Don’t mind the cold: how to open a hive in winter

hives in snow

It’s never too cold to open a hive, especially when the bees inside deparately need food. If you do nothing, they will die for sure, so ignore the temperature and just do it.

My ancestors were hardy Pennsylvania Germans. They were diligent, clear-thinking, and not predisposed to nonsense. Whenever I said something lacking in common sense—what they called “horse sense”—I got the withering glare, the one that said, “You’re no kin of mine.”

No trait is more firmly etched on my brain than common sense and I became, for better or worse, especially adept at delivering the withering glare. So when someone asks a question like the one below, I’m always grateful there are two computers, a piece of black tape, and a bunch of miles between us.

“I think my bees are starving to death. A month ago the frames were empty and I was counting on the fall flow to fill them up. But now so many bees are dead and it’s too cold for me to open the hive and feed them. Help! What should I do?”

I hardly know where to begin. Ignoring the fact that she lost a month by relying on a mere possibility, it’s the cold comment that really sends me. How can it possibly be too cold to feed them?

Her choices are obvious. 1) She can choose not to feed because it’s “too cold” and lose the entire colony to starvation. Or 2) she can open the hive and feed them, possibly losing some to the cold, but saving the rest. Where’s the question?

Brood chills faster than adult bees

Losses from cold are usually associated with chilled brood. A colony that’s starving will have little or no brood, having consumed it to conserve energy and resources. And even if there is brood, how long does it take to feed a colony?

Certainly, all the brood won’t die in the 10 seconds it takes to lift the lid and slide in a sugar cake. As soon as the nurse bees feel the draft, they will press their abdomens across the brood cells to keep the nest warm and toasty. That’s what bees do.

Simply put, there is almost no temperature at which it is too cold to feed a starving colony. Sure, there are exceptions. If you’re in the prairie provinces and it’s 40 below, it’s probably a wasted effort. But most beekeepers can find a warmish day even in the dead of winter.

What’s warmish? It depends on how bad the situation is. Starvation is bad and deserves prompt attention. So is disease.

“I want to treat my hives by dribbling oxalic acid. I bought all the stuff, but now it’s too cold to treat. My white board gets about 50 mites overnight. What should I do? Just wait till spring?”

The same advice applies here, although it may already be too late. His choices: treat and maybe save the colony or don’t treat and lose it to mites for sure. Fall colonies are low on brood anyway, so there isn’t much brood to chill.

Furthermore, it doesn’t take much time to dribble a colony. I can do one in 30 or 40 seconds, start to finish. If you can’t do it fast, practice with syrup and an empty box until you can. Here’s a great video by the past editor of Bee Craft Magazine.

Preparation is key to quick action

Before I open a hive in winter, I prepare thoroughly. I make sure I have all the equipment I will need at the site, and then I review my movements. The colder it is, the longer I review.

For example, I once combined two hives at 22 degrees F. One colony thoughtfully left its dead queen where I could see it on the landing board. Nice touch. Since I couldn’t re-queen in the dead of winter, I decided to combine it with a neighboring hive.

When I reviewed my steps, it became obvious that I could put the sheet of newspaper over the receiving hive the instant I opened it. This would keep the bees in place and prevent most of the heat from escaping. The queenless hive was in two partially-filled boxes, but the temperature wasn’t right for fiddling with frames. So I took off the telescoping cover (to lighten the load) and taped over the hole in the inner cover to conserve heat. Then I broke the propolis seals with my hive tool.

Planning saves a ton of steps

When all was ready, the actual combination took less than a minute. I removed the lid and inner cover from the receiving hive, laid down the paper, moved the upper box of the queenless hive to one side, set the lower box on the newspaper, added the upper box, pulled the tape off the inner cover, and added the lid. Done.

How many bees died? I don’t know but certainly some. More important, however, is that I ended up with a thriving colony in the spring which I later split into two again.

Don’t assume you can’t do it

The point of all this is that you shouldn’t assume it is too cold to do something to your hives. Think about the consequences of not doing vs the benefits of doing. Compare potential losses. And once you’ve made a decision, plan your steps, review your plan, and go for it. It’s almost never too cold to open a hive.

Honey Bee Suite

One of my favorite bee stories comes from A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson. He needed to destroy a colony of bumble bees because they were imported into the country and could not legally be released. Hoping to kill them in the most humane way possible, he decided to freeze them. He placed the entire colony into a freezer at -30°C (-22°F) and went home for the night. When he went to get them the next morning, he was amazed to find the workers tightly surrounding the brood and queen, buzzing loudly. All the bees were perfectly fine.

Is it too cold to open a hive?
It’s not too cold to open a hive that needs attention, even in snow. Pixabay photo.

