feeding bees honey bee management wintering

Why are all my bees at the top of the hive?

Yesterday a reader wrote to say that all her bees were in the top brood box and she didn’t recall this happening last year. She wanted to know if this was normal.

The fact is that winter bees kept in a vertical hive will move up as they consume their stores. Remember that the bees stored their honey overhead all summer long. First they filled in the area around the brood nest, and next they went into the honey supers and filled them as well. It is only natural that they will search for honey in the place they stored it—which is overhead.

However, if the bees have plenty of honey, this upward migration occurs slowly over the course of the winter. Only when they deplete the honey in their immediate area do they move up to look for more.

If a cluster is large it extends to cover more of the frames. These large clusters may consume all the honey in all the frames because it is right in front of them. Sometimes, however, the cluster is small and occupies only some of the frames. These bees may “miss” the honey that is stored several frames to the left or the right—and move up early instead. You can picture this as a chimney built through the honey. Colonies have been known to starve in this situation—especially in very cold weather when the bees can’t leave the cluster to go in search of food.

In my experience, colonies that have chimneyed through the honey and gathered on top of the frames to starve usually have smaller, less populous clusters. It’s a question of probability. More bees covering more area are more likely to run into the food stores than small, compact clusters.

My recommendation is this: if you find bees clustered on top of the frames, feed them with some type of winter (non-liquid) feed such as candy cakes, fondant, or granulated sugar. Or, if it is warm enough, open the hive and move any remaining honey close to the cluster where they can find it. You may be able to reverse your brood boxes. That is, put the cluster on the bottom and place any frames of honey on either side and directly above the cluster.

Bees kept in a horizontal hive, such as a top-bar hive, are already as high up as they can go. They will move laterally to get the honey, but they usually move in only one direction. Let’s say, for example, that the cluster started in the middle of the hive and moved to the right. Once all the honey in that direction is eaten, they will not normally turn around and traverse the empty space to find the honey at the other end—especially when it is too cold to break cluster.

One trick some top-bar beekeepers use is this: at the beginning of the winter they rearrange the top bars so the cluster it at one end of the hive—not in the middle of the honey. This way, the bees are always moving in the same direction and always finding more honey. No backtracking is required.

In any case, if your bees are all clustered at the top or on one end of your hive this early in the winter, you will almost certainly have to do some intervention to keep them alive until spring.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

31 Comments

  • I am a new beekeeper living in Nevada county CA. I started with two hives, each with a deep brood super and a medium honey super on top. I am curious how to get the queen to go back down to the brood super next spring?
    Sincerely,
    Frank

  • Rusty,
    Thanks for the help. I have enjoyed this site since I have found it. It has been more help than the “class” that I took when starting.
    Frank

  • Greetings, I’m a new beekeeper in the north of Ireland, got the colony at the end of summer and it’s been installed in a national hive since. In autumn they were fed around 20 pounds of sugar syrup, so I was fairly sure they would be well fed over winter.

    However today, while peeking in at the hive (there’s a tiny gap between the broodbox and crown board) I saw there were a number of bees clustered in a rough circle at the top of the frames.

    I googled this and came here, so I’m worried they’ve run out of food, the weather here is too cold to open the hive and give sugar or fondant. Not entirely sure what to do.

    Thanks!

    • Dabhog,

      You don’t really have a choice. If your bees are running out of food (and clustering at the top is a sign of it) you need to feed. Really, 20 pounds of sugar syrup isn’t all that much, especially for a late installation in a northern climate. Although you may lose some bees by opening in the winter, you will lose all of them if you don’t feed.

      Make it as quick as possible. Have the food ready to go. What I do is lift one end of the cover and slid the food in—it takes me about five seconds, and by lifting one end instead of removing the entire cover, you won’t lose as much heat. Have someone help you if it is too awkward or heavy to do by yourself.

      The old adage that “bees don’t freeze, they starve” is still true. If they have lots of food, they can keep themselves warm.

      Good luck and let me know what happens.

      • I actually think it was more like 40 pounds or so, apologies, we don’t really use pounds here.
        How do you suggest applying the sugar? There’s no space to place a full bag in, so should I use your paper tray technique?

        Thanks a million for your reply, truly appreciate it.

        • Dabhog,

          I always use a spacer about 2-3 inches deep so I have a place to put supplements. You could use an empty super, if you have one, otherwise just put the sugar in whatever will fit. You can lay newspaper on the bars and pour the sugar on that (but it takes longer on cold days), or you can use paper plates or something similar. I use paper trays that vegetables come in . . . don’t know if you use those over there.

          At the house, I pour sugar in the trays and then spray them with water. The water makes a crust so the sugar doesn’t blow away when you go outside. Then I sprinkle a few drops of anise oil on top so the bees can find it. Remember, it’s dark in the hive so the bees have to sense that something is there for them. Many oils work for this including peppermint, spearmint, lemongrass, tea tree . . . it doesn’t much matter.

