Overwintering honey bees: a guide to the fundamentals

A quick winter hive check can be as simple as just walking by and looking for anything unusual.

Honey bees are masters at overwintering. But for the most part, our modern-day honey bees find themselves living in manmade structures that are not like the homes they would have built for themselves. To compensate for the difference, a beekeeper often has to tweak the hives to prepare the bees for long periods of confinement.

And since all beekeeping is local, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for preparing. A South Carolina winter is not like a Minnesota winter, and an eastern Washington winter is not like a western Washington winter. To develop a successful overwintering strategy, each beekeeper must evaluate his own microclimate, which dictates things like precipitation, humidity, temperatures, wind, and hours of sunlight.

But your microclimate is just one parameter. You also need to consider your colony strength, the prevalence and type of wintertime pests, and the type of hive you are using.

Wintertime monitoring

In my own operation, winter prep begins in August and ends in October. However, even after all the steps are taken, I monitor constantly until spring is well established. I check my hives weekly during the winter. Usually, I just walk by, flick the dead bees off the landing boards, remove fallen branches or limbs, and listen for the murmur of bees. At other times I examine the debris on a varroa tray or look in the snow surrounding a hive. Clues are everywhere.

If I become concerned, I may check with an infrared camera to see where the cluster is. If the bees are tucked low in the hive, I move on to the next. But if the cluster is up high, I may open the hive and check for food stores.

Surprising as it is to me, I have saved a number of my winter colonies just by looking around. One year I discovered a dead queen on a landing board and was able to combine the colony with another. One year, I discovered headless bees with hollow thoraxes in front of the hive, a sign of shrews. When I discovered mouse droppings on a varroa tray, I was able to trap the mice. And many times I’ve found bees separated from their food supply and was able to save a colony simply by moving frames around.

The biggest beekeeping mistake

It’s easy to make wintertime mistakes because we are more removed from our bees than we are in the summer. However, I believe the biggest mistake is inaction.

The most common story I hear goes something like this: “I think my bees are starving, but it’s too cold to open the hive.” Similarly, “I think my bees are out of food, but I can’t add more because it won’t stop raining.”

Honestly, I don’t understand the reasoning here. If your bees are starving, they will soon die. Period. End of colony. If you open your hive and quickly add some food, you may lose some bees to cold and rain, but chances are you won’t lose many and the colony will live to make up the loss.

A plan for overwintering success

I have combined colonies at 20 degrees F. I have added mouse traps in the 30s. And I’ve fed bees in the rain, wind, snow, and dark. Is it ideal? No. Can it be done successfully? Of course.

Whenever I have to deal with bees in less-than-perfect conditions, I first write a plan. What must I do? In what order will I do it? What equipment do I need? If I know the answers to these questions and prepare my equipment in advance, I can often be in and out of a hive in less than a minute. But even if it takes longer, you are better off than the beekeeper who does nothing because of the weather.

Suggestions for wintertime preparations

Even though it is possible to correct problems in winter, it is best to avoid those situations if you can. Below I have listed some things beekeepers can do to prepare for winter. The ones you choose should be based on your particular conditions and hive type. No one needs to do all of them, and you may do some I haven’t listed. I find that my preparations vary even within my own apiary. My top-bar hive gets different treatment than my Langstroths, and my hillside hives are a little different than those closer to buildings.

My wintertime time prep starts with a notebook. After my honey supers are off, I go around to each hive and make a simple sketch of what is there. I put one hive on a page and record just what I see. If any extra equipment is near the hive, I mention that too. That small sketch reminds me of what I need to do before winter. Looking at the sketch, I make my list.

A simple example

So, for example, hive #4 has a screened bottom board with no varroa drawer, a slatted rack, one deep brood box, one medium super, a screened inner cover, and a lid. It also has a robbing screen.

Below the drawing, I make a list of what needs to be done. Here’s a hypothetical example:

Checklist for Hive #4


  • Test for varroa: (record results here)
  • Treat if necessary
  • Cut back weeds under hive


  • Remove robbing screen
  • Remove screened inner cover
  • Estimate honey stores (record estimate here)
  • Add mouse guard


  • Arrange honey frames so they surround brood nest
  • Add quilt box
  • Add tie-down

Other Notes:

  • Bottom board is beginning to split—order a new one
  • tie-down ratchet needs oil

If paper is not your thing, you can use software programs and add photographs. How you motivate yourself to do wintertime prep is not important as long as you do it.

The guide to overwintering honey bees

Below are some ideas for winter preparations divided into potential problems. Pick out the ones that apply to you and add those I missed.

Colony Health

  • Check for colony size and combine small ones. Come spring, it is better to have one live colony than two dead ones.
  • Check for a laying queen. Most likely, you will see at least some brood in your hive. If you don’t, try to find your queen to make sure she’s alive and healthy. If you can’t find her and see no sign of her, order a queen or combine.
  • Do a mite count.

