract? Struggling with way too many dead outs every winter (NE Indiana) and this year was no different. I need to change my thinking, and watch here constantly for thoughts. 4 new packages arriving this year, and I’m tired of constantly starting over. I’m trying different things this year, but not taking any honey at all on established colonies has me curious how you store the supers still full at seasons end.

    Excellent info and excellent writing!

    • Doud,

      I don’t do anything special. I just stack them up in a criss-cross pattern under a skylight so light can get in all the boxes. Wax moths detest light, so it keeps them out. These are in my garden shed, so I also put mouse traps around the base of the stack. It’s not very techy.

  • (From Tacoma Washington) I have been studying this overwinter article this morning and enjoying how very well-written and intelligent it is. I love your tone of what works for one may not work for another and it may not work another time. I usually over-winter, except for one year when the yellowjackets took us out in the fall. My special weapon is to erect a tent over the hive(s) to combat Pacific Northwest heavy rain. Thank you for your generosity in helping.

  • Congratulations! Great winter for my hives, as well, despite extreme rain and wind. Port Orford, Or. Heads. Farthest west point of farthest town West in the 48. No place to be a Bee! As soon as the summer sunshine arrives, along come the dreadful Northerly winds. Surrounded by nectar, on a good year, the poor bees can not fly. I sometimes see them literally crawling along the clover. But we persist. Thank you for your wonderful site. Always my first go to for any info!

  • Wow…100% is great. Congrats Rusty!!. I’m in Buffalo and this is my second year beekeeping. The 1st year I purchased bees in a Warre hive and bought more to put in a Top Bar hive I had built. Both did not make it thru the winter. I sold the Warre hive and built 4 more top-bar hives.

    I was able to catch 2 swarms last spring. One hive was very strong and the other was smaller and grew at a slow pace. I also like to stay hands off as much as possible so I let the bees do their thing. In Nov I took 10 lbs of dark delicious honey from the big hive only then treated both with oxalic dribble but I’m not a fan of the sugar water so I fed them some of their own honey. I lost my small hive early but the big hive is going strong. So this is my first success at overwintering!!

    I already have 3 bait hives out ready to catch some swarms (fingers crossed). I find most folks use the Langstroth so I have a hard time finding answers on top bar questions (other than books). Now that I know you have a few top bar hives, I hope you don’t mind I send my questions your way.

    I never thought I would love beekeeping this much but they are the most amazing little creatures and I just love watching & learning about them.

    Bee healthy,

  • The idea of keeping 10 to 15 hives with a lot of inputs (feed and medicine) but getting little or no harvest is very discouraging. If you had the option of using almost no inputs and could take a modest harvest would you take it? What if it meant that you would have 25% winter losses and would need to make them up with splits and swarms? I’m just looking for a good balance between my effort, productivity, and enjoyment.

    Catching swarms is fun to me, so I’m going to keep doing that. Making splits and watching them raise a new queen is also fun. Maybe grafting is also fun, I’ll find out soon. That gives me plenty of increase each year to make up for some losses. This winter’s loss was entirely from a bear that cleaned out one of my four hives. At some point I guess I’ll have to figure out how to manage for honey production. My feeling is that managing for honey starts with hitting peak bee populations in a big colony in the last week of April while also preventing swarming. The bear ate the colony I was going to try that with this year.

  • I had one of two hives make it. Wrapped hives in bee cozy. Insulated/ventilated roof. Double deeps. Added winter patties when bees moved up. The hive that lived was always the stronger and more defensive hive.

    Treated with oxalic acid twice. I will attempt to split soon–not sure exactly when is best time.

    On the first line of comments can’t you ask for name/ Zone or location? Thank you for your time and effort.

    • Hi John,

      Yes, that would be the logical solution but I don’t know how to code it. Two different people have offered to code it for me, and then weren’t able to. One of these days I’ll get it fixed.

      • When you scroll to the bottom of the comments, there is the “leave a comment” section, where you fill in your name- email and website details.

        If you add your location after your name it stays there for subsequent replies to this and other comment sections within the blog.