          • Thanks again for the reply, I have an empty super on top of the hive, which is closed off, it’s currently full of insulation. The crown board has a central hole in it, so I’ll try and place a bag over sugar over it and see how it goes.
            I’ll try the anise as well.

            Thanks again for all your help!

  • Hi, I am new to beekeeping. I am building a top-bar hive to start with. I am hopping to attract a swarm of bees. I know it’s a long shot. I had a hive of bees in a tree on my place last year the limb fell. I wasn’t ready to start so I called a guy to come get them. He said he would help get some wild bees on the property next to mine. But two things happened, the property sold to the railroad and I called the guy a few times but he has not got back to me. I called him in the winter to be ready for spring but no reply. I am disabled so funds are tight; what are my chances of attacking a swarm? What would you suggest? If I can’t I will get them next year I guess. Thanks

  • Hi, I am also a first-time beekeeper here in Seattle. My beekeeping starter kit didn’t come with a deep, but only medium boxes. As a result, I have two mediums stacked to make a relative sized deep brood box. I did my first hive check today, and found the bees are doing well, but only using the top box, the bottom box is nearly completely empty. Is there a way I can encourage them to move into the bottom box? Some advice I’ve seen on other sites is to swap the boxes, will this disrupt or confuse them? Any advice is appreciated!

    Thanks,
    Sarah

    • Sarah,

      You can reverse your boxes if you want. If there is brood in both, however, you run the risk of one part getting chilled at night, as we are still having cold nights. Personally, I don’t see the rush to get them into two boxes; they will get there when they are ready, not necessarily when you are ready. Since you say your bees are almost all in one medium, it sounds like you don’t yet have enough bees to fill two mediums. Some things can’t be rushed. See “Reversing brood boxes: is it necessary?

  • Thanks for the advice, Rusty. It makes sense to me, especially after reading your article about reversing bood boxes. I’ll leave them to it.

    Sarah

  • Hello,
    I hived about 4 weeks ago. My bees are all congregated at the top of the hive and are building comb upward, to the inner cover. Also, when I removed the inner cover, it took some comb with it and revealed two larval beings in comb much larger than normal comb. I’m wondering if they’re queenless? I hope to look for eggs this weekend, weather dependent.
    Any insights would be helpful.

    • Michelle,

      “I hived about 4 weeks ago.” Wow, how is it in there? Oh, you mean you hived your bees. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

      “My bees are all congregated at the top of the hive and are building comb upward, to the inner cover.” Just scrape it off after making sure the queen isn’t in it. Don’t leave any extra space between the inner cover and the frames.

      “Also, when I removed the inner cover, it took some comb with it and revealed two larval beings in comb much larger than normal comb.” Those large larval beings are drones.

      “I’m wondering if they’re queenless?” Probably not. I think it’s too early for laying workers so the queen is probably laying the drones. Were there any smaller larval beings?

      “I hope to look for eggs this weekend, weather dependent.” Look in that burr comb before you scrape it off. You many not need to look further.

  • Hello,
    I am new to beekeeping and this will be my first winter having them. I have two full-size supers and a medium honey super on the very top. Since I got a late start last year I didn’t harvest any of the honey in the honey super because much of it was uncapped. I checked my bees early in November and noticed they moved up and completely abandoned the lower super. I called my local beekeeping supply store and they recommended I remove the lower box so that it didn’t attract unwanted pests like moths or mice so I did. Now I’m wondering when and how I am going to reintroduce the super and drawn out frames. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • Paul,

      Okay, you’re saying you had two deep brood boxes with a medium honey super on top. Right? At first I read this to mean you had two deep supers and a medium super above your brood boxes, so it’s a bit confusing.

      Anyway, if you don’t want the queen to lay in your super, you need to put a queen excluder between it and your brood box. It may be too late to do that now because your queen may already be up there.

      I don’t know the best answer. One thing you could do is put your super below the brood box. If there is any honey left in the brood box, the colony will eventually move up and out of the super and then you can take the super off the hive stand and be left with just a single deep. Then in spring add the second brood box above the first one.

      Honey bees generally move up during the winter months because they are accustomed to storing their food overhead. Just manipulate your boxes to take advantage of that. In other words, the ones you want to empty can go on the bottom.

      By the way, this may help you with your questions (or not): English for Beekeepers.

      • Thank you for your “super” quick response Rusty. You are correct…I was trying to say two deep brood boxes with a medium honey super on top. Looks like I may need to replace my frames in my super this spring in order to take any honey, that is assuming the queen is laying in that box. I will have a look on the next “warm” day that comes along. Also, in the brood box that I removed I can see most of the comb is a real dark color which I assume was brood comb and some of it was more white/yellow which I assume was for stored honey. Do I need to put the frames back in any particular order? Maybe brood in the center and honey comb on the outside?