Hive configuration

  • Remove empty bee boxes. Make the space inside the hive commensurate with the size of the colony. If necessary, reduce the hive volume with follower boards, especially in a top-bar hive. Proper interior size is less drafty and less likely to harbor intruders.
  • Remove queen excluders so the cluster can move freely within the hive.
  • Reduce hive entrances if you haven’t already. It’s time for mice, shrews, and other small creatures to find a snug and warm overwintering place—one filled with honey is especially attractive.
  • Consider using a mouse guard over the entrance, such as #4 hardware cloth.
  • All ventilation ports should be covered with smaller screening (#8 is good) to keep out other freeloaders, including large spiders.
  • Put a slatted rack in your hive if you don’t already have one. The slatted rack adds space between the bottom of the cluster and the drafty hive opening.

The food supply for overwintering honey bees

  • Check for honey stores. If your hives are too light, it’s time to pull out that reserved honey you saved just for them. If you don’t have honey in reserve, you will need to feed sugar syrup.
  • Once the temperature of the syrup (not the air) falls to around 50 degrees F, you need to feed hard sugar instead. You can use a mountain camp feeder, a bag of granulated sugar in an eke, or a no-cook candy board.
  • Candy boards can be made with or without a pollen substitute. However, don’t give a pollen substitute too early in the winter. Pollen given too soon can result in a large population without adequate food stores. However, if early spring rain prevents your bees from foraging, a pollen boost in January or February can help your bees build up for the nectar flows.
  • Assure that the honey frames are in the right place. That is, they should be on both sides of the cluster and above it in a Langstroth hive. Move frames around if necessary. In a top-bar hive, put the cluster at one end of the hive and put the honey frames next to the cluster on the other side. This way, the colony can move laterally in one direction to find food.
  • As an option, you can place a wintergreen grease patty in each hive. I no longer do this because a grease patty won’t control a mite infestation. However, some beekeepers believe the patties can slow the increase of mites during the winter months.

Outside the hive

Grass in front of hive
Vegetation makes it easy for unwanted creatures to climb into the hive. Pixabay photo.
  • Remove weedy vegetation from the base of the hive. Vegetation is a convenient hiding place for creatures who may want to move into the hive and it can be used like an entrance ramp or stepladder. Also, vegetation can hold moisture and cause mold to grow on hive stands and brood boxes.
  • Remove overhanging branches or dead limbs that might fall during a winter storm and damage the hive.

Insulation requires wintertime monitoring

  • Use an inner cover under your outer cover for greater insulation.
  • Some people like to use a moisture board, tucked into the lid.
  • Moisture quilts can provide insulation and remove excess moisture at the same time.
  • Winter wraps are fine, but check regularly for good airflow through the hive.


  • Make sure your lids keep out the rain. Make any needed repairs.
  • Consider adding a rain shelter over your hive.
  • Ventilation holes in upper structures can be drilled at an angle so rain drips to the outside instead of to the inside.

Internal moisture

  • If wintertime moisture is a problem in your hives, add a moisture quilt above the brood boxes.


  • Provide ventilation for your hives: air must be able to come in through the bottom and out through the top. Ventilation is a give-and-take. Yes, you lose some warm air, but moderate ventilation helps air quality, reduces air-born pathogen counts, reduces carbon dioxide build-up, lessens the chance of mold and mildew, and keeps the interior dry.
  • If your temperatures are not extreme, consider using a screened bottom board all winter long.
  • Depending on your local climate, consider giving your bees a small upper entrance. Moist air can escape from the opening, and the bees can take cleansing flights on warmer days, without having to travel down through the cold hive to the entrance, and then repeat the trip back up through the cold hive. Warm bees can go out and back quickly, and a steady stream of warm air from the cluster leaves through the opening, preventing cold air from coming into it.
  • Consider using a ventilated inner cover and/or a ventilated gabled roof to keep the hive dry inside.


Snow at hive entrance
A heavy stone can help hold the lid in place. An upper entrance is helpful if the lower one gets covered in snow. Pixabay photo.
  • You may consider adding a skirt around the base of your hive to reduce drafts. Although you want adequate ventilation, you don’t want a wind tunnel.
  • Secure your lids with heavy stones or tie-downs.
  • You may want to shield upper ventilation holes from side winds.
  • Consider providing a windbreak, such as bales of straw.

Extreme cold

  • If extreme cold is a problem, consider wrapping your hives with insulation or tar paper . . . but don’t forget the ventilation. Improperly wrapped hives can get soggy from the inside out. Remember, your bees need a source of clean, fresh air.
  • Consider using a skirt, as for high winds.


  • If winter flooding is a problem, move the hives to higher ground now while the weather is still dry.

The rest is up to your bees

Once you’ve done what you can, the rest is up to the bees. You should relax, catch up with your wintertime reading, and let the bees get on with it. You hear all kinds of scary statistics about winter losses, but if you prepare in a way that is appropriate for your local conditions, and you do it on time, you can overwinter your bees with excellent results.

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  • Do you have any recommendations for preparing a top bar hive for winter other than what is mentioned above?

    • Irwin,

      Not really. My top-bar hive overwinters the easiest of any of my hives. They’re going into their eighth winter, which is much longer than any of my other colonies have survived. I put in a solid bottom board, close the lower entrance except for a one-inch hole, and leave their upper entrance in place. I move the colony to one end so it moves in one direction only. Last year I caught a bunch of mice in there, but the colony did fine anyway. I have space under the roof for candy cakes in case their food runs short. But really nothing special.