      • If I may. As an elderGeek when I saw “…I don’t know how to code it…” I immediately thought, “That must be a solved problem!” so I took a look under the hood. You’re using the standard WordPress comment functionality which does not allow custom fields like an optional or required location field. Fortunately, the WordPress ecosystem is full of plug-ins that extend comment functionality. So, Let Me Google That For You http://lmgtfy.com/?q=https%3A%2F%2Fwordpress.org%2Fplugins%2Fwp-comment-fields%2F

        And the first search result out of 1.83 milion is https://wordpress.org/plugins/wp-comment-fields/ which should do the job for you without you or anyone else writing a single line of new code. If that one doesn’t suit you, you have 1,829,999 other options to consider.

        Hope this helps,
        Twin Cities, MN
        44.7597698, -93.3119187

        • Don,

          I appreciate the help but I haven’t yet found a comment plugin that looks nice, works with my theme, is kept up to date, does not conflict with another plugin, isn’t too code heavy, works with my php version, and does exactly what I want it to do. I’m still thinking about it.

  • I just went through my first winter in the northern Puget Sound area, so similar conditions to you. My 2 hives made it through the winter and seem to be doing well on the few flying days we have had. I had to feed them early on and although I treated for mites, I think I was late in doing that, so probably some good luck was involved. My question is about roughing up the inside of the hive body. I hadn’t heard of that and wondered what the reason is. I’ve made up some new hive bodies and a nuc in case i do some splits and the new wood doesn’t seem as inviting as the old boxes I started out with. I also wondered about painting the inside of the boxes with wax.

    • Chris,

      Honey bees spread propolis on rough surfaces to make them smooth. Since propolis has antiseptic properties, it is good for colony health. So by roughing up the inside, you are encouraging propolis deposition, which is a benefit to the colony. Wax is fine but it doesn’t deter bacteria the way propolis does.

      • Thanks Rusty, that makes sense. I saved a little propolis from last year so I will try Evert Jan’s tincture idea. I probably don’t have enough for everything, so I’ll rough everything else up. Your website is SO helpful. Thank you for all your help.

  • Dear Rusty,

    Since many years I do my beekeeping in a way resembling the recommendations as proposed by Th. D. Seeley (about Darwinian beekeeping). This to the satisfaction of all concerned. Your practise, never to remove the propolis layer of the hive walls, is a sound one. To promote the buildup of a protective antimicrobial envelope I prepare a mixture of leftover propolis scraps in alcohol 70%. By vigorous shaking, a tincture is produced with which I “paint” the inside of my new (bait-)hives and the area around the entrance. After evaporation of the alcohol, a thin yellow-brown agreeable smelling propolis layer is left behind. This gives an extra attraction to the hive. The bees seem to love it.

    • Evert Jan,

      Thanks for a good idea! It seems like the painting would be easier than roughing up the walls. I will give it a try.

      Note to readers: Evert Jan has a gorgeous bee house. If you haven’t seen it, be sure to take a look.

  • I was interested to read that you use foundationles frames for brood. Last year I used foundationless in every other position, and on a couple of frames they made drone comb from top to bottom. Not sure if this is normal or not, or how to reuse these frames since they seem to put only drones in them.

    • Neil,

      The proportion of drones to workers in natural hives is much greater. In fact, that was why foundation was invented—to keep the number of drones down. If you want to reduce the number of drones, go back to foundation. Otherwise, they are a fact of life. The bees will put either more drones or honey in drone cells, so you can always use them for honey. However, having lots of drones available provides better mating opportunities for queens and a larger gene pool, so it’s not all bad.

  • Hello from Perugia, Italy.

    I also have to report a very successful overwintering with six hives all thriving and into a very warm spring. In fact almost too warm, having reached 27 C degrees last week.

    I wanted to thank you for all your splendid advice, particularly about the continual feeding through March and into April. Normally, I let the bees forage naturally as there is plenty of fruit blossom, flowering forest trees and a huge bank of rosemary that I planted behind the hives. However, I have been feeding granulated sugar during the last two months and it has all been eaten, so obviously they were not getting sufficient for the growing brood. One question though: can sugar encourage bad temper? Not in me, but the bees! I have noticed significantly increased aggression-defensive behaviour, very angry bees following me up to the house from the hives and even arriving at the door two days later and stinging. Maybe it is a result of the unusually warm and sudden change in weather, but just wondered about the sugar.

    PS. I have tried comments before but they fail to appear. maybe a problem with my system.

    • Jasmine,

      No, the sugar is not making them more aggressive. It is most probably the presence of spring brood. When there is no brood, there is nothing to defend. When there is brood, they are like any animal protecting the offspring.

