Preparing Honeybees for Winter

Winter will soon be upon us here in northwest Washington State.  That can mean endless days of rain, or, as predicted in this year, lots of snow.  I personally hope for rain.  The beekeeper in me hopes for snow.

Snow covered beehives at Brookfield Farm, Washington

Light Snow in Winter of 2009

Snow means the bees will go into cluster.  They will form a “ball”, an expression that always amuses me. This “ball” is broken by 5 to 7 vertical frames, on which the bees cluster.  They seem to make it work.

As I understand it, the workers circulate from the center of the cluster – where the queen is – to the outside of the cluster on a continuous basis.  This allows the cluster to average 92 degrees Fahrenheit.  The center of the cluster is warmer.  The outer edges are colder.  As long as the cluster remains large enough to maintain a 92 degree average, and can reach honey, or bee candy in an emergency, they will probably survive.

Snow is warm.  It cocoons the hive.  Temperatures are easier to maintain.  Feeding drops to a minimal level.  No eggs are laid.  Rain is warm and wet.  Wet is a bee killer.  They can’t get dry.  Their temperature drops.  The cluster no longer averages 92 degrees.  They don’t slow down on eating.  They eat their stores.  Their numbers dwindle.  They die.  Rain’s a real bummer, and in the Pacific Northwest rainwater finds the tiniest cracks and gets into the hive (and your house, and your truck and your barn and your tractor – sorry a bit of a digression).

I believe in preparing for the worst: lots of rain and high winds that will drive the water into the hive.  So what follows is what I’m doing to protect my bees as much as I can.  It breaks down into the following:

1) Leave them enough food.

2) Put the mouse guard on.

3) Balance the hives or merge them.

4) Feed, feed, feed.

5) Wrap them up and put a hat on them.


1) Leave them enough food: 50 pounds of honey is what they say a hive needs to get through the winter.  I don’t carry a scale around.  Some beekeepers do – bless their souls.  When my bees were all Russian stock they were happy to get though winter in 2 westerns (medium boxes).  I only use westerns.  I can’t lift a deep.  But I open breed.  My queens buzzed off and met some of our local guys (Italians, Minnesota Hygienics, and Feral bees all live or are kept here) and their children and subsequent queens are no longer pure Russian.  Russians over-winter in small clusters.  They don’t each much.  Everyone else chows down.  So these days I leave 3 boxes.  Usually the bottom one has at least 3 or more frames of brood in it when I pull the honey.  The upper boxes usually have 8 to 10 frames of honey or nearly sealed honey.  Younger hives, which don’t have that amount of stores, are given frames of honey from larger hives.

2) Mice love hives in winter.  What’s there not to love?  The hive is warm, dry, and has tons of food.  Of course the mice stress the bees, distroy the combs, and usually kill the hive.   Mouse guards can be wood strips with a small entrance cut in them; hardware cloth jammed into the hive entrace to reduce the opening, metal with ¼ inch holes stapled across the front, or, in my case, ½ inch hardware cloth on a wooden frame.

Wood & Wire Mouse Guards at bees' entrance

Mouse Guards On Hives

The frame runs the entire length of the hive entrance, but reduces the openings though which the bees travel to around ¼ inch.  This has worked well for me.  But whatever you choose, get them on before the mice start searching for a home.

3) Balance or merge hives: A hive that seems nearly strong enough to get though the winter can be given brood and nurse bees from strong, overpopulated hives. This should give them enough workers to get through the winter.  How to determine a hive’s strength falls into the realm of “experience”, also known as having killed hives in the past.

Personally, I merge hives.  If I have a weak hive and a nuc with a good queen, I put the good nuc on top of the weak hive with a piece of pierced newspaper in between.  In a week I’ve a stronger hive and I take away what’s left of the newspaper.  I’ve read the queen in the top box wins the resulting queen battle.  I figure the stronger queen has the upper hand, or leg in her case.  One could find the weak queen and kill it before the merge.  This would be good.  This would require time, something I don’t have.  I do always make nucs.  It disrupts the varroa mites and gives me good, if small hives when I need them.  When I don’t need them I over winter them on top of stronger hives.  There’s nothing like under-floor heating in the winter.  My home should have it.

