How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter.

One of my bee hives after a  snow storm in 2013.

One of my bee hives after a snow storm in 2013. The bees survived.

I’m no expert, but here’s what I do, and what I do could change entirely by this time next week.

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (November 4th, 2015.)

So the big question is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”

The answer probably shows up somewhere in my Beekeeping Guide and in multiple places all over this blog. But I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that Part One of my answer is: I pay attention to my bees.

For Part Two, I’ll assume a few things, because otherwise this will take forever.

— I’m talking about a standard Langstroth or a similarly constructed hive.
— I’m done pulling out and rearranging frames for the year; the top deep is full of honey and honey frames are above and on the sides of the cluster (once the cluster moves down below); colonies have been combined if necessary; queens are in good shape; empty supers are removed; small colonies are housed in small hives, big colonies in big hives; in other words, the way the hives are now is the way they’ll be until next spring.
— I’m no longer feeding the bees any syrup (if I was feeding them to begin with).
— Whatever honey or syrup the bees have now is what they’ve got for the year (hopefully enough to get them through the winter).
— I’m talking about honey bees in my local climate which happens to be about 2 km from the cold, wet and windy North Atlantic Ocean (i.e., one third of the forage area for my bees consists of salt water). Anyone from California hoping to glean some insights from of my experiences, forget it. California might as well be another planet compared to Newfoundland. So…

STEP 1: I put mouse guards or shrew guards over the entrances around the time the bees stop bringing in pollen. Below 10°C / 50°F for more than a week is enough to attract mice to the warmth of the hive, so if I’m smart, I’ll get it done before that. I’ve chosen the first week of October as my deadline for now on, regardless of the weather, because I’ve seen bees bring in pollen on warm days in late November — and I’m not waiting that long.

Update (October 2019): It’s long past the first week of October and I still haven’t put mesh on my hives. That first week of October deadline doesn’t hold up. Every year is different because the average temperatures are usually different every year. For me, the mesh goes on when most of the drones have been expelled from the hive and the weather is consistently cold so that the bees aren’t bringing in much pollen. That might not happen until the first week of November.

I used wooden entrance reducers during my first year, but have used mesh stapled over the entrances ever since. I began with half-inch / 12mm mesh to keep mice out, but I now use quarter-inch / 6mm mesh because shrews can squeeze through the larger mesh. Other than the mesh, I leave the bottom entrances wide open all winter long for ventilation.

Mouse / shrew guard. Mouse & shrew proofing 6mm mesh on the bottom.

Mouse / shrew guard. Mouse & shrew proofing 6mm mesh on the bottom.

Update (October 2017): I now use pushpins to attach the mesh because a staple gun riles up the bees too much and the tacks make it much easier to remove and reattach the mesh if I need to clean out dead bees. I tack the mesh over the bottom entrance during the first week of October but keep the top entrance open for a few weeks longer while the bees continue to bring in some pollen and are still clustered near the top bars where they can easily shoo away any shrew that might try to get inside.

Update (October 2019): I’ve experimented with using more reduced entrances in the winter instead of the wide-open entrances. My bees did well for several years with wide-open entrances, but then I moved to a different location and my bees didn’t hold up as well. I know people who reduce the entrances to cut down on cold wind blowing on the cluster. I know people who don’t use bottom entrances at all. Some people use vent boxes with no insulation. Some people use only a piece hard insulation on top with only one top entrance for ventilation. Some people wrap their hives and some don’t. And all these variations seem to work. Most of it depends on the local climate. Are the hives in a sheltered or exposed area? Are the hives set up on foggy ground (a legitimate question in Newfoundland) or are the winters relatively dry? Do the hives get buried in snow or are they snow-free most of the winter? Is that snow dry snow or wet snow? The dominate genetics of the bees can play a significant role is wintering success as well. There are too many factors involved to say one recipe will work exactly the same for everyone.

It seems I’ve reached a point in my beekeeping where I realise that there is at least one major exception to every beekeeping rule or piece of advice or practice. It’s pretty much impossible to say any one thing is absolutely necessary in beekeeping. Even putting on quarter-inch mesh to keep shrews out — that’s an absolute for me. But I was never told about shrews by my first beekeeping mentor, and he still only uses half-inch mesh on his hives (because he doesn’t have shrews where he lives).

