To wrap or not to wrap your hives for winter

Overwintering successfully requires four basic things:

  • Plenty of healthy bees
  • A strong queen
  • Plenty of stored food
  • Good ventilation

If you lack one of these items, you won’t have a strong hive in spring whether you wrap or not. But if you live in a very cold climate, and you’ve met the four basic requirements, wrapping can be beneficial.

Think of it like this: if you live in a climate where it would be difficult for a healthy feral colony to overwinter, then wrapping makes sense. If nothing else, it can increase the chance of hive survival and it can give you a boost at spring build-up.

Wrapping properly can raise the temperature in the hive, reduce condensation over the cluster, and reduce drafts cause by winter winds. Done poorly, wrapping can turn the hive into a damp, disease-ridden death trap for the bees.

There are as many ways of wrapping as there are beekeepers, but once you understand the principles, you should be able to wrap with minimum expense and hassle.

Here’s a short list of considerations:

  • A dark color absorbs heat from the sun. Tar paper, also called roofing paper or roofing felt, is a black, water resistant, inexpensive wrap that can be stapled or tied around the exterior of the hive. It will provide protection against rain, snow, and wind, while absorbing solar heat as well.
  • A piece of Styrofoam under the inner cover will reduce condensation over the cluster. Condensation occurs when warm, moisture-laden air rises from the colony and touches the cold lid or inner cover. Since Styrofoam is a good insulator, water is less likely to condense on its surface.
  • In any case, the warm moist air must be continuously removed from the hive because, eventually, it will condense—even on the insulation. It can’t be removed unless it has a place to go, so an upper entrance or ventilation port must be used in conjunction with a lower entrance or open bottom board. In other words, air must be able to circulate through the hive, bottom to top.
  • A top entrance works well in winter because, besides allowing air flow, it is less likely to become blocked by snow or clogged with dead bees.
  • At least one beekeeper I know uses screened bottom boards surrounded by skirts of tar paper. The screened bottom boards allow for good air flow and the black skirts act like solar collectors, resulting in nice warm air circulating up through the hive. (This beekeeper has assured me that when he sticks his hand up under the skirt he can feel the warmth. Ahem . . . )

The biggest blunders occur when the wrapping is so “weatherproof” that moisture produced on the inside of the hive cannot escape. Once condensation builds up in the hive it can drip down on the bees causing them to chill and die. Moist hives are also breeding grounds for disease. Good ventilation must be a major part of any plan to wrap.


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  • Do you use a specific grade of tar paper? I bought a roll of “Type 15 asphalt felt” for wrapping my hives last winter. The hives got through the winter okay, but I noticed the felt was often damp for several days after any kind of heavy rain, and the outsides of my hives were covered with a thin layer of dark-coloured mould in the spring when I unwrapped them. (I paint my hive boxes with linseed oil which doesn’t hide any discolouration.) Water-resistant isn’t the best description for the felt I used.

    • Hi Phillip,

      Good question. First off, I don’t wrap my hives with anything. Since it’s really wet here, and not very cold, wrapping doesn’t seem like a good idea for me.

      The two most popular roofing felts are type 15 and type 30. Type 30 is heavier, more expensive, and more water resistant than type 15. Notice I say “water resistant” and not “waterproof.” Water-resistant materials shed water to some degree and provide some weather protection, but they are in no way “waterproof.”

      One of the things that water-resistant materials do is reduce the amount of water that seeps through them. However, any water that does get in (let’s say from cracks, seams, blowing rain, or even condensation from within the hive) cannot get out very easily either. The result is moisture build-up under the paper . . . a great place for mold.

      One of the ameliorating factors is that the black color absorbs heat energy. If your rain storms are followed by days of dry and sunny weather, the heat build-up under the paper may dry out the surface of the hive. But if your rainy weather is followed by weeks of overcast weather, or more rain, the underside never has a chance to dry out.

      Although the type 30 is heavier and more water resistant, the water that does get under there (and there’s always some) will take even longer to dry out because it’s water-resistant in both directions.

      Cold and relatively dry is probably the ideal climate for roofing felt. Constant rain is probably the worst. Like everything else in beekeeping, wrapping is a give and take. You get something, you lose something. The final best answer is going to be different for everyone.

  • Thanks for the info, Rusty. I decided to wrap, but I’m trying something other than roofing felt. Because our temps can jump from freezing to over 60°F and back again in a few days, I’m experimenting with something I can put on the hive and take off, as needed — more of a jacket, if you will. I’m using vinyl with a flannel back, which isn’t cheap, but I’ll be able to reuse it every year. My husband calls it a “hive hoodie.” Perhaps it has market potential?

    • Zoe,

      I like the idea of removable. That could avoid the problem that Phillip is having with moldy hives. I think that if I ever decide to wrap anything, I would want it easy to take on and off. “Hive Hoodies” may be the future of beekeeping!