4) Feed, feed, feed.  I’m taking their food away.  I’ve got to give them something back.  I feed a cane-sugar syrup which is about 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, supplemented by spearmint, lemon grass and thyme essential oils.  Honey is better.  If I left them all their honey, I’d be out of business.  I don’t need pets; I need an income.  The essential oils seem to help my bees with varroa and nosema. At least my bees survive when they get the oils and die when they don’t (Yes, I tried that as an experiment: no oils = dead hives).  Hive top feeders are, in my mind, the best.  I’ve friends who use others.  I use a low-budget version hive top feeder that I’ll chat about another time.

Having said the above, the most amazing hive I’ve seen in this area was an Italian hive whose keeper harvested honey in the spring.  If you’re keeping a home hive, I’d really suggest harvesting honey in the spring when the nectar is flowing.  You will have left your bees their food for the winter, and what you now harvest will soon be replaced.  Please note: the person who kept that hive did not depend on honey as a source of income.

5) Wrap them and give them a hat: I put roofing tarpaper around each of my hives.  It’s

Beehive winter hat being constructed in the late summer

Tar Paper Beehive Hat Being Made

held in place with pushpins.  This has held in gale-force winds.  I then make them a hat.  The hat is of the same roofing tarpaper.  Fold it like you’re wrapping a present on all but the bottom. I staple the edges.

How to make a winter beehive cover at Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, Washington

Folding & Stapling a Beehive Cover

Again this holds in high winds. I cut out an area for the upper entrance, and put colored tape around it so the bees can locate it.  After all, once wrapped, the hives all look alike: executioner hives I call them.  I’ll do a more detailed blog on wrapping soon.  And then I give them another hat (I’m obsessive): this is a square of roofing “felt” – asphalt rolls of roofing that you can find at any building store.  On top of this I put a big rock.  We have really strong winds and rain.

Then I hope.  I hope the queen does not die in the winter.  I hope the bees do not supercede the queen before drones fly in the spring.  I hope they have enough honey.  I hope I gave them enough feed.  I hope they have enough bees to keep warm.  I hope they don’t get any disease that will kill them.  I hope they make it to spring.  Hope springs eternal in a beekeeper’s breast.






About brookfieldfarmhoney

Brookfield Farm, a small off-grid apiary in Maple Falls, WA focuses on the beauty and bounties of Washington’s wilderness. I sell honey from our bees, whose naturally-treated, antibiotic-free hives are home to bees who fly Washington’s mountains and farmlands. Herbal salves and lip balms from Brookfield beeswax. Delicately infused honeys and vinegars. Varietal honeys from independent Washington beekeepers. Karen Edmundson Bean: beekeeper, photographer. Her love of the wilderness inspires her to discover new ways of bringing the wonders of nature to others. Brookfield Farm : the tastes, textures, sounds, and images of nature.
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12 Responses to Preparing Honeybees for Winter

  1. J Libby says:

    Thank you…came across some bees (not more than 10) huddled in one of my birdhouses. Didn’t know what to figure. But figured since they were in the upper corner were trying to stay warm. Hope your bees are good.

    • The poor girls, that’ a pretty untenable position for them : too few, too cold, no food, but you know all that.. I wonder if they were out foraging and got caught in the rain. Was there a queen with them? My bees have just started to fly, when it’s not raining, so I’m pretty happy. Alder should be in pollen soon, and then I’ll do pop some hives for an assessment on a warm day. Thanks for asking.

  2. Jodi inman says:

    I am so disappointed. I just checked my hive, and all my bees died. Is this a bad winter for the bees? They had more than enough food. Just to make sure, I put some sugar water out for them a week ago. Now they are gone. Did I kill them by opening their hive? I live in Monroe, kind of near-ish to you. Do you have any words of wisdom or condolense?

    • Be gentle with yourself. We are trying to raise and maintain livestock that is not really suited to our environment. Plus NORMAL (!) loss is considered to be 30% of your hives. So if you have one hive you have a high chance of it not making it though the winter. Spring (which we’ll get to soon, I hope) is a real “death of bees” time. Hives that look good in Feb can be dead by March. All sorts of reasons…But a few general questions and possibilities: Was the cluster small? Were they face down and butt up in the cells? Then they starved. Even with all that food. When a cluster is small, it can’t move to the honey, even if it’s next to them. Think freezing to death, but you can see food a few feet away, but you can be too cold to move to it. People die like that, so do bees. What kind of bees did you have? I’m not pro-Italian (they eat too much and have too many young). I think dark bees are better suited to our area. Any obvious brown staining? Nosema and dysentery can hit in the spring and bring down a hive (in cold, better to feed fondant – candy – than liquid, the bees can’t dry out the liquid in this cold). How old was the queen? Any sign of queen cells? Bees don’t always pick the best time to requeen, sometimes they don’t have any choice “queen crapped out” is sited by many beekeepers for winter losses. IMPORTANT: any sign of foul brood? American or European? Both diseases have been seen in Whatcom and Skagit county, so they’re probably south of here too. As you can see many possibilities. Do check for disease before you get another package of bees. And know, we all lose hives, it’s part of beekeeping – but yes, it’s a real bummer…My heart is with you.