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  • I agree. Two winters ago when I saw signs of shrews in my hives, and didn’t know at the time how deadly shrews can be, I left my hives alone because I thought it was too cold to open them and scare the shrews away. I wouldn’t hesitate to open the hives today. I’ve since opened hives in the middle of a snow storm, rain storms, the works (when I have to). Like you’ve mentioned before (if I remember correctly), a hit of cold air may put the bees in suspended animation, but it doesn’t necessarily kill them. I’ve seen cold bees that look dead come back to life more than a few times once they’re able to warm up again.

  • Fantastic information as always! Just curious I have been taught that Italian bees will starve covering the brood to keep them warm rather than moving 2 inches to the stored honey to eat. According to what you wrote: “A colony that’s starving will have little or no brood, having consumed it to conserve energy and resources.” It would seem that what I learned is not (entirely) true. Could you elaborate? Thanks!!

    • Diana,

      It’s a matter of what stage of starvation they are in. When all is going well, the retriever bees gather and eat the honey and supply the larvae with a combination of nectar, royal jelly, and bee bread. But as food becomes scarcer and scarcer (even if only a few frames away) bees stop leaving the cluster in order to conserve warmth. When they can no longer secrete the royal jelly for the larvae (because of a lack of nutrition) they well actually “absorb” the eggs and larvae to keep from starving and to keep the cluster warm. Protein is never wasted in a colony, so if it isn’t used to build bees it will be used to keep other bees alive.

      I don’t think it’s accurate to say the bees are struggling to keep the brood warm. It’s more like they are trying to keep the cluster warm. The brood, in the short term, is expendable. If the brood all perishes (or is eaten) the colony may still survive. When food becomes available, brood rearing can begin again. But if the whole colony dies because it froze to death, then there is no hope for the colony regardless of the presence of brood. In that light, the health of the colony is more important than the health of the brood.

      Brood is also absorbed at other times of the year, even when the bees are not starving. For example, if the queen lays more eggs than the number of workers can attend, some will be eaten until the the right number is achieved.

      Colony dynamics is not simple, and it is usually a number of factors, not just one or two, that determines colony behavior.

  • This is a very helpful article. Where I live (in a high desert valley in Colorado), it gets to 30 degrees below zero most winters, though not for long periods. However, we often have a solid 4-5 months of the temp never rising above freezing. I’m always leary of opening ANYTHING in the winter (like, even the door. Why do I have to go to work??), so your article help to alleviate my concerns. This article does bring up another concern of mine, though. In the past, I’ve never put an entrance reducer on my hives in the winter. Thus dead bees are kicked out, and the hives seem to do fine most winters. However, because I’m always tinkering with how I do things, I’m planning to put the entrance reducer on a couple of hives this year. My fear is that the dead bees will pile up behind the reducer. Obviously, this is why we place the reducer so that the entrance space is at the top rather than the bottom, but I guess I’m concerned that it’ll be more effort for my bees to lug a dead bee over the step and out, when normally (without the reducer) they can get them out with a well-aimed kick. Aside from the “Let’s try this and see what happens” angle, can you see any reason why one method would be better than another with my winters?

    • Sarah,

      I like to keep a very small entrance to discourage small rodents from moving into the hive. I take them out a couple times during the winter and, using a long stick, sweep out the dead bees. The other option it so give them a small upper entrance in case the lower one gets completely blocked. But basically, any of those ideas should work.

  • I went to buy a nuc of bees from a well-known member of the Ohio beekeepers association. It was very cool, not quite cold, and intermittent rain/snow mix. I almost fell over when he opened the nuc to show me how they were doing. He is like, “I was doing splits and tending bees with snow flying” and they all lived. Gave me a new respect for the bees and how we as humans make things so much more drastic than they are. While I don’t open the hives in that weather typically, if they were starving, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.

  • I have a question. This will be my first winter with a hive on my property. Forecasts for the Eastern half of Pennsylvania are for a harsh winter with severe weather. My hive faces East so it gets morning sun but, in the winter, I know it will get Northwest winds.I want to make a 3-sided cover for my hive using Insul-Brite (a fabric made of polyester fibers, needle-punched through a reflective metalized polyester film. The needled material is breathable and won’t break down with washing. The polyester fibers resist conduction while the reflective metalized polyester film reflects radiant energy, hot or cold, back to its source) and flannel-backed vinyl. The cover would also fit over the top and velcro just over the cover and down the sides of the front but leave the front of the hive open. Question: if I put the cover on, is it possible the I can make the hive too warm?

    • Pat,

      Having never used the material, I have no idea. I would recommend a thermometer so you can monitor the internal hive temperature. Something like the BroodMinder (which is really cool) will send readings to your cell phone. If it starts getting too hot, you could then remove the cover.

  • Hello Rusty,

    Putting aside the fact that once upon a time some declared marijuana illegal, I have come to the conclusion that cannabis honey can not exist. The plant is wind pollinated so does not need to attract insects, therefore no nectar is produced, am I right?. However bees use resins to make propolis,so if the only resin available was from female marijuana plant I’m wondering what properties it could potentially have.