      I searched your email address in the comments section and 8 different messages from you come up. Are you looking under the post where you wrote the message? Have you checked off the box to be notified of comments? I will email a copy of this reply to you, so you know it’s here.

  • Hello Rusty, Southern Gentleman here in NE Alabama on top of Lookout Mountain. I lived near you in Port Orchard, WA for a year from Feb 2012 to Mar 2013. So I know the challenges you and your beekeepers face. While I was there I captured a swarm near the end of March. I brought with me one brood box with deep frames and plenty of my own wax and honey. I put in five deep frames (empty of foundation) and a separator I build for my brooders. I then placed the swarm into the one side with frames and placed a blocker with feeder to keep them inside. Next I used a have half inch deep pan with my wax in the center (about a 4″x4″x4″) and put it in the oven and melted it down then mixed in one half pint of honey and left it to mingle four one hour. Then I took it out and left it out on the counter top. This allows the wax to cool over the honey. Then I placed it in the fridge to harden the honey. While cooling I placed the new hive on four cinder blocks. Now the kicker, I placed them in the loft of our barn near the rear entrance with one door opened about 5″ and secured. Next I got a pizza cutter and cut 1 1/2 ” strips length wise (you don’t have to they the wax just score it) then with a butter knife I released the wax from the edges of the pan. It was a breeze with the none stick. I took out one strip and folded one time in equal lengths with the slightly thickened honey in between. I then removed the blocker and slid in three slim bee bars under the frames the blocked them off for one week while feeding them. When I removed the blocker I had bees coming out of there wide open. They immediately found pollen and worked hard. I continued feeding them for one week then removed the separator and rearranged the frame and added more foundation less frames and added three more bee bars. That was all I had left to do. Shortly after that I added another brooder with foundation frames. 3 weeks later they slit of a swarm which attached to a rafter and pole and I repeated the process. By late summer with green excluder already in place I took one medium supper off each. All frames were loaded with honey. Then I started to winterize the two hives by using aluminium covered styrofoam with aluminium turned to the outside. I cut sides and even one for the underside of the wooded bottom board with the aluminium to the inside us. I used clear packing tape to secure the sides and feed them once a month until February. I used the small reducers all winter. I had no problems with moisture the entire year and i checked twice for mites, none and without treatment. I then got all appropriate approvals for cross country move back to lower Tennessee to my friends until I could get a small farm. I learned all this from my Granny on my dad’s side. She said, ” you don’t listen to all those cuckoos out there”. “What do think wild swarms do, pack a bag of wax an honey when they move?”. I didn’t dare not use her method. It was good logical sense. She said, “of course people lose hive’s over winter, but not me if I can help it!” “That would mean less food on the table for our family!” Needless to say she highly successful and after a many winters she was the only one around for years with a lot of nucs to sale and sale she did.

  • Thank you, Rusty. At last success on the comments. And thank you for emailing direct as well. Glad to know that it wasn’t the sugar that caused all the bad behaviour. I have always feed candy pollen until now but with the very warm weather, the candy melts and traps the bees and so many die as a result. So I have moved to the plain sugar for the first time. It seems a success and solves the melting problem. You do write such a very informative and helpful blog. I am sending a link to my neighbour who has lost two out of three of his hives and doesn’t understand why. I think they have probably starved.

    • Jasmine,

      I’m glad the plain sugar worked for you. I’ve never liked the fondant very much because of the mess, and the bees seem to do fine on either.

  • I started beekeeping last year by purchasing two packages. Two weeks later one of my colonies swarmed, and that’s when I found your site (and have been a follower ever since). My one goal for my first year was to try to get the bees through winter. After losing one colony almost immediately, I ended up losing the second colony in late summer due to robbing by wasps (actually found stolen honey in a nearby wasp nest)! So, I did not overwinter any bees. I was not planning to purchase again this year because we have several other costly farm projects going on, so I’ve been reading up on catching swarms to try to get some free bees. As providence would have it, I got a text from my sister this afternoon with a picture of a swarm that had landed in her pine tree (only 6 feet off the ground). I raced over with my gear and proceeded to gently cut the branch they were on and lower it into my box. It took all of 30 seconds! Excited to see what these wild caught bees will bring.

    • That is so cool, Andrea! I have to agree there is nothing more exciting than catching a swarm. The height of your swarm was remarkable. Mine always land on a limb at least 30 feet in the air.