  • And here in the upper Midwest, we leave one opening so that the bees can take cleansing flights on those rare days when it’s warm enough. October through April is a long time to hold it.

    Besides, those brown stains in the snow tell you the colony is still alive.

  • Excellent post! Thank you. Can you define “extreme” winters? I know everyone has swings of lows that dip well below “normal” winter temps-but in general, what is extreme?

    Also, I need to add an upper entrance, do I just drill a hole and cover with screen?


    • Jenny,

      Hmm. Judgement call. To me, extreme is -40°.

      If you want an upper entrance, you drill a hole and do not cover it with screen.

  • To quote Rusty Burlew “And since all beekeeping is local.”

    I suggest that you insist that readers submit comments or questions first stating the locale where the hive is located and its USDA climate zone.

    • Charles,

      If I had a dime for every time I made that request during the last 8 years, I would be one rich beekeeper.

  • I have one weak hive (3 frames of bees in a single 10 frame box) that I was thinking of wintering over a strong 2 box colony. It would go from bottom up- bottom board, slatted rack, double deep colony, double screen, single weak colony, insulated /ventilated cover. All wrapped with bee cozy. Both would have honey stores and add winter patties as needed. Any problems with this? Thank you.

    • John,

      That’s exactly how I would arrange it. I assume the strong colony can come and go through the lower entrance. Does your double screen provide an entrance? Most do, but some don’t.

      • Rusty & All,

        Do you leave all 10 frames in the lower brood boxes when wintering, or, remove several so they have a place to cluster? I left all mine in, with extra frames in an eke above so they’d have plenty of food; did I screw up or will they cluster between frames? Thanks! Gary Thomas Northern Ohio

        • Gary,

          You should leave all ten frames in. Always review in your mind what would happen in nature: No one would take out the middle combs. AS spring approaches, the queen will lay eggs in that central area, and the workers will keep the brood warm by pressing the abdomens against the combs. The entire winter cluster is designed to work within the parallel comb structure.

    • I have been wondering if my smaller colonies (late splits) do not get up to par before winter what to do. This helps!

      It may be a silly question, but I’m thinking my no-cook candy boards should not be solid candy so the heat from the strong hive to reach the weaker one above. I plan on adding them mid to late December. Last year 8 lbs sugar lasted each hive into February, which was nice.

      Having the candy in the middle and the perimeter open seems like it would do better for the bees below for reaching the candy from wherever they are clustered. Would a couple inches of open space around perimeter allow enough heat to reach and help the hive above?

      Thanks from SW Ohio.

  • Here in Vermont we can get some extreme weather, sometimes -20. I have discovered a product sold by Loon Apiary in central NY State. This is an L shaped plastic vent that allows moisture out, due to the turned down L, but helps keep heat in. The bees can also go in and out through this vent. Works for me. Check out the Loon Apiary web site. (I am not affiliated what so ever to Loon, I just like the product).

  • Wonderful post, thank you!

    We’re attempting to overwinter a single 5 frame nuc – would you recommend locating the honey frames on one side of the cluster (as with the top bar hive), or one frame of honey on each side? Likely we’ll need to feed them sugar at some point.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.


    • Sarah,

      Since a five-frame nuc is not very big, I would put the honey frames on each side because they will provide a bit of extra insulation.

  • Rusty,

    I have a hive with a laying worker(s?). I have heard two different approaches and would love for you to share your thoughts.

    1. Combine this queen-less hive with a queen-rite hive with newspaper in-between. They will chew through the paper and become one, no problem!

    2. Add a mated queen to the queen-less hive, wait a few days….then take ALL frames out of the hive and shake all bees off the frames onto a sheet at least 100 yards from the hive’s location; remove the drone brood frames (feed the brood to the chickens I suppose), release the queen from her cage, start feeding, and hope for the best. I guess the idea is that some of the bees will make their way back to the hive but not the laying workers.
    Does either approach sound like it would work or shall I just let nature takes it’s course?

    -thanks for sharing your wisdom so kindly, Mary

  • Come on y’all! Give enough information about the locale of the hives so that readers can figure out the climate. So for example, USD zone, state and area, even the town; don’t be afraid of hive robbers. Otherwise, the sharing of experience at best is meaningless and at worst misleading.

    When I lived in Vermillion, South Dakota, we didn’t have extreme winters, just typical winters. I do remember one somewhat unusual winter though. It didn’t get above freezing for a stretch of six weeks and there was no snow whatsoever for almost the entire winter. Just blue sky and sunshine! But only during the day, so it wasn’t extreme.

    Now I am in Auckland, New Zealand. An extreme winter is one in which it rains every day, for much of the day, for stretches of a couple of weeks rather than almost every day. And night. And all winter. We get two or three light frosts a year. We did get a really good hail storm this year for the first time. The local beekeepers do talk about preparing hives for the winter to keep the bees warm.

    Rusty, how about setting up the blog programme so that locale shows up at the beginning of a post automatically, together with the name of the poster?

    Am I ever happy I caught the Spoonerism!