I mention this in what passes for my Beekeeping Guide and I have to keep reminding myself that it’s true: The best beekeeping teachers I’ve had don’t give advice. They share their knowledge by saying things like, “Sometimes I do this and it works. Maybe it’ll work for you.” Overly confident people with the best intentions can point new beekeepers into disastrous situations. What I do in this post and on this blog in general is share my experiences in beekeeping so the new beekeepers can take what they like from it and see what works well for them. But seeing how my beekeeping practices after almost ten years of it are constantly changing, it’s difficult for me to say what are or are not the best beekeeping practices.

STEP 2: I put a spacer or a shim or an eke or a rim over the top brood box to make room for emergency sugar feeding.

An eke or spacer rim provide room for emergency sugar feeding.

An eke or spacer rim to provide room for emergency sugar feeding.

If I treated my bees well, they’d have enough honey of their own to make it through the winter. But I usually put some kind of sugar in just to be safe. Sugar feeding can be in the form of dry sugar poured over newspaper. It can be hard candy cakes or fondant too. The rim needs to be high enough to make room for whatever kind of sugar is slipped under the cover. I used dry sugar poured over newspaper for a few years because it meant I didn’t have to cook up syrup like I would with hard candy (I hate mixing any kind of syrup), but I’ve since switched to no-cook sugar cakes because they’re so much easier to slip into the hives. The convenience is worth the extra work upfront. I usually add the sugar in November or as soon as the cold compels the bees to move beneath the top bars and underneath their honey stores.

Update (October 2019): Sometimes I don’t add the sugar until December or January or even later. If the bees are well clustered below the honey and aren’t pouring over the top bars when I open the hive, then they probably don’t need the sugar. However, I don’t think it hurts to have the sugar in the hive just in case.

The rim will also provide room for slipping in pollen patties (food for the production of baby bees), though I’m not a big believer in giving the bees extra pollen, especially early in the winter when it’s often so cold that the bees can’t get out for cleansing flights. That’s like giving a room full of kids all the pizza they can eat but not allowing them to go to the bathroom for a week. If I give my bees pollen patties, the earliest I do it is sometime in February when we usually get a few warm days here and there to allow for cleansing flights.

Update (October 2019): I don’t make pollen patties anymore. I just buy them locally from Gerard Smith.

I’m also not a big fan of artificially boosting the population of the colonies, which is what often happens when the queen is given a steady source of pollen (or pollen substitute in the form of pollen patties). As a hobbyist beekeeper, I’d rather have more naturally sized colonies instead of hives exploding with bees and ready to swarm by the first week of May. If I have some weak colonies and I know I’ll need extra bees and brood, then I’ll do it. But I’m not otherwise convinced it’s necessary to maintain a healthy colony. That’s my personal preference. Many beekeepers who focus on honey production do the opposite.

STEP 3: I used to add insulation to the top of the hive in the form of hard insulation over the inner cover.

3-deep hive, solid rim (or spacer or eke), an inner cover in the winter position, and a piece of hard insulation on top.  (The top cover is missing from the photo.)

But these days I prefer a moisture quilt (a variation of Warré’s quilt box).

A ventilation rim that was converted into a moisture quilt.

A ventilation rim that was converted into a moisture quilt.

What’s essential with both is that they provide some form of ventilation to allow condensation to escape.

Since 2010 when I started beekeeping, I’ve never had any established colonies die because they were too cold. That includes hives with screened bottom boards that were open and exposed to the elements all winter. But I came close to losing all of my bees one winter from excessive moisture building up in the hive. I saved them by installing moisture quilts.

An emergency moisture quilt that saved this colony. (January, 2014.)

An emergency moisture quilt that saved this colony. (January, 2014.)

But in dryer climates, hard insulation was fine. I’m more inclined to use moisture quilts on my 3-deep hives because with more bees they will naturally produce more condensation from the bees’ respiration. Where I keep my bees now, in Flatrock, it isn’t nearly as humid as my previous location in Logy Bay, so I’m confident I can use a mixture of moisture quilts and hard insulation. (We’ll see.)

Another option is to place a ventilation rim (or an empty moisture quilt) over an inner cover. I’ve never done it, but apparently it provides excellent ventilation similar the D.E. Hive sold in Newfoundland by Gerard Smith. The great thing about a moisture quilt is it’s cheap, it probably works as good if not better than most commercially available ventilation aids, and even someone like me with minimal carpentry skills can make it. It’s easily the most useful non-standard year-round hive component I use in my beekeeping.