  • This past year I decided to economize on some of the frames in my beehives and therefore allowed my bees to make their own comb. On some of the frames I used popsicle sticks and some that didn’t have enough frames the bees just filled in with their own combs. They were all full of honey and left through the winter. We live in Iowa and keep bees only for pollination of our produce business. We do not harvest the honey except for maybe 1 or 2 frames out of the 13 hives for ourselves … So here is my question of my 13 hives, 2 very small traditional hives expired, they simply were not large enough for the bees to make it through the winter (I should have combined them ). The other 2 hives that expired were traditional hives with plastic frames. The hives that made it through the winter without a bit of problems were the hives that had made their own comb. Is it possible that bees survive better in their own comb? And is it possible that they produce more honey and store it in a way that is more accessible through their own comb? Is it possible that they can cluster and stay warmer in their own comb versus plastic framed dividers? I did treat all these hives with Apivar in the fall . I realize that these own combed hives are more difficult to move and manage as the comb is fragile and can literally fall apart when you move boxes, but for someone who is more concerned with just keeping them alive through the winter and not harvesting their honey I have wondered if anyone else has documented these same findings?

    • Kathleen,

      These are hard questions to answer. There is some evidence that honey bees do better with naturally-sized combs. The bees tend to be slightly smaller because they decide for themselves how big to make the cells. Bees allowed to build their own comb raise many more drones than those on foundation, which probably reduces the amount of honey stored because there are fewer workers. On the other hand, if you’re not harvesting honey, lots of drones is good for the gene pool of the local population. If it’s working for you, you should keep doing it,

  • Hello Rusty. Thank you for everything you do here!

    I have almost made it through my first year anniversary of beekeeping. I have 2 hives. I bought a package and installed it 4/26/16. It is doing well. The second hive was my stronger of the two was a nucleus hive bought and installed on 6/13/16. This hive has an issue. More on that later. I also tried to make a split with the first hive early in July and purchased a queen for that split. That split built up nicely in a 2 story 4 frame nuc box.

    All of my hives I fed early on with sugar syrup to help draw out comb. I started feeding again in late August since our area was under drought conditions. I fed sugar syrup through October. I did not take any honey off the hives. Going into the winter I believe my first hive had over 80 lbs of stored honey and the other had over 100 lbs. The nuc box had only about 40 lbs.

    My two main hives are double deep 10 frame hives with screened bottom boards with vertical slatted racks on top of that. They both have inner covers and insulated, ventilated ultimate hive covers on top.

    In late October I installed mouse guards, sealed the back of the bottom board with duct tape and wrapped all seams in duct tape. I cut pieces of hard foam insulation to use on the north and west sides of the hives. Hives face east. Then wrapped everything with black tar paper. Southern and eastern sides are exposed to the sun. I made hard no-cook candy boards out of shims (with an escape hole) and put them on top with a quilt board filled with wood chips above. I also reduced the entrances. I did not open the 2 main hives until 4/9/17 as weather permitted. I did not on any warm day over 55 degrees the bees were able to take cleansing flights throughout the winter. The nucleus hive I lost to starvation sometime in December as evidenced by bees face first in the cells. Stored honey on the second level was still there. I guess they could not move up. I am sorry to lose them, but I knew it would be a learning experience and at the very least I have some frames of drawn comb.

    I did my first complete inspection of every frame 4/10/17. Like I said one hive is doing well. The other is having the problem. It is still packed with honey and pollen and bees. However, I saw no sign of queen activity. No eggs, larvae or sealed brood. I borrowed a frame of eggs from the other hive notched both sides and installed it in the hopes they would start a new queen. I worry it may be too early and that she may not be able to mate due to drones not being available. I checked 5 days later 4/15/17 and found one queen cell. I will keep my fingers crossed. I did add a 3rd deep box with some drawn comb to this hive in case the queen was honey bound and had no room to lay eggs.

    That concludes a summary of my first year of bee keeping. I read as much as I can and consult with other local beekeepers. I am trying to do what is best for my bees and I hope to expand to 3 main hives and 5 nucs going into next winter. I also hope to get some honey this year.

    Thank you again for making this blog available to all and for your knowledgeable contributions. I know it has helped me in my first year!


    • Mark,

      It may simply be a case of queen failure. Some queens, for whatever reason, just don’t make it. I think it helps to raise your own queens that are locally adapted. It doesn’t always work, but I have better luck with the ones I raised than the ones I purchased.