  3. Julia Harmon says:

    Do you have a recipe for the syrup with the essential oils for the fall feeding? Do you not use nosema meds then?

    • (or the simple way : put “essential” into the search area. Now it’s a bit old, so I would add that I now add about 2 TB of white Vinegar to the mix — it helps make the pH of the mix more digestible for the bees. I only used the nosema stuff made from Oak Tannen one year – last year — it didn’t seem to make much difference. I will say that I now only feed about 1/2 gallon of the essential oil mix to the bees – A friend had a study that showed the syrup helps bring on the nosema! Ahhhhh — you just can’t win. Oh, and another person said that if you mix your oils into the dry sugar before you add the sugar to water you can forgo the lecithin – I’ve not tried that yet….

  4. Teresa Justice says:

    This is the first year my husband has had bees. We live in eastern Ky and just had 1 1/2 ft of snow. It has been mild until now. He wants to know if he should sweep off the snow. He did not have anything but the cover on top.

    • I just saw a photo of your snow in the NYTimes – quite a lot if unexpected. I do not sweep off the snow on mine. It acts to a certain degree as insulation. When it starts to warm up and the snow turns to slush – then I would knock the slush off of the hive. Remember: cold doesn’t kill a strong hive, but water will kill very quickly. Hope that helps, and that your temperatures improve soon.

  5. Jordan Clarke says:

    Hello Brook Field Farm Honey! I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. I found it very informative, relational and etched with enough humor too bring it to a personal level. This is my first year with my family venturing out into the Beekeeping World. It has been a year of wonder and awe aswe witnessed first hand a 4 framed nuc turn into a thriving community of thousands of active bees. We live in South Western Ontario here in Canada so insulating our hive is a given. Thanks to information I found here and a couple of other articles, I’m constructing a wrap for our bee hive. There are 2 brood supers and 2 shallow honey boxes on top (all are full). We’re going to leave all the honey so that they have enough food for the winter. Besides making a wrap I’m also going to build a wind break from the prevailing Westerlies and the North-Westerlies as they can be strong & bring that arctic cold with them. Thanks again for your help, God Bless!

    • Sitting here catching up, finally – I think I wrote, I hope I wrote when you wrote…Congratulations on a successful year – South West Ontario makes us look like the tropics. Good on you to leave the bees their honey, expecially in the first year. Better to have successful bees than a bit of honey, I always say (often as I’m putting frames of honey into hives in the fall – we can have odd seasons here and odd areas where 10 miles can make a huge difference in honey crop.

  6. Peter Agostine says:

    Why do I have such a large number of dead bees on the ground outside hive.
    After the fist freeze I noticed this. Within a week there was a large pile of dead bees, hundreds. I looked inside and there still seems to be plenty of bees. I still see some action with them flying around. Do they die off because they know there is not enough honey for all of them to make through the winter? If so I have not found any literature on this.
    This will be their second winter here in the Olympic Northwest.
    I removed two gallons of honey this fall.
    The hive consists of two undisturbed supers.

    • Hi Peter – always hard to say without seeing the hive, but my guess would be that this is pretty normal. If it was a strong hive going into winter, there would have been a lot of bees that would have reached the end of their lives. Normally, the living bees haul these bees out the front, and fly them a ways from the hive. In winter, it’s rather like, “that’s close enough”, the bees shove the dead ones out the door and out of the hive (if it’s really cold, they just drop them to the floor of the hive) Cleaning might have been done suddenly if it was cold where you are (it certainly was here a week or two ago). The living bees would have been in cluster, then a warm spell would have let them come out of cluster and do a bit of cleaning.

      The one thing to look for would be if any of the dead bees have deformed wings – if so, that virus is a sign of high varroa mites. I would be surprised, if that was so because there should be very little brood in the hive, and probably no drone brood (mites love drone brood, so roomy, so much food), but they’ll breed in any brood they can find.

      I’m betting that it’s just “end of life” for the dead and a cleaning moment for the living.

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