Update (October 2019): As much as I love my moisture quilts — because they literally saved all of my colonies when I kept bees in the foggy damp winter land of Logy Bay — they’re not necessarily the best winter ventilation aid out there. I have little doubt that they wick away all the moisture inside a winter hive, but they also allow a fair bit of heat to escape from the hive along with the moisture, which could be a problem for the bees on extremely cold days. I make my moisture quilts with a piece of screen that holds a pile of moisture-absorbing wood chips. But a piece of canvas, burlap or even cotton might help retain more heat while still allowing moisture to pass through. So even my much-beloved moisture quilts are a work in progress.

STEP 4: I wrapped my hives in black roofing felt for several years. The wrap acts as a windbreak and produces some ambient heat for the bees whenever the sun comes out.

Update (October 2019): I began an experiment this year with painting my hives black, something I picked up from a beekeeper in Alaska who keeps bees close to a cold damp body of water like me. I will likely write about it in the future once I see how it works out. I imagine that black-painted hives would cook the bees alive in warmer sunnier climates, or even in Newfoundland where the bees are in full sunlight all day. But in the winter, close to the ocean, in an area where the hives aren’t in the sun all day, black painted hives might do well. They might even do better than wrapped hives because the heat from the black paint should absorb directly into the wood where it immediately warms up the bees. I’ve compared temperature readings of hives painted dark-green and hives painted black, and the surface temperature of the black hives was usually 5-10°C warmer than the dark-green hives.

A hive wrapped in roofing felt.

A hive wrapped in roofing felt.

My hives are well sheltered, so they don’t need any kind of windbreak. My hives are also painted dark green, so when the sun hits them, they warm up just fine. Under these conditions, if my hives were in sunlight for most of the day throughout the winter, I wouldn’t bother wrapping them. But that’s not the case. In the winter with the sun low on the horizon most of the time, the spruce trees around my beeyard cast shadows over everything. My hives are in the shade most of the day throughout the winter. So I’ve decided, despite the hassle of it, I will wrap my hives. I’d like to try black plastic pallet wrap, but I can’t get my hands on any, so I’ll probably stick with my roofing felt. I know of a commercial product called a “Bee Cozy” that is apparently a wonderful thing, but it seems like overkill to me, and it’s too expensive. I don’t want my bees so warm that they eat through all the honey before springtime. Black roofing felt or even black plastic pallet wrap (if I can find any) seems like a reasonable middle ground. Hives that I know contain small colonies that can’t produce as much heat on their own will get the wrap.

Bees that starved to death in March 2013.

Bees that starved to death in March 2013.

STEP 5: I can’t think of anything else. I put on the mesh to keep shrews and mice out. I probably wouldn’t wrap my hives if they were painted a dark colour, were sheltered and got plenty of sunlight. I’ve got the first two but not the last one. With the lack of winter sunlight in my particular location, I think I’m safer off wrapping my hives. I use moisture quilts for insulation and ventilation, though I may use hard insulation over the inner cover on some hives unless I see condensation building up inside. I slip in no-cook sugar cakes over the top bars long before the bees need it, just to be safe. I feed pollen patties to weaker colonies, though probably not until the new year. Once the bees start eating sugar, I check on them at least once a week to make sure they don’t eat through all their sugar and starve. I use a stethoscope in the winter to listen to the cluster. I’m testing out an infrared camera to monitor my bees throughout the winter starting in 2016-17 (the jury is out on that one). I clear the snow away from the bottom entrance, but I generally don’t worry too much about it being clogged with snow from time to time.

In the spring when the weather warms up and no flowers are yet in bloom (which sometimes doesn’t happen until June in Newfoundland), if the bees are starving, I’ll feed them sugar syrup. If they’ll be dead within days (no honey at all), I’ll use hive top feeders or frame feeders that allow them to suck down massive amounts of syrup in a hurry. If they have some honey frames left, though, I’ll give them sugar syrup through a jar feeder so they can get a steady flow of syrup without overdosing and going wild on it. I’ve overfed my bees and created swarms and gigantic colonies too many times. I get enough honey from moderately sized colonies that are a lot less work. And that’s the way I like it.

