honey bee management wintering

Whose honey is it?

A new beekeeper in the Midwest wrote to say that she harvested thirty pounds of honey from each of her two hives, but now her bees were taking syrup like crazy. She wondered how long she should keep feeding and if the bees would have enough stores. Then came the disturbing question:

“Why would each of my two hives make 30 pounds of honey in the shallow supers for me before they made enough for themselves?”

Okay, new beekeepers, listen up: Your bees do not distinguish between the honey they store for themselves and the honey they store for you. In fact, they don’t know it will be taken; they believe it is all for them.

I have seen new beekeepers pull off their supers for extraction without even a glance into the brood boxes to check for honey. Sometimes those boxes are nearly empty. For whatever reason, the bees stored everything up high. Later, the beekeeper is heartbroken to find his bees starved to death only partway through the winter.

Two weeks ago a new beekeeper here in Olympia told me he harvested forty pounds of honey from his first-year hive that he started from a package in late April. I’m guessing he didn’t make a thorough inspection before he extracted because that is a lot of honey for a new colony in this part of the world. It doesn’t seem right to me.

Bees are unpredictable. This year I had two particularly robust colonies right next to each other in triple deeps. I added Ross Rounds and square section supers on top of each. In one hive, those crazy bees filled the sections and left their deeps virtually empty, while the adjacent colony did the opposite: they left the sections empty and filled the brood boxes to capacity.

I can understand how mistakes are made. New beekeepers are taught that the bees store their food in the brood boxes and the honey they put in the supers is for harvesting. But wait! This is a classic case of the bees not reading the same books. You have to look before you take.

In the example I just mentioned, I was able to equalize the honey stores between the two hives because one had a lot more than it needed. But, in any case, I always hold back some number of supers. I freeze the frames and store them. Then, if I err somewhere along the line, I can provide honey during the winter.

Some very experienced beekeepers routinely hold back frames as an insurance policy, and I strongly advise it for newbees. Or, if your brood boxes are really empty, just leave those supers in place for the bees. Remember, anyone can rob a hive and measure the take, but it requires skill (and often restraint) to successfully overwinter your bees.


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  • Excellent advice and post! I couldn’t agree more. Of the five hives I started this past summer, I purposely harvested zero honey so the girls can have it all to themselves for the winter. I’m hoping my patience will pay off next year with successfully overwintered colonies ready to take on a new nectar flow next spring. All of the hives now have “jam packed pantries” for the winter. One (my super colony) is housed in three deep supers, 3 are in 2 deeps, and only one will have to endure the winter in a single deep. The single deep will likely require a little extra attention to monitor its honey stores until spring. If all goes well, there should be also be some splitting going on next year!

  • It is definitely a challenge to figure out, partly because I don’t open the brood boxes enough. I have three hives that I started from packages, but with comb and honey left over from the previous year. One never even moved up to a super and they’ve been feeding pretty heavily until the frosts hit this week. A second I took about 20 pounds from, and they’ve been feeding too, but much more lightly. The third I took 35 pounds from, and when I put a super of extracted comb on in September for them to clean, they just proceeded to start filling that one. So I just moved the inner cover above it and left them to over-winter in 4 mediums. That hive weighs a hundred pounds easily, the others will overwinter in 2 deeps and weigh closer to 70 lbs. each, which is what seems to be recommended for Rhode Island. We’ll see.

  • Hello Rusty,

    I have two hives now. One from a splitting the main hive. Both had lots of honey on top box of each. Now both top boxes seem almost empty. It’s too cold for syrup up here in Ottawa, Canada. So I’ve made candy and put a piece in each and both hives stomped on it. So I’ve filled the top surface with a 12 x 14 candy in both. Now I’ve heard that some bees will fill the top box and work their way down and when there is no longer anything to forage they will draw it below to where the cluster is. Would this be true?

    • Mike,

      Sorry, but I don’t understand. I get that both top boxes had lots of honey and now they’re light. And I get that you’re feeding candy, which is good. But I don’t understand “some bees will fill the top box and work their way down and when there is no longer anything to forage they will draw it below to where the cluster is.” Are you saying the bees fill the top box first and then, when there’s no more forage, they carry the honey down to the cluster?”

      If so, I don’t think that is quite right. Once the bees are clustered, the whole cluster slowly makes its way in the direction of the honey, which is why clusters tend to move up in the winter in Langstroth hives . . . because the honey is above them. Similarly, in top-bar or long hives, the cluster moves sideways, in the direction of the honey. The bees normally wouldn’t move honey they already stored. The exception might be if you put, say, an inner cover between the brood boxes and the super, the bees would move the honey down to the main part of the hive. But once clustering occurs, the bees don’t leave the cluster unless it gets warm enough.

      Like I said, I may be misunderstanding your question. Feel free to try me again.