    • Charles,

      Last year I hired someone to re-code the comment form and include “location.” The result? The whole site crashed. If I could find someone to do it, I would.

        • Charles, if you can convince everyone to do it, get them to add their location after their name in the box provided at the bottom of this page where you leave a comment and it will appear like mine does. As you can see I am at the other end of the best country in the world.

          • Jeff: “I am at the other end of the best country in the world.” (New Zealand)

            My wife’s family came to NZ after the War from England. Devastation, terrible winters after the War, a smashed economy; there was still food rationing. They had a choice from among Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay Canada (at the end of the Great Lakes), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and New Zealand. They went to NZ, to Waiouru. Directions- go to the end of the earth, turn left. His ticket into NZ was to join the NZ Army. They loved it. Everything that they left England for was not in NZ. By far they outlived all their siblings who stayed in England. As for me, I was born in Poland after the War and my parents were the sole survivours of their families.

  • Yes my double screen has entrances, and so does the insulated cover.

    Everyone who comments can add their LOCATION/ZONE where their name goes (on the first line of a comment). No need to re-code anything. It remains on every time you comment.

  • Mouse Guard Questions:
    1. when do I put them on?
    2. when do I take them off?
    3. they knock pollen off legs of the bees, this cant be good, is there a style that doesn’t knock pollen off?
    4. will the small opening of a entrance reducer stop the mice from coming in
    thank you

    • Mark,

      It all depends on where you live and how bad the mice are.

      1. Put them on before the mice move in.
      2. Take them off when the weather warms in spring and mice would naturally move outside.
      3. You can try #4 hardware cloth.
      4. Depends on the species, but small mice can get through an entrance reducer. Their bones and joints are flexible, unlike ours.

  • It worked!

    Rusty, have “town and state” show up on the name field and be replaced by a real entry. This should be reasonably easy. Even this is not replaced, it would be OK.

    Can you send back posts and ask for resubmission with town and state?

  • It is the middle of October and I have a honey super full of honey on my hive. Should I remove it? Harvest some honey from it? Leave it alone? This hive is new this year and the bees have outperformed themselves. The population is still strong but I wold love to harvest some of that honey.

    • Buddy,

      You need to go through your hive and estimate the amount of honey in there. You don’t say where you are, but if you have a cold winter, the bees may need 80 or 90 pounds.

  • Rusty.

    I’m sorry. I hit the send button by mistake long before I was finished with the post and question. Please let me start over.

    I live just outside of Louisville KY. I started a new colony of bees in May and fed them religiously through the summer. They did wonderfully. I had not added a small honey super but the hive had a load of honey by the time I quit feeding them to go on vacation for a month. I left August 9 and before I did I added a honey super just to see what would happen. I knew the bees had enough stored on their own to make it until I returned after Labor Day.

    Two weeks after I returned I inspected the hive and the honey super was almost full of capped honey. That was mid September. I need to treat for mites but this hive is healthy and still out foraging as of today October 14.

    I was thinking of stealing a few frames of capped honey form the honey super and replacing them with blank frames since the bees are still so active. We won’t see a killing frost here until about November 10 or so.

    Thanks for your consideration and advice.

    Buddy Irwin.

    • Buddy,

      Yes, you can certainly replace full frames with empty ones in your super. The best result will be to replace a couple near the middle.

      You mention mites. If your mite count indicates you need to treat, don’t put that off too long. If you decide to treat, use one of the treatments that allows you to leave the honey supers in place. Otherwise, remove the super and treat. But only treat if necessary.

  • This is for Buddy Irwin. I’m outside Louisville KY and I’m new to beekeeping also. It would be nice to have someone close to work together with. I’m on Facebook Dave Handsbury my profile pic is a bee and the other has my wife and I in a wedding pose. Thank you

  • Rusty,

    I’m in Western North Carolina and I made a huge and costly mistake with my mite treatment. I treated much later this year than in previous years (I won’t go into detail) and it really took a toll on my hives. They are all fairly weak, although I do believe they are strong enough to make it through the winter. I have combined some hives, but others I believe will be ok. Most all of the hives are down to one single deep box, with the second deep box being only empty drawn comb now. My question is, should I just remove the empty drawn comb box and leave them in one deep with food on either side of the small amount of brood that’s in there? I don’t want to give them too much space, but I have always heard that bees prefer to “move up” in a Langstroth hive as winter gets closer to spring. I assume they will move lateral as in a top bar hive if they have no stores above? Temps are still in the 60’s and low 70’s during the day and at night in the 40’s with an occasional mid 30’s night.

    • Brandie,

      You have it right. The bees move up as they eat their way through the honey stores. If there is nothing there, they won’t go up. Empty boxes should always be removed because they provide housing opportunities for wax moth, hive beetles, mice or whatever. If your bees are short on food, however, you may consider supplying a candy board or sugar cakes.

  • Rusty,

    Thank you so much for your response! Your website is incredibly helpful. It answers most all of my questions and even the questions I didn’t know I had.

    Thanks again!

  • Hi Rusty,

    I was cleaning out dead bees from the screened bottom boards on my hives today and I noticed something strange in one of my hives. There were (2) 2-inch-long icicles hanging from the bottom of one of the slats, on the slatted rack. The icicles were about half the size of a baby finger.