I think that covers it.

This is the longest, ramblingest post I’ve ever written. It could have been a single paragraph, but being sick in bed and fueled by Nyquil tends to bring out the rambler in me. Please don’t take anything I say seriously. There’s a good chance I’ll delete this in the hard light day tomorrow. Sláinte!

12 thoughts on “How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter

  1. I keep top bar hives, but I find your blog interesting because of the weather you deal with. (BTW, that hive buried in snow must have been quite a spectacle!)

    Hope you keep writing and sharing your observations and practices!

    • I hope I don’t have to dig another hive out of the snow like that again. I’ve had to do it a few times. My hives are in a better location now, well sheltered from the wind and unlikely to get buried in a snow drift. I hope.

      I have stats for every post on this blog, what posts are clicked and how long a visitor stays online. Most appear to be random clicks, staying online for less than two minutes. I know some people read my posts. But the vast majority of visitors (less than 200 a day) come and go and don’t come back. I’m not complaining, though, and I’m not bothered by it. It’s somewhat liberating to think that not many people are listening. I can say anything! When I had 1000+ returning visitors every day, I was more self-conscious of how I expressed myself. I made sure everything I wrote was G-rated and as concise as possible. Not that I feel the need to curse like a sailor, but I may give myself more permission to be a little more expressive. My tendency is to ramble on aimlessly and see where it takes me. This could be fun.

  2. Thanks for posting this. Being a northern Wisconsinites, I agree with all you suggested! And while you claim to not know much, I have heard much the same advice in my local beekeeping club. Thanks again and good luck with your hives!

    • Shrews are without question the worst thing to happen to my bees since I started in 2010. Extremely cold weather, hives soaking wet inside, mice eating comb and nesting inside the hives — none of them were as fatal as having shrews eat away at the brood nest all winter. Horrible.

      I’m using the 6mm mesh to keep them out this winter, but it appears I might need a better solution for next year because the dead bees are piling up already, which is normal, but normally the bees can clear the dead bees out of the hive on warm days. Not anymore. They still have the upper entrance and moisture quilt for ventilation, so I’m not too concerned, but those rotting dead bees are going to stink to high heaven when they thaw out in the spring.

      • Those poor bees. Maybe you could assist by scraping the dead ones out every so often? I check our hive entrances weekly and pull out any dead bees caught in the mouse guard. Our entrances are smaller as we have wooden entrance reducers in and a mouse guard over the top, but then we have a open mesh floor for ventilation.

  3. I love your blogs and find them really helpful. I am a new beekeeper in sw ontario and am going into my first winter. It has been unseasonably mild and I have been poking around and feeding syrup but have moved onto dry sugar. I find your posts to be practical and help me make up my mind to do something or not with my hives. I am using hard insulation for heat retention but a going to build two quilts ( only have two hives), in case I see moisture build up. Keep posting. When do you start really digging around in your hives in the spring- temps and dates?

    • Kevin, spring inspections all depend on weather. Around here there’s no firm date, but roughly sometime in April or May when the temperature is close to 10°C.

  4. I really like your blog, thank you. I have had a hive for the past 2 years in Anchorage Alaska, bees have not survived 2 of the warmest winters on record. Based on the “mentoring” of a local beekeeper I didn’t do anything to hives. Turns out all his bees die every winter also…………… This year I am thinking of moving bees into garage where temps stay just above freezing all winter, I also plan to feed them. If we have any warm days I will crack open garage door for them. It will at least be an experiment. Have you tried this or know anyone that has?

  5. Sorry to hear that. The good news is you now have drawn comb from your dead colonies that will come in very handy for any new colonies you start up.

    I’ve never moved my hives to a garage or shed, though I know people who do, basically to keep them out of the wind.

    Wrapping and some sort of insulation (hard insulation or moisture quilt / quilt box) and loading them up with lots of sugar might be easier. I’ve posted many photos and videos off those things.

    If your clusters are large and your winters have been warm, the bees may be eating through their honey faster (they usually eat more honey during warmer winters). Even with hives full of honey, sometimes the bees can’t get to the honey, but the bees can always move up. Lots of sugar over the top bars has saved more than a few of my colonies.

    Varroa mites could be part of the problem, too, but I don’t know anything about that. No Varroa in Newfoundland.

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