  • This is one of those subjects that gets confusing for a newbee like myself. And I’m sure it’s easily answered and understood with experience. But as a newbee, I’m still confused on what’s “right” or at least what’s more right.

    It seems the most common scenario is a hive with 2 deeps, 2-3 mediums of honey in the summer. Right at fall, keeper harvests all 3 mediums and leaves the hive with 2 deeps, presumably with honey in the upper deep to hold them over the winter.

    Then I’ve heard of some people that will leave a medium on the hive to give them more honey “just in case.” Now if the reason they do this is because an inspection found the top deep had little honey, then this makes sense. However I’ve never heard/read of THAT being the reason to leave a medium. Every time I’ve read of keepers doing this, it was more of insurance to ensure the bees have more than enough honey to survive the winter.

    But then I’ve read others say do not leave the hives with an over-abundance of honey because 1 of 2 things will happen. They’ll either kill/weaken themselves trying to maintain it or the honey will simply get too cold and won’t be usable which may or may not result in them dying of starvation with honey inches away from them.

    So my question is:

    Is it ever “harmful” to the bees to leave an extra super of honey over the winter? It seems that if in doubt, err on the side of leaving them with too much honey. Worst thing that can happen is they can’t/don’t use it. But if there are caveats, oh-by-the-ways, and did-you-knows, I’d like to be aware of them and the whys that follow.

    Also keep in mind, I’m in the South. We get freezing temps here in Atlanta, but nothing like what the north gets where snow can stick around for weeks after a snow storm. The longest I’ve ever seen snow stick around here is 2 days. When that happens, the entire city shuts down because of 1/4″ snow while “both” snow plows in the city clear & spread gravel. Most of the time, snow’s gone by noon. But more relative to bees, it rarely stays below 45° for more than a week at a time even in the dead of winter so cleansing flights and free-movement through the hive shouldn’t be hindered except for short periods of time.


    • Cgrey8,

      Don’t try to make beekeeping too cookbook-y. It won’t work. You can’t make rules for when to do this or when to do that because all colonies are different. You look, see what you’ve got, and then make a decision. There are no rule books because rules don’t work. Only principles work. It’s like raising kids, each is different, each needs to be handled in a different way. What works for one, may or may not work for another. Also, relax a bit. You really don’t have to do much; the bees do all the work and make almost all the decisions. Just enjoy them.

      • In all the bees books, journals, and blogs I’ve read, this may be the wisest thing I’ve read about beekeeping. This is why I love you!

        (It’s also the wisest parenting advise I’ve gotten too! 🙂 )

      • When I am reading comments from people that “should” know more than I do, I don’t want to question it. But I do, hence my posts soliciting for other opinions.

        And I agree, once I’m amongst the critters, I’m sure a lot of the details will congeal. If not, then I’ll be buying replacement packages until I learn the errors of my ways.

        BTW, when I’m referring to what others have said/written, I’m not insinuating that there’s validity to their statements. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. When I’m in doubt about an opinion I’ve come across somewhere else, I toss the ideas out there to see how those viewpoints get invalidated by others. I can’t learn if I don’t ask.

        • cgrey8,

          I agree, and I know I get testy when I get frustrated, but so much of beekeeping is (or should be) plain common sense. Regardless of our individual educations, we all know a lot about the natural world through what we experience. We know about condensation, we know about heat rising, we know rates of temperature change, we know tons of stuff. But many (most?) beekeepers, for a reason I will never understand, decide to throw away every scintilla of knowledge they have in favor of wives’ tails, rumors, myths, and half-truths.

          If you (and I don’t mean you personally, but anyone) apply simple logic and basic acquired knowledge to your bees, you will do fine. I started this site because there is so much b.s. out there, I wanted to provide a source for science-based, logic-based beekeeping. And I keep doing it and doing it and I feel that maybe it hasn’t been worth the effort. Maybe I should stop.

          Again, my frustration doesn’t lie with you, or any other individual, but sometimes, after answering hundreds of questions, I get short tempered and cranky. I feel like no one is listening, no one cares. What can I say? It happens.

          For now, go back and read the series: Physics for beekeepers. That series (I think there are four) offers the best explanation I can offer on some of these hive-environment issues.

          • Your approach is THE approach I appreciate the most. I don’t like procedures without understanding (i.e. wife’s tales, rumors, etc). Unfortunately, there are lots of people that aren’t like me in that way. They are looking for the cookie-cutter way. They find some things that work, and they parrot them without a solid understanding of them themselves. It doesn’t mean what they are saying is wrong, but it might as well be if what they are saying is not in context.

            And yes, I read through that Physics for beekeepers. Good overview.