    I am thinking that the icicles are probably directly under the cluster right now. All my hives have slatted racks, screened bottom boards (that are currently closed), and the no-cook candy board (made exactly to your design).

    They are wrapped in the black Bee Cozies, and have a Bee Dry Lid Insulation (has silica beads in it) and then a Bee Cozy Inner Cover insulation on top of that (under the outer cover). I am on the East Coast of Canada, so temperatures get fairly cool (currently around -10 Celsius daytime temp, -20 Celsius night time temp).

    Would that be normal for water to be dripping below the cluster? Is it something that should concern me and what could I do to fix it? Is it possible that water could be dripping all the way from the inner cover down to the slatted racks (it is a double deep hive)? I figured with a no cook candy board and a top entrance, humidity shouldn’t be a problem. Thanks for any advice in advance! Have a great day!

    • Nate,

      I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday, but this is a tough one. As you say, it seems like the candy board should absorb some water, and the silica beads should absorb some, and some of the warm moist air should leave through the upper entrance. So where is the water coming from? What is it condensing on?

      Warm moisture-laden air, most probably from the cluster, is condensing on a cold surface somewhere, right? Is it possible that the cluster is casting off enough warm air that some of it is condensing directly on the cold slats of the rack, and running down directly from there and freezing? Most of the warm, moist air will go straight up, but if the colony is large enough there were will be an envelope of warm air around it. The slatted rack will be very cold because its close to the bottom entrance, so is that possible?

      I’m going to see if I can get an opinion from Phillip in Newfoundland.

      • Rusty,

        Thanks for the info! I think you may have figured it out. The hive that had the icicles, it’s cluster is currently right above the slatted rack (in the bottom box). The reason I know this is because while I was cleaning out dead bees, this hive was the only one that sent guard bees down to the screened bottom board to see what I was doing. The second they touched that screened bottom board, they started going into “sleepy cold mode” (walking slow and sorta acting stupid). 2 even flew out of the hive to see what I was doing (unfortunately, they only made it 10 feet and dropped out of the sky on to the snow because it was -10 Celsius out). Also, once these guard bees came down to check things out, I could hear the buzz of the cluster clearly through the front lower entrance (normally, I can’t hear the cluster unless I use a stethoscope pressed between the Bee Cozy & the hive body).

        I was freaked out all night long, worrying that my girls were getting rained on from humidity. But I do truly think what you are saying makes total sense. The slatted rack would definitely be cold because super cold air is coming in from the front entrance. Even some of the dead bees (on the screened bottom board) were frozen together in little ice patties. That theory makes more sense, than water dripping all the way from the top of the hive, down to the slatted rack. Plus, it is like I said, I have several things in place to deal with humidity. My mentor doesn’t even do half the things I do. But I would rather be safe, than sorry. I am still amazed that bees can survive our harsh winters. Soon the nighttime temperature will be -35 Celsius for a good month straight. Here in New Brunswick, we have one of the lowest overwintering loss averages in all of Canada (and we have the some of the coldest temperatures). NB beekeepers have only lost an average of 15% of their hives over the last couple Winters. In spots like Vancouver, where their temperatures are much milder, they lost almost 30% to overwintering. It almost doesn’t make sense to me how bees seem to be surviving better in extreme cold weather than mild, wet weather. They are amazing little creatures that surprise me every day! Thanks again for all your help! You are truly a Master Beekeeper! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  • Nate,

    A friend of mine had to give up on the Bee Cozy wraps because, unless they were perfectly tight, he said they held in moisture and caused all kinds of problems. Extra moisture in and outside the hive with a cold wind blowing through the bottom entrance might explain the ice. Maybe?

    He switched to wrapping his hives with black plastic, the kind movers use for wrapping pallets, extremely tight, with no insulative wrap.

    I don’t use slated racks, just solid bottom boards, and supers that don’t always have the greatest seal between them. I often find ice on my bottom boards below the cluster, but I also use moisture quilts, so I don’t worry about it. Moisture quilts are magic.

    I’m not sure if any of this is helpful, but it might give you some ideas.

    • Phillip,

      Thanks for the information! Definitely some helpful stuff from someone that is a little closer to my climate. I have heard mixed review on Bee Cozies too. A commercial beekeeper I know (from Nova Scotia) uses them and swears by them. But he did tell me that you have to be careful not to puncture them, put them on so they fit snug, and leave a “chimney” at the front. My mentor (who just lives across the river) only uses tar paper and a piece of white styrofoam under his outer cover. But his results are hit or miss. Some years, his bees do great and other years, he has lost over 50%. The black plastic for wrapping pallets might be something interesting to try for sure. I might also give a moisture quilt a try.

      I was also checking out your website. Pretty cool! I can’t even imagine what beekeeping must be like on “The Rock”, with all the wind, fog, rain, & snow. I live around 100kms inland from the coast of NB. So we are protected from a lot of the more violent weather seen along the coast. It is usually either really hot (and humid) or really cold (and dry). That is awesome that you guys don’t have to deal with Varroa. Do you have the small hive beetle in Newfoundland? We have never had it NB until this year (it was brought in with some commercial hives from Ontario). But I think the government (and the NB Beekeeper’s Association) got on top of it quickly enough and eliminated it before it spread. Thanks again for the info! Good hearing from a fellow beekeeper on the East Coast of Canada.