  • I am new to bee keeping. Our temperatures are fluctuating between 75 and 38 degrees. Is there a low end temperature it would be advised not to use an entry feeder?

    • Bonnie,

      If the syrup warms up during the day, it should be fine. If the syrup gets too cold, below about 50, the bees won’t drink it.

      • Rusty, I just got my packaged bees w/queen last weekend (4/21) and it’s been pretty darned wet in the Willamette Valley lately. I’m concerned with temps and food for the bees, more so because they’re just getting started with fresh new frames, etc.

        Is sugar water enough to keep them until the sun returns in a few days? I noticed that the sugar water isn’t being consumed as much as I thought it would, but it’s also not been particularly warm either. Low 50s right now.

        • Bob,

          Bees won’t drink syrup that is 50 degrees or less because they get chilled from it. Syrup is enough to keep them alive, but it has to be close enough and warm enough to drink. So two questions: Is it close enough that the bees don’t have to break out of their cluster to reach it? And is the syrup greater than 50 degrees? If not, I would lay a piece of paper over the frames and pour some granulated sugar on it. Don’t cover the frames entirely because they need access, but cover about half the area and add the sugar. You can spritz it with some warm water to dissolve it a bit.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I live on the Olympic Peninsula (Hood Canal, about 250′ above sea level) and it seems like a late spring here. Many typical early flowers (i.e. crocus) did not materialize and I suspect the long sub-freezing temps we saw in December took their toll on those bulbs. Alders & maples are leafing out now, and the cherries, peaches, and early rhodies we have are blooming. And thankfully the dandelions are entering full swing. Curious how your area looks now.

    My main question I didn’t seem to find an answer to is when, or better *how* to determine to when place a honey super atop my 2-deep Lang? I have a boomer of a hive, strong overwinter (OA in late Dec.) and am thinking it might not be too early given the DL and fruit tree flow. I read your other how-tos that discuss managing supers, but this part eluded me. Any thoughts or direction?


    • Aaron,

      Our spring has been exceptionally late and terribly wet. The maples and alders are just getting started, as are the dandelions and salmonberries. Last week I saw the first sign of white wax, a couple of strips along the top bars of one brood box. White wax is a sure sign of a nectar flow, so I added honey supers right away.

      I think your honey supers should go on now if you haven’t already done it. A few days early certainly won’t hurt anything.

  • Jeff is correct about the ” location problem”. If everyone places their location next to their name in the “leave a comment” section , it will remain there forever. Problem solved with no coding or plugin needed.

    Now we all need to just do it!

  • This is a terrific thread! I’ve lost two hives (in two seasons) and will try to get a hive through the winter for the third time. I thought I had most of my mistakes from the first hive covered last fall but my 2nd hive died because I think they got cold and their honey was too far away from the brood box. I didn’t insulate or wrap and also I didn’t change to a solid bottom board. Temps got down to the high teens/low 20’s for a number of days, too.

    Reading through this thread, I can see I can to a lot more to help the bees get through one of these Willamette Valley winters.


  • Hi Rusty, I am very new newbee, having received my 1st bees last week. I have taken the beekeeping course offered by the Lewis County Beekeeping Assoc. at Centralia College and am a member of that group. I spend a lot of time watching You Tube videos and as many blogs as I can find. How most of the authors/narrators don’t mention where they are located. I believe all locations have unique conditions. I also believe you live in Western Washington as I do. I live near Grand Mound. Would you be so kind as to mention your location? I believe all beekeepers have something to offer a newbee. However, I want to get as much local bee information as I can. Thanks so much, Russ

  • Here we are in October….. rain, low 50’s. Eugene, OR.
    Top bar hives. I had end entrances, but changed to near end but on side. I’m not a fan!

    I’m probably going to change back to end entrance…. I like the comb as a wind/cold block.

  • Do you have advice for hobbyists with too much overwintering success? I have been beekeeping for 10 years and I have had a 96% overwintering success rate for the past 6 years. I attribute my success to reading and following knowledgeable advice — such as the information I find on Honey Bee Suite. I want to have 5 colonies but each spring, my colonies double when I split them to prevent swarming. Over the years, I have given colonies to friends, sold nucs, traded colonies for free-range chickens, and recently considered selling queens, but all these options create work for me. Would you have any suggestions on how a hobbyist can maintain a steady number of colonies — without resorting to killing healthy queens?

    • It depends on where you are. If you’re not in a populated area, you could just let them swarm.