            As for answering hundreds of questions, I feel your pain. I also administer a forum…it’s not for beekeeping, it’s for people doing DIY engine tuning on Fords. I have a whole section dedicated to FAQs. Another whole section dedicated to Tech Docs. And I even buried in the “What You Need To Know” getting started thread a password required to register as a user on the site (without that password, you can’t register). I did that to FORCE newcomers to that thread and to read it. It’s amazing how they can read down into the thread far enough to get the password and miss the stuff immediately above it which becomes quite obvious based on the threads they create as soon as they become members.

            And while those are frustrating, believe me on this, they DO NOT represent the vast majority of viewers, at least they don’t for my forum. There’s a HUGE silent majority of people referred to as lurkers that you as the site admin (and other participants) will never hear from, but glean great value from your efforts. So don’t get discouraged. And if I am, in any way, adding to that, let me know. That’s not my intention in being here…not at all.

            • cgrey8,

              No, you are not adding to it, you just caught me at a snarky moment. In fact, I’ve taken an interest in your approach. Can’t wait till you get bees.

  • Thanks, Rusty, for this post; I have been preaching for a long time that it isn’t “our” honey, it belongs to the bees, first and foremost. And taking honey and replacing with sugar water is NOT a fair trade.

    But in reference to the last post, I live in the mountains of NC, where winters can be pretty harsh. So I understand what the reader asks when he says the bees may “kill/weaken themselves trying to maintain it.” It is a tricky management problem here to decide whether an extra super of honey would be worth the work the bees would have to do to keep that extra space warm all winter. There is no specific guideline for this, and I for sure don’t know the answer. But it is a consideration in cold climates.

    I try to leave a deep and a medium super for winter. But a friend beekeeper I know says that after the fall honey flow of goldenrod and aster, he takes off the supers and winters with just one deep. He swears he didn’t lose one hive out of 30 last winter. Who knows?

  • Rusty, thanks!

    It seems that by mid-summer about half the points covered in bee school become vague. Last week’s speaker said that half of new hives do not survive their first winter, that one third of new beekeepers quit if they lose that first hive or hives, and that the main reason for loss is starvation. After this post, I wonder how much of THAT may be due to over-harvesting.

    This might be a good time to go over what you advised me in an earlier thread: that if daytime temperature permits, “by all means” (your words) go in and re-arrange frames to bring honey in closer to the cluster. We passed this along to new beekeepers in our Fall Inspection workshop, but they had a lot of questions about the where and how.

    One was, if bees can’t take liquid feed in winter, how come they can eat liquid honey? Does cluster heat keep it warm enough? And if we add back in (as I plan to do) some frames of saved honey, what’s the best place to put them?
    Very timely & helpful: thanks!

  • I don’t usually comment…I suppose I am one of those lurkers mentioned above. On Monday I’ll finish my first beekeeping class here in SW Washington. Somehow, I stumbled into your site while researching. I love your stories! I kind of get lost in here sometimes. The pictures, the stories, the info…it’s a bit addicting. Thanks for all you do!

  • Hello Rusty,

    You understood what I was trying to say. This is something on I saw on you tube last week, and the person was explaining this while preparing his hives for winter. His top boxes were empty and this was his explanation while putting in the hard candy. I wanted your feedback because it didn’t sound right to me. Thanks.

    Also, there is a local woman that uses two deeps and a super for her hives in winter and has never lost a hive in her ten years as a beekeeper.

  • Rusty,
    I know you mentioned in the past that you intended to do a full blog on sectional supers (which bring to mind a bunch of bees on a really long wrap around couch). Have I missed it? I am interested in trying it in the spring, assuming my hives make it though the winter ok.

    • Robert,

      Section supers. No, you haven’t missed it. I have managed to put it off for four solid years, but I’m feeling the pressure. You are not the only one bugging me about this. So, I’ve actually made an outline for myself. It will be long and probably not a post, but a whole section (not sectional here either), and maybe be put on a tab. Everyone, it seems, suddenly wants to know about comb honey. I will announce it when it’s done. I may have to stop writing everything else for awhile.

  • That’s the problem with the world. It’s always about me, me, me. Never about you, you, you, hence selfies.

  • Hi Rusty, I’m thinking about the winter. I have two two-deep hive bodies with brood and honey which I assume will be filled to capacity by the time we are ready to winterized in two months. I have about eight frames of honey in storage and would like to be able to have it for early spring when the panic sets in and I see that under the quilt box there appears to be a cluster of starved-to-death bees. Last year I put some sugar in when this happened but would rather give them their honey back…just not sure how to do this. I can’t open the box and add a frame as I don’t know what is on them and don’t want to disturb anything. So…push honey thru the quilt box mesh? Lift it and squish some comb thru? I feel there must be people who do this but I can’t find anything about it. I’m in Nova Scotia and spring is rainy, sleety and lasts until late April. I’m talking about February-March type panic