  • Nate,

    Compared to inland New Brunswick, where I live in Newfoundland (where I can see the ocean from my house — and I don’t say that as a good thing), the winters are always wet and occasionally -20°C / -4°F, not as consistently cold and dry as NB. For me, Bee Cozies are overkill, and with all the moisture in my location, they’re dangerous too. I’ve used black roofing felt to wrap my hives, but these days, other than painting my hives dark green for heat and keeping them well sheltered, all I do for the winter is add a moisture quilt and quarter-inch mesh for keeping shrews out (I took my lead from Fletcher Colpitts in NB on that one).

    I could see you getting by without a moisture quilt. As long as you have adequate ventilation, all that dry air should pull out much of the moisture from inside the hive. I used a piece of hard insulation over my inner covers during my first couple of years and it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t have too much of an issue with moisture until I moved my hives closer to the ocean and closer to an area that was swamped with fog most of the winter, and then my hives were soaked all the time until I added moisture quilts. With or without moisture quilts, though, I’ve always noticed ice of half my bottoms boards. Low clustering bees with freezing air coming through the bottom entrance seems like a plausible explanation for the ice.

    Newfoundland is one of the few places left on the planet that doesn’t have Varroa nor many of the other major diseases that most honey bee populations have to contend with these days. We don’t have small hive beetle yet either. But unfortunately the NL government allowed large-scale importations of packages in 2016 for a couple of unscrupulous commercial operators, and some diseases hitched a ride with the bees, nothing that we can’t handle yet, but it’s not a good sign. If the practice continues, we could quickly lose what is possibly the most pristine population of honey bees on the planet. The people in charge of monitoring honey bees in NL are not qualified for the job. It’s depressing and frustrating to see the lure of quick financial gain speak louder than common sense. But that’s the history of Newfoundland.

  • Hi Rusty, probably a whole topic on its own. But what about he hives that don’t survive the winter. I’ve had two otherwise healthy colonies die this fall. They had formic treatment in August and lots of honey stores. I’m sure it’s too complicated to diagnose what happened, but I do wonder what to do with the incomplete frames from the dead colonies. For the sake of argument assuming it was varroa or queen failure etc. Can partially completed uncapped honey/pollen frames be saved and used again as is, or should they be extracted?

    Vancouver, BC

    • Peter,

      What I do is check for brood diseases. If the colony didn’t die from EFB or AFB, I save the frames (capped or not) and start new colonies on them in the spring.

  • With the temp hitting 50F today and hearing no sound from either of my 2 hives, I did a quick inspection. I only pulled a couple of frames and did not look inside the bottom box. Both upper boxes are full of honey. One hive had hundreds of dead bees in the bottom of the hive, which I scraped out. The other hive had hardly any bees in the bottom but both had dozens of dead bees on the frames in the upper boxes in both hives. The inside of the inner and outer covers was dry but there were beads of moisture on the wax on the frames. There was also dead/frozen brood in one of the upper boxes. Our weather went from a long warm fall that lasted into November followed by a foot of snow and sub 0 temps/wind chills for almost two weeks in Dec followed by rain and 50 degrees last night and today.

    Does it sound like I’ve lost both hives entirely or is there some hope that there is a still a cluster inside the bottom boxes? Is there anything I can do at this point to sustain them if there’s a chance some survived? If they’re both lost, can I salvage the honey that’s still in the hives?

    Thank you so much for any comments/advice.

    • Gail,

      I can’t do a postmortem from here, so I don’t know what happened. But with all that honey and such a short cold snap, I assume the colonies were too small to keep themselves warm. Why were they too small? My first guess is varroa mites. When was your last mite treatment?

      I doubt you have bees alive in there, although it’s always a possibility. Do you know anyone with an infrared camera? Or do you have a stethoscope? If there was colony in there, the warm air would rise and prevent frozen bees in the top box, so I don’t think it looks good.

      Yes, the honey can be salvaged. You can either harvest it or keep it for staring a new colony.

  • The bee cozies are great for smaller colonies or weaker colonies in that they permit the bees to move around more during the winter and they can access the stores. I can see ice forming on the slat rack if one keeps the entrance wide open over winter and the winds are blowing in the hive, hitting the warmth of the bees and then settling on the slat rack. One should cover the entrance and leave a hole no larger than 4″, in cold climates when using the cozies, and make sure to have your moisture box on top to collect the moisture coming from the top. I haven’t seen any moisture accumulation on the outside of the boxes as the cozy fits pretty snug. The problem is when you put a cozy on an 8 frame as they are made for 10. Also, when one opens in the spring, the bees are numerous so you need to be ready to split. I like them for the smaller weaker hives, but we wrap the larger hives in insulation. Keeping the winds from blowing inside the entrance makes quite a difference where we live. If one leaves them wide open, chances are the bees will be dead come spring. They do go thru more stores because they are moving around more than they would be if they were tightly clustered. I would think that wrapping should be determined on where one lives.