  • I think if I was going to wrap due to living father north, I would use 1 inch thick Styrofoam making a hive cover (foam box, taped together) that sets down over the hive leaving the entrance open and vent holes . . . ALF

  • Rusty, can I get your thoughts on this.

    I managed to get some corrugated plastic signs and I was wondering about using them as possible cover/weather proofing for my colonies. I am still thinking about placing the tar paper around the front/south facing side to encourage heat gain in March month. But wrap from north east to north west sides of the hive with this corrugated plastic sign folded and strapped around the colony.

    Here are my thoughts for using these signs. If you tape the top and bottom of the corrugated plastic signs with tuck tape you seal the air inside adding some insulation value while slightly reducing thermal bridging through the wood. I have made my outer covers to be slightly oversized to allow extra space around the perimeter and provide overhand so moisture should not beat in between the plastic and the wood. This would address moisture beating in and break the wind. If I really want to get get creative I could spray paint the signs black but in reality those sides covered with signs will get little thermal gain from the sun anyway.

    Any thoughts? Thanks

    • Jeff,

      I too have accumulated some plastic corrugated signs. It seems like good insulating material for all the reasons you mentioned: it traps air inside and shouldn’t conduct heat away from the hive. It’s waterproof and will act like a wind break as well. I agree that the color of the sides that don’t get direct sun shouldn’t matter, and if you’ve got tar paper on the south side you should be good to go. I think it is well worth a try. Here in the states it is election day. I should go sign-hunting tomorrow.

    • Jeff,

      That’s a great idea. I had similar thoughts because I’m looking for an alternative to wrapping the hives in roofing felt. I’d rather use some kind of permanent material that I can easily install and remove year after year.

      I’d like to cut the corrugated plastic (I think I can get a steady supply of it) to fit each side of a hive; paint the plastic black; seal in the cut edges of the plastic with super duper duct tape that won’t unstick over the winter; and then staple or tie the pieces to the sides of the hive, flat against the wood.

      The plastic would act as a windbreak and provide some extra insulation for the hives. My only concern would be overheating the hives. Though, I suppose if the plastic generated excessive heat, not sealing the edges in with duct tape would allow any excessive heat to escape. And as long as the tunnels (whatever they’re called) inside the plastic are vertical, or even horizontal but pointing down a bit, any moisture build up inside the plastic would just pour out.

      If that makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t.

  • I don’t wrap myself, but I have been tossing an idea around in my pee brain about using a heavy duty shade cloth. Shade cloth is generally a black stranded plastic sheet that is porous, depending on what grade you get. It is also similar to weed block. I have some 80% sun blocking material that allows moisture and air to wick through and blocks heavy winds. I am going to make an attempt to wrap a couple colonies this winter to see if it make a difference. I do know of a fellow who wrapped his hives with roofing felt and his boxes look like they are rotting out rather quickly because of the moisture build up between the wood and tar paper since tar paper is non-porous. Even paint will become water logged and peel quite quickly. Good luck to all and I hope everyone’s colonies have a productive season next year!!!

  • Hi Rusty,

    Not certain if this makes much sense or not but what type of bees do you have? Italian? Russian? Local swarm stock? Varroa Hygenic? Do you re-queen with bees from queen producers or make your own?

    It is evident that you have your act together with your beekeeping activities.


    • Jeff,

      Well, it doesn’t always feel like I have my act together, believe me. I use only Carniolans. In the past I have experimented with Italians, Russians, and Buckfast, but the Carniolans seem to do best with the long, wet winters we have here. People always say Italians make more honey, but I’ve noticed dead bees don’t make anything at all.

      I buy New World Carniolan queens from Strachan Apiaries or I raise queens myself. It’s usually a mixture of both and depends on how busy I am.

  • Funny thing it sounds like your environment somewhat matches ours for bee selection.

    As for nectar, once it starts flowing here in late April/early May it doesn’t stop until early or mid-October then everything shuts down for that year. We have long wet winters that have snow and rain that are not extremely cold. Average winter temperatures are ranges from -3° to -5°C with winter minimum hitting -20°C for a day or two.

    But what intrigues me is the spring build up and the long proboscis. Where I am located there is a great opportunity for white clover over government and commercial property. Each year I illegally seed some Duranna clover and let it spread naturally. There are acres of grass not far from where I live.

    Thanks Rusty

  • Hi Rusty,

    Most of us here in northern Kentucky lost hives last winter (four ice storms each followed by weeks of bitter cold). One neighbor who kept all 4 of hers used moving quilts, wrapped around just the back and sides, and moisture quilts made by your design. I lost 3 of 4, with just moisture quilts and sacks of hay.

    The problem with our climate is that a week of daytimes below freezing may be followed by three days in the 60s and water maples blooming! So I am glad to read that you like removables.