    • Andrew,

      You are correct that Cannabis is wind-pollinated and so does not produce appreciable amounts of nectar. Whether the active ingredient in Cannabis is found in pollen or propolis I have no idea, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Beekeepers have been kicking this around since the last ice age and I don’t believe anyone has found any “advantages.”

  • Rusty,

    ‘Kicking this around’? Do you mean cannibis honey or propolis from cannibis resin? From what I have learned so far there are a few active components from this plant, not all being psychoactive. I think the fact that propolis does for the bees, what it has done for millions of years is amazing in itself. Worth more research I feel. Thanks for your thoughts.


  • Rusty
    ‘Get my hopes up’,for what ?. From a scientific point of view the combination of propolis with another ‘potentially’ beneficial medicinal,naturally occurring plant maybe ‘advantageous’ to our limited understanding of the natural world.

  • Rusty,

    Thanks for the post. Very informative and pragmatic advice. Recently studied for the Missouri basic beekeeping exam, and 45° was the lowest temp that you could get in the hive. Your advice makes more sense.

    Thanks for continuing to add your posts. I really enjoy them.

  • I have been reading these posts and find them most informative. My single hive has/had honey in the first super but I am told I should feed my bees that they will not leave the brood to get at the honey. Also I am told that I should leave an open super with no honey so the cluster can have room to do that. Also am told to remove the inner cover for winter. I have a candy board ready but am confused where to put it. I obviously am a novice but I want to do this correctly.

    • Gary,

      1. The cluster tends to move up in the winter, but sometimes they don’t move side-to-side very well, which is why feed is usually placed directly over the brood nest. But if you have a super of honey over the brood nest, that should work just fine.

      2. I don’t know who is saying this stuff, but you should never leave an empty super on a hive if you don’t have to. It makes the hive draftier, plus is makes room for predators to move in and not be bothered by bees. The honey super itself gives the bees plenty of space to move.

      3. As for inner covers, I say use them in winter as they provide an extra layer of dead air space for insulation. And you can take them off in the summer.

      4. On top of the brood box, put the honey super. On top of the honey super, put the candy board. Then add the inner cover and telescoping lid. If the candy board is the kind you invert over the bees, then indeed you don’t really need the inner cover. If the candy board is the kind you don’t invert, then do use the inner cover.

  • Thanks, that clears that up. I just joined a bee club and I am always looking for more information. You’re the best !

  • Hello Rusty! I’m a first year beekeeper, and your website has been one of my main sources of information outside of my mentor, so thank you for all that you do! I am located in North Carolina and we have had a fairly chilly winter so far. I had not done much to winter my hive other than make sure they have enough honey (10+ frames worth), solid inner cover and bottom board, and rotate my entrance reducer to make it smaller. It was brought to my attention that moisture is a main reason that hives don’t make it through the winter and that my beehive was tilting backwards – not good for moisture retention – we also got our first snow before I could fix it (see below).

    I was advised to re-balance my hive, add a top feeder with wood chips to help with moisture, and add beetle blasters. While adding these things last week, and knocking on the hive I heard zero buzz/hum, and after slightly lifting the food box I saw no evidence of a cluster. I started to get concerned. It has been very warm today and I noticed robbing at the hive, lots of erratic activity, bees taking bees down mid air, what I think are small amounts of wax caps from comb, and all of a sudden ants on the exterior of my hive. It is going to be in the mid 50s on Friday during the day and 50 at night and I am wondering if I should open my final remaining hive up and see if they have in fact left? If so, I plan on breaking down the hive and freezing everything so I can start over in the spring. I am not sure what the best course of action will be.

    • Allison,

      It doesn’t sound like they left. More likely the colony died for one reason or another. You may as well open it and recover any honey you can, otherwise it will be stripped away in no time. If you find a cluster, you can always close the hive again, but it doesn’t sound promising.

  • I lost. My hive few days ago, very disappointed in myself. I believe they starved. I did a cut-out for first time in April 26, 2017. I lost the queen, ordered a new queen, got her in the hive May 6, she built up quickly. I was enjoying learning with this hive. And I failed to move a few frames of honey closer to the cluster. New beekeeper. I guess this is how you get experience, but sure is very salty to take in.

  • Accidentally “unsubscribe” from HoneyBeeSuite while setting up and configuring a new cell phone.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Thank you. I do appreciate your common-sense approach to beekeeping. It’s come to be that whenever I have a question, I search Honey Bee Suites first. And best of all, because you share your reasoning, I become able to think these questions through for myself. Gratitude and an overdue donation coming your way.


  • Rusty,

    Thanks for the intel. I’m a first-year with 5 hives. Swarms I caught this summer. They are looking good and as a new bee dad, I’m fretting about my first winter. The mite count is low and I’ll treat soon for winter. I also like to plan the how and what I’m doing when in the hive, to the extent I’ll make a list and go over it half-dozen times. The girls sure appear happier the less time their home is open!!