  • Thanks for your advice. I just noticed I lost my hive and I am confounded as to why. Going into the fall my bee numbers were huge. Now I’m not so sure. Plenty of honey. I guess I’ll just harvest what I have and start over.

  • Hi Rusty,
    I have the idea of putting beehives in my green house to attempt to reduce heating costs in the winter. Do you have an opinion of how well this would work, or if it would even work at all? They would be built in so the bees have no access to the inside and would be able to come and go from the exterior wall of the greenhouse in the summer.I am in southern British Columbia so our winters are pretty mild already. Any information would be great!

    • Jared,

      Lots of people put bee hives in buildings facing out. I don’t imagine a greenhouse would be any different, so it should work just fine.

  • Vancouver BC here. Question for you. Do you keep the tray in your screened bottom board all winter or out? We lost our hive this spring due to it being far too wet inside. Plan on adding a quilt and slatted bottom board this season. But just wondering if the cause of the wetness issue could have have been made worse because the bottom board tray was in.

    • Lina,

      I leave the varroa tray out unless we’re getting extended temperatures in the 20s. On or two nights are okay, but if it lasts for weeks, I slide them in. That said, I think top ventilation and moisture control (as with a moisture quilt) is the difference between a wet hive and a dry one. Moisture quilts completely changed my ability to overwinter in this climate, and I no longer have any moisture below the quilts.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I keep bees in Seattle WA. I finally got one hive to make it through winter after three seasons of trying. Now I’m wondering if I should be feeding them sugar or pollen. The cluster is small and shows no sign of growing or moving down into the brood box. They have almost a full super of honey and the queen is there. Moisture quilt and Imrie shim are still in place. Your thoughts, as always are appreciated.


  • Hi Rusty,

    I have a smaller hive that I’d like to relocate to a smaller double nuc along side an existing nuc-colony.

    I’ve heard you talk about arranging frames, namely to get the honey (domed) over (and around) the brood-nest, but feel hesitant to initiate this time of year due to inexperience.

    Would just like to hear your thoughts on how late one can re-arrange frames and even transfer hives to more suitable boxes… or should I just keep it in the same box – removing empty frames and adding dummies to take up space?

    Much appreciated

    • Isaac,

      You don’t say where you are but I can’t imagine it’s too late in the year to rearrange things. It’s best to have the hive the way you want it before serious cold sets in.

  • Rusty,

    I have read and re-read many of your blog posts as I gain traction with my own bees. We live in the southern Puget Sound area, which I think is close to where you are. Consequently, I have taken a ton of info from how you manage our wet and cold, semi-temperate winters.

    I am preparing my bees for the changes and being grateful for our Indian Summer. My plan this year is to use screened bottom boards, deeps, mountain camp rims, and then quilt boxes. My quilt boxes have pretty good ventilation (4 1-1/4 holes per side). What are your thoughts on using an inner cover above this? I have various outer covers, and some have quite a bit of ventilation. I feel like having just a couple of inches of woodchips and then a loose outer cover may be a bit drafty.

    Just curious on if your thoughts on this have changed at all.


    • Ian,

      I still don’t use inner covers, but there’s no reason why you can’t. It shouldn’t make much difference one way or the other.

  • Hi again

    With the entrance being that small do you leave your Varroa bottom board in or out during the winter?

    I have the Varroa board and a top opening on mine. I have a 3/4 in shim attached to the bottom of my moisture quilt with the opening flipped up so I don’t get wind right on my frames. Plus if it gets real ugly outside I hang a little piece of clear plastic roofing over the opening for a wind block.

    • Linda,

      I usually leave the varroa boards out, but if it gets down in the 20s or lower, I put the boards in until the temperature goes back up.

  • Hi Rusty. 2nd year beekeeper one hive…western NY…treated for mites early Oct after a high count. Mite check results…two mites per 1/2 cup of bees. I used an alcohol wash.

    It’s the end of Oct and I did a complete inspection. Two hive bodies…in both bodies I found mostly empty racks full of bees working on something with two racks of honey on each side of completely empty brood nest. Top super full, 10 frames of honey. I am pretty sure I saw queen. No drones. Does this hive sound healthy? Seems like a lot of empty comb. I thought I should have some brood and more honey in two bottom hive bodies. Will all the bees move up and live off the honey in the top super? I do have a quilt box on the very top also. Thank you for your time.

    • Lucy,

      It certainly sounds normal for this time of year. No drones and little, if any, brood is what I would expect from now until after the winter solstice. It’s not unusual to have a small amount of honey in the brood boxes. The bees will move up and consume the honey above them. Buy you should check periodically to make sure they have enough. If they begin to run low, you can add a candy board feeder or provide sugar cakes. This will be especially important as spring approaches and the populations start to increase.

  • Hi Rusty! I’ve been enjoying reading this blog, but was curious about exactly how to arrange the honey beside and over the brood. I live just north of Phoenix, AZ, so our winters a pretty mild and dry. Below 20F is extreme cold for us:) I just finished getting my bees ready for winter by removing the supers and leaving two brood boxes. I put all the brood in the bottom box (and that’s what I really want to know if I have to do) and have frames of honey for most of the rest of the space in the bottom and top boxes. Is this what you meant, or would it be better to leave some brood in the top box? Thanks!