    I bought 4×8′ sheets of half-inch “Dow Board” and a roll of Tyvek tape and plan to make 3-sided surrounds that will cover both deeps and the cinder-block stands, but leave the fronts (which get morning sun) and the moisture quilts with their ventilation holes uncovered. They will be readily removable, and won’t get soaked and frozen the way moving quilts would. This is the theory, anyway.

    Tomorrow is our club’s Fall Hive Inspection Workshop, and we’ll see what ideas other folks have come up with. I’ll send a picture and measurements for the Dow Board surrounds when I get one assembled.

    Thanks SO MUCH for this and for the recent Fall Management post.

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, Kentucky.

    • Nancy,

      I look forward to the details of the three-sided removable surrounds. Sounds interesting! If you pick up other ideas from the workshop, pass them along as well.

      Thanks so much.

  • Hi there,
    I decided to insulate inside the roofs of two hives with polystyrene a couple of weeks ago. One hive contains Buckfasts and all is well. The other hive contains slightly bigger, dark bees of uncertain origin and they have rendered the poly to a very fine dust, which I noticed first on the landing board. Then removing the varroa tray was an experience – it had a nice, even, two inch layer of poly dust. I didn’t find any varroa!

    Has anyone else experienced this? I expect the poly dust has stuck to wax, propolis and all things bee sticky throughout the hive. Is this going to be an issue for the bees this Winter and if so whatever do I do about it?

    Your advice would be very gratefully received,


  • Rusty, we have summer temps into the 105-110 degrees and fairly dry winters. We use a 1″ x 1″ block of wood between inner and outer covers, placed at the rear of the hive, to improve cross ventilation in summer. I pull these blocks out in late fall and the covers then sit flush on each other. I install entrance reducers late fall also and will wrap hives with black plastic/foam backed wraps next week. Both reducers and flush covers lessen ventilation. Do you have a suggestion in increasing ventilation without compromising hive warmth?

    • I like thick moisture quilts with ventilation ports above the wood chips. This way, air can slowly pass through the chips, but it’s not a breeze or a wind tunnel. Just slow and steady air exchange.

  • Hi Rusty

    What do you think about cutting slits up and down the tar paper to allow for some ventilation?


  • I live in Central Wisconsin and was wondering if putting my hive in my shed would be a good idea. It would be dark and out of the wind. The bees would be able to get outside if they wanted. I could still wrap insulated foam around it. Thanks

  • Hello Rusty.

    Thanks for keeping beekeepers updated with new tried and tested procedures and ideas. This winter we had the opportunity to carefully compare wrapping and not wrapping hives. Colony conditions were as exact as possible for all 20 hives. 10 wrapped 10 unwrapped.

    All the hives are constructed with 3/4″ plywood, have screened bottom boards with a swivel entrance, which allows for a warm entrance as opposed to a cold entrance and have top feeders with emergency Dowda mix and finally a vented inner cover with an insulating carpet and the telescopic roof.

    Wrapped colonies used tar paper. Temperatures went as low as -26C with plenty of snow. Most importantly the ten-frame supers were reduced to six using dummy boards, this allowed the bees to occupy the warm south side of the hive. Each colony was made up of two shallow supers and put to bed for winter. (Total frames per hive 12.)

    A quick peek lifting the inner cover revealed excellent activity of bees feeding on the Dowda mix in ALL THE UNWRAPPED COLONIES. Six of the wrapped colonies were far less active and the remaining four colonies were experiencing difficulties. Far less effort and cost, with superior results in unwrapped hives.

    So once again Rusty your ideas have proved themselves in the apiary as indicated above, so keep up the good work.

    Kind regards.
    Vic Macdonald.

  • Rusty, et. al.:

    I live in Sapulpa, near Tulsa, Oklahoma. We can get all sorts of weather. Last night, the temp got down to 11F or so and tomorrow during the day it’s estimated to be near 54F or so. I’ve read as much as I can about the wrapping/not-wrapping issue online.

    Today, I wrapped the sides of the hive (but not the top) with large-bubble bubble wrap (which, unfortunately for my desire to have an inconspicuous hive, is blue. A few days before that, I installed a (black) heavy-duty contractor bag, spread out to cover the bottom.

    I plan to, on the first warm day, to make sure there is a gap under the inner cover.

    Are any of these good ideas? Will the contractor bag constrict ventilation?

    • Ted,

      It depends on how tightly you have everything wrapped. Plastic doesn’t breath, so if it’s too tight, moisture from bee respiration can not get out. Just remember, a dry bee is a warm bee, but a wet bee is a cold bee.

  • Here in Florida, we are expecting two days of 20s then back to the 70s. Can I just throw a blanket over the whole hive during those freezing temps and remove it when warmer?

    • Joanne,

      Yes, and I’ve done it. Just be sure to remove the blanket soon after the temperature rises.