        • Paul,

          Super quick. That’s cute. You are right that comb occurs where brood has been raised. The cocoons, which contain bee feces among other things, stay in the comb and quickly become dark. Dark comb is very attractive to bees and it can often be used to lure new swarms into empty hives.

          Dark comb can build up pathogens over time, so many beekeepers replace it after three to five years. I replace 1/4 of my frames every year, that way they are all rotated out every four years, but I still have enough dark ones in use to please the bees. You can just write the date on the frames to make it easy.

          Yes, I would put them in the box basically where they were, dark in the middle, light on the outside. By the way, the other thing about dark combs is they are attractive to wax moths. Wax moths are scavengers and so are not usually a problem in strong colonies. They come in once a colony is weak or small.

  • Hello,

    I am very new to bee keeping. I helped install three packages this past Saturday when I picked up my own package. I installed my package the next day into my brood box. I decided to use a baggie feeder. The set up that I am currently using (which I am afraid might be wrong) is as follows: I placed the inner cover over my brood box, which contains empty frames. On top of the inner cover (with the hole left open) I placed the queen excluder. On top of the excluder I have two baggie feeders. Finally I have a triangle shaped roof covering the baggies. I just checked my hive today to make sure the queen has gotten out of her cage when I found that all the bees have taken to the underside of the top cover. Will the bees start to build comb here instead of in the frames down below in the brood box? Should I have gone with a flat roof to prevent this? I thought about shaking the bees back into the brood box and closing off the hole in the inner cover to prevent this (but also preventing the ability to use baggie feeders).

    Hopefully some of this made sense 🙂

  • I had a swarm last Sunday, not a very big one, but not a small swarm either. My question is one week on I checked to see how they are doing. With new foundation they have started to draw out but they started to make comb on the apex. Should I discard this comb or brake it off and put it down with the frames, then put a flat roof on instead of this apex roof. At the moment they are receiving sugar syrup from me (a new beekeeper ).?

    • George,

      You can either discard the comb or tie it into frames. It helps to use an inner cover above the highest box. This often discourages comb building in the apex of the gabled roof.

  • Beginner, new hive, question starting to get cold and windy. They stopped making comb, Warre and I put three boxes window at the bottom, a month ago they were all over it, so we’re varroa on my collection board, now nothing, I’m wondering if they are occupying the top or middle, I don’t hear much action, I’ll take a peak with a flash light.

    • Taylor,

      First off, honey bees don’t build comb in the winter, so that much is normal. But if you had a lot of Varroa, the bees could have succumbed to viral diseases by now unless you treated. I would definitely take a look at see what is happening.

  • Rusty,

    My hives consist of 4 medium boxes. On top of the boxes is a 2 in. shim with an entrance, a moisture quilt and a top cover. The bees have clustered in the 2 in. space created by the shim, clinging to the screen on underside of the moisture quilt. I am feeding them sugar cakes. In your opinion, will the bees eventually move back into the boxes as the temperature rises with the coming of spring or will I have to intervene to get them there? If necessary, should I brush or shake them into the bottom box? Thanks.

    • Carl,

      They will probably stay there until the nectar flows begin. It’s easy enough to knock them off and drop them back between the frames.

  • hi Rusty,

    I am a newbee that was blessed with a swarm this summer! What a wonderful gift! I caught the swarm in a Langstroth hive on July 11th and have watched them grow all summer. They are thriving, but now as winter approaches, I have been feeding them 2:1 syrup as it does not appear that they had enough time to make enough honey for autumn, much less an entire Wisconsin winter.

    Do bees eat the syrup as is? Do they store it, air it out to make honey and THEN eat it? If there is no honey in the hive, should I put out cakes early? I’m worried about starvation before winter even gets here!

    Thank You for responding

    • Carrie,

      Bees may store syrup as if it were nectar, drying it until it is the proper moisture level for capping. Or, if they need food now, they may consume it directly. Or, they may do a combination of the two. If you are concerned about food levels, there is no harm in beginning to feed winter rations right away. When I have that situation, I put a candy board on or provide hard candy cakes. Just remember, if you put a feeder on early, it will go empty early, so you need to check it periodically. The closer to spring you get, the faster they will eat it.

  • Thank you for this article! I have this problem currently and am pretty concerned for them. This is only my second year with bees.

    I was wondering if you know what happens to the brood down below when the cluster is up at the top of the hive? Would there be a second cluster keeping the brood warm?

    • Dawson,

      Taking care of brood is what bees do. You don’t have to worry about it. The cluster sends retriever bees up into the food supply where they load up and ferry it back down to the brood nest. The cluster may take on a column shape to accommodate this behavior. All you need to worry about is that they have a constant supply of feed.

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