    • Daniel,

      Either way is fine. I usually leave them in two boxes, if that’s the way I find them. I figure, why disturb everything. But some people like to start with everyone in the lowest box.

  • I have started 2 Warre hives this summer by mounting deep Langstroth to the top of 3 stacked Warre boxes. So far they barely built into the top Warre box. Will removing the bottom 2 Warre boxes and leaving filled Langstroth deep on top of virtually empty Warre box ok for them to overwinter or will it be too much empty space at the bottom? I have overwintered in single Langstroth deep without a problem, but empty space in Warre box below is a concern.

  • Hi Rusty, I so enjoy reading your blogs filled with a smorgasbord of pertinent to my area information. I live in the Seattle area and really value your experience and practical tips, easy to follow especially for a beginning hobby beekeeper like myself. I oftentimes share your knowledge about the maintenance of the beehives with my friend, who started beekeeping too in the spring of last year.

    I find your information on overwintering beehives very helpful. This year I followed your advice on using moisture quilts with great results. I installed them in all of my 3 hives.

    I don’t have a moisture issue, but two weeks ago started having a problem with fruit flies in one of my beehives. First, I’ve noticed a few fruit flies resting around the upper entrance, so I placed trays filled with apple cider vinegar, dish soap, and water mixture in front of the hive. Fruit flies got attracted to the solution and drowned. Hundreds of them! I thought I got rid of the problem, but with this week’s inspection, I still noticed some at the upper entrance. I tried to find information online and read that if persistent, fruit flies can cause my hive to die. Is the uncapped fermented honey the cause of the infestation, and what can I do at this point to save the affected hive. Thank you for any information you can offer about this worrying matter.

    • Dee,

      I’ve answered tens of thousands of beekeeper questions in multiple publications, and this is the first time I’ve been asked about fruit flies. I doubt fruit flies could kill a colony. Most of the time, people confuse correlation with causation. For example, “I found my colony dead and the hive was full of fruit flies, therefore the fruit flies must have killed my bees.” More likely, the flies moved in once the colony got weak.

      If your hive is weak, I would try to find out if there is some reason for it. For example, if you have a lot of fermenting honey in there, you might start by removing it. A little fermenting honey won’t hurt, but you don’t want frame after frame of it. Also, why is the honey fermenting? Was it never capped, or is something opening the caps, something like small hive beetles?

      Just based on your brief description, it sounds like you have a weak colony that’s not keeping up with housekeeping duties. You need to find the cause of the weakness in order to fix it, or at least to understand it.

  • Great post here! Winter is a big deal here in the southern Adirondacks (6,000,000 acre state park). My bees must endure temps in the ’90s in summer to 35 below zero F in the winter, plus the wind. I have insulated all my hives with 1 1/2’ foil-faced foam board these last few years and it makes a huge difference in the number of colonies surviving the cold season. I make sure to allow for ventilation and have mite screens and boards in place. Entrances are reduced to two 3/4 x 3/4” entrance holes, one on each side of the normally hive-wide entrance.

    Ventilation to the “attic” space (attic is about 5/8” floor to ceiling) is through two 9/16” holes drilled near the back of the inner cover. I give them two upper entrances ABOVE the inner cover in the air-attic space between the top of the inner cover and the bottom of the insulated outer cover. Today I moved one colony into my heated workshop. It’s about 50 degrees in there most of the time and gets to 58 degrees F when I’m woodworking. This colony was on the top of the list to run into trouble because they went into winter with a small- maybe 2-3000 bee cluster. My last check on them the other day told me to move them inside because they were clustered right under the inner cover. They are in a single deep and this is a captured swarm from September so they had a very late start. I fed them starting from day one but they didn’t have proper stores because they had a small workforce.

    Now that they are inside, I can feed them honey and sugar cakes. The queen will start laying in a couple of weeks and by spring, instead of a dead colony, this one will have lots of bees and ready to go to work. I have to keep an eye on the rest of the hives through the winter and be ready to move any that seem to be failing in the cold. Any bees flying around in the shop after opening the hive are easily caught where they fly to the windows. I just put them in the attic space without opening everything up and they find their way back to the cluster through the two ventilation holes. The attic space is increased by using a 1 1/2” feeding shim after they are brought inside. They get a small handful of snow and some sugar cakes when they first come in. I’ll check their activity in a couple of days.

  • Hi Rusty,
    Firstly, thank YOU for this website. It has answered many of my questions. I have three hives, all are two deeps. Bottom boxes are just brood, with a frame of honey on each end, and tops are just honey. For a successful overwintering, do I need to move a few empty brood frames to the top box, and a few honey frames to the bottom? Thank you!

    • Bethany,

      I would just leave it as is. I think rearranging the brood nest at this last date would be counterproductive.

  • With the BBQX, you can treat and feed the bees without dismantling the hive, no matter what the weather is like or time of day. It is a modified QX with openings for a tray to place infused pads or apply liquid treatments via a lance that sprays the bees in situ.

    It’s a UK-patented product by

    Worth a look, if you have a few hives.

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