Overwintering Nucleus Hives Atop Strong Hives

Ready to face the snow: nucleus hive on a full hive under wraps

Nuc and Strong Hive Ready For Winter

Winter has arrived, bringing with it 6 inches of snow, bookended by torrential rains.  My hives are all wrapped up: insulation above the top bars, roofing tar paper around the outsides, rolled asphalt “roofs” secured with sash cord.  This will help keep the full, strong hives warm and dry through our long winter.  But nucs face a challenge.

Nucleus hives don’t have enough bees to keep themselves warm in the winter.  Which is why you often see nucs sitting on top of full hives in winter bee yards.  That’s what I do at Brookfield Farm in Maple Falls, Washington.

(The photo was taken before the snow started falling. It’s nice to remember the green leaves.)

Many beekeepers just place the nucs on top of the stronger hive, but I wanted something a bit different.  There were a number of reasons:



Considerations In Nuc/Hive Stacking:

1) My hives all have top entrances, I wanted to maintain that for both the strong hive and the nuc.

2) Some winters seem to go on forever up here and I get worried about bee stores and want to slip the ladies a little bee candy in the new year.

3) I had read that in colder climates two pieces of wood would just about eliminate any “underfloor heating” the nuc would gain by sitting on a strong hive.  1/8th inch hardware cloth screens were suggested.

4) Screens worry me: debris from the nuc would rain down on the strong hive.

So after a bit of head scratching, I came up with a design for a “hive separator” and Ian, my woodworker husband, made a few.  The design has its flaws, some of which you’ll see in the photos.  The flaws will be remedied when he makes the next batch.


The design was based on a bottom board, and the flaws in that will soon become apparent, but they could all be worked around


Area below bottom screen in winter hive separator

Below the Bottom Screen of Nuc


The top rim should be 2 inches tall. (The photo shows an early design, the top rim was not tall enough, so I put an extension on these: a 1.5 inch “collar”).  The bottom screen of the nuc will sit on this platform.

Tiny holes – one-eighth inch – are drilled through the board to allow for heat to flow upward from the strong hive below

Underfloor heating holes in a winter hive separator

1/8th inch holes

Because of the design flaw, I add a “collar” that brings the drop below the nuc’s bottom screen to two inches.

The 2 inch drop is in case there are varroa.  I have read that varroa cannot climb up 2 inches, who knows why.  Hopefully just they just lack the will power.

The collar has propolis on it because the collars are normally used on top of hives during feeding and for winter insulation. They just happened to work here as well.

Rim to bring winter hive separator's edge to 2 inches high

Collar Plus Rim = 2 inches

Insulation is placed around the edges of the top 2 inch rim, in hopes of keeping the warm air in the “tower”.

Insulation around the drop area of a winter hive separator

Insulation in Place

All of the above sits under the nuc’s bottom board and above the strong, lower hive.  The separator replaces the top of the lower hive.

Winter hive separator set up from front of strong hive

Set Up from Strong Hive's Front


This is a demonstration of what the set up would look like from the front of the strong hive.  I built it up in my hayloft/work area because all the hives are under cover now.

The blue box at the bottom would be the top box of the strong hive.  I only use westerns, so each strong hive overwinters in 3 or 4 boxes.

The two little holes in the separator are the lower hive’s top entrances.  I have found two small bee-size holes (7/16th inch) work well, get much larger around here and the mice will get in!

Above the separator is the 2 inch extension collar – the new separators will have the correct depth (I think I keep saying that to remind myself to do it).

The blue above the extension is the BACK of the nuc’s bottom screen.  All my hives are on bottom screens (one-eighth inch hardware cloth).  No solid bottoms are on any of my hives.  The nuc faces the opposite way than the strong hive.

The yellow box represents where the nuc would be.  Yellow’s pretty until it gets dirty.


The nuc's front entrance on a Winter Hive Separator set up.

The Back of the strong hive; Front of the nuc


The view from the nuc’s front entrance, which is just at the top of the frame.

The black square is a covered hole. The extensions are collars that are normally used for top entrances, feeding, and insulation.

The piece of unpainted wood is a design flaw. It’s an opening where no opening should be.

The removeable cover: This opens the back of the strong hive, just above the top bars. I worry when winters get longer than normal, and like to shove in a little bee candy “just in case”.  Sometimes they eat it.  Most of the time they ignore it.  But it makes me feel better.  The hole in the cover is screened: it’s a ventilation concept that seems to work (but that’s another story)


Feed Slot and Cover on a Winter Hive Separator

How to get in


This is with the feed slot open. Normally you would see the tops of the frames, but that was a little too much to set up for this demonstration.








The bottom area of the board:

  • The design allows for 3/8 inch of space above the lower hive.
  • The lower hive’s top entrance, a 7/16-inch hole is at the front.
  • The back is a removable wooden slat.  This allows me to slide bee candy in for the lower hive if the winter lasts a month or two longer than expected.  (Each hive goes into winter with 60-70lbs of honey and pollen, but I still worry –To say I worry about things is like saying the sun rises: it always happens).

The holes:

  • They are 1/8 inch (or less): bees cannot pass through
  • They allow the passage of warm air from the lower box to the upper box (the nuc)

The top area of the board:

  • The two inches is so that if there are mites in the nuc, when the bees clean themselves, they will fall to onto the board (and hopefully, not down onto the lower hive).  It is said that mites cannot climb back up into a hive after a two-inch fall.
  • The edge insulation is my attempt not to lose too much heat as the warmth travels through that 2 inch “mite drop” zone


Both Nuc and Strong Hive Have or Share:

Both the nuc and the strong hive have top entrances

Both are wrapped in tarpaper

A piece of asphalt roofing sheet “rain hat” is secured to the hive with sash cord.

Strong hives overwinter in at least 3 westerns.

Nucleus hives overwinter in 2 westerns.  (I only use westerns in my operation because I can’t lift anything bigger.)

Strong hive below nucleus hive wrapped for winter

Ready For Winter


It makes quite the tower when it’s done, because it is a stack of 5 westerns.

I also use the separators in the spring.  Here nucs are being kept warm on top of strong hives prior to their move to nSpring time use of winter hive Separatorsew bee yards.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.

How do you overwinter nucs?  I’m always interested to find a better way.

I thought of peg board (predrilled holes) for the board between the two areas. I don’t really like to drill holes.  But Ian, the woodworker husband, says that the peg board would disintegrate in our damp weather.  Any ideas?


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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5 Responses to Overwintering Nucleus Hives Atop Strong Hives

  1. This is a great guide for helping a nuc to survive over wintering. Thank you for sharing. You are lucky to have a woodworker husband – essential for any beek!

    • Yes, he’s very handy – I think I’ll keep him after 23 (or is it 24 years). Even better than his woodworking abilities, which are fabulous, he has the patience and determination to drive 2.5 hours each way to the Seattle Fremont Market every Sunday! Me? I go only on the first Sunday of the month. The drive’s a killer.

  2. Pingback: Preparing Bees For Winter Part 3: Nucleus Hives in Winter | Brookfield Farm Bees & Honey Blog

  3. Rick says:

    Hoping that you still monitor this post. I have a similar situation here in VA: a package which never quite got the second hive body going so I have a single hive body going into winter. Instead of using a board with drilled holes, would a screened board made of window screen work? Are the different pheromones in the same basic space a problem?

    • Hi Ric – sorry for the delayed response. It’s been crazed in the bee yard and at markets. Two options I can think of : 1) You would need to make a screen board with two screens, separated by maybe a 1/4 inch. I bet that wasn’t very clear. So, make a “frame” the dimensions of a bee box, but about 1/4 inch tall. Put screen on both sides so there is that 1/4 inch gap. Without the separation, the queens can get near each other and kill each other though the screen. 2) A friend uses peg board (that compressed board that has little holes drilled in it) He just cuts a piece that matches the dimensions of the bee box and puts it between the large hive (bottom) and nuc (top). Hope that helps. Oh, the bees don’t seem to mind the mixed pheromones – but the queens do – that’s why the gap or something they can’t sting through.

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