Beekeeping requires time and money, so the last thing you want is cold weather to wipe out your colony. Preparing beehives for winter isn’t difficult, but it’s essential if you live in a chilly climate.
An estimated 45% of managed colonies1 were lost in the United States from April 2020 to April 2021. That’s a lot of bees. In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to winterize a beehive so that nothing gets missed. It could be critical to the survival of your colony.
10-point checklist for winterizing a beehive
Inspecting beehives in the fall allows you to assess the overall health of the colony. Making sure that the population is large enough and there’s plenty of honey is a good starting point. To take winter prepping to the next level, cover off all the following points.
1. Check colony strength
A weak beehive with low numbers will struggle through the cold months. Even hives that are prepped for winter will suffer many casualties. A thriving colony is much more likely to get through adversity than an under-populated one. Low numbers mean the bees can’t stay warm enough and die off.
If you have a weak colony, then your best option is to combine it with a stronger one before the weather gets too cold. Check out our guide on how to combine beehives to learn more.
2. Insert an entrance reducer
An entrance reducer, as the name suggests, reduces the size of the hive’s opening. It will reduce food robbing other bees, which is where the invaders tear open capped cells and steal the colony’s valuable honey. Other animals will also have a tougher job getting access to the hive.
An entrance reducer can be kept in place throughout the year, although using one in winter is especially important. No gadget offers 100% security, but it will make life for the guard bees much easier.
An added bonus of the entrance reducer is that it helps moderate temperature and ventilation within the hive.
3. Check the colony’s food supplies
During winter, bees increase their food intake to fuel their higher energy requirements. Staying warm and keeping the queen at a comfortable temperature requires a lot of energy. Colony honey consumption may reach 90lb, which is much higher than their summer requirements.
Honey plays another vital role in the beehive’s survival during winter. It absorbs heat from the sun, releasing it later in the night as the mercury drops.
As the cooler months arrive, beekeepers should check honey supplies are sufficient. Taking too much honeycomb out of the hive will spell disaster for the colony.
Knowing how much honey the colony needs is a tough question. It will vary depending on variables like the number of bees, climate, type of hive, and location. Experience and advice from other local beekeepers will help answer this question.
Another way to work out how much honey your colony needs to get through winter is to follow some basic guidelines. Beekeepers can calculate the amount of honey required (by weight) based on the type of climate.
Refer to the below table to work out your colony’s honey requirements for winter. You can expect roughly 4 pounds of honey from a shallow, 6 pounds from a medium, and 8 pounds from a deep.
|Type of climate||Honey required||Number of deep frames|
|Warm Southern states||35-45 lbs||4|
|Moderate temp. states||55-65 lbs||6|
|Cold Northern states||75-85 lbs||10|
4. Ensure the honey supplies are well located
Bees organize their brood and food stores the way they like it, so usually it’s best not to interfere. Sometimes bees get it wrong, and the beekeeper should step in and help.
In a top bar hive, the honey bars should be to one side of the cluster, while Warré and Langstroth beehives should have honey frames on top and either side of the cluster.
The cluster needs to be able to move as a group in one direction to eat the food stores. It isn’t good if there’s a divide and the cluster moves in two directions. They need to stay in their winter cluster to stay warm once the temperature drops below 50°F (10°C).
5. Remove wasted space
Honey bees expend massive amounts of energy keeping the winter cluster warm. A winterized hive shouldn’t have any unused space like empty boxes or top bars. They’ll cause heat to escape and make the bees work harder than necessary.
Getting rid of unnecessary spaces will also reduce the chance of unwanted moths, mice, and other critters moving in.
6. Insulate the hive
As winter approaches, wrap the hive with a foam sheet to provide extra warmth. Be sure to cut a hole so that the entrance is still clear.
Foam is a good option as it won’t heat the hive so much that the bees think it’s okay to get to work outside the hive.
At the same time as insulating the hive’s exterior, add a layer of scrap wool, quilt batting, or newspaper under the roof. This is an important step that will prevent condensation from dripping down. This moisture is caused by the worker bees flapping their wings to generate heat.
Avoid insulating the top or bottom of the beehive as this results in poor ventilation. This may create mold in the hive which isn’t ideal.
7. Create a windbreak
Ventilation is good for a hive, but too much wind isn’t good. After the hive is insulated, you may want to further protect the hive by erecting a wind barrier. A permanent windbreak like fencing or a line of evergreens will protect the colony from prevailing winds.
Hay bales are a simpler way to shut out the wind, but they may attract mice so use them as a last option.
Whatever windbreak you decide on, set them us at about 6 feet from the beehives. Any closer and you’ll inhibit airflow.
8. Remove the queen excluder
Beekeepers that use a queen excluder are usually best to remove it to further winterize the beehive. This means the cluster doesn’t have to separate if it wants to access stored food. With the excluder gone, the queen can move with the cluster to any section of the hive.
9. Mouse-proof the hive
Every effort should be taken to make sure mice don’t gain access to the hive. They seek out the hive’s warmth as well as the pollen and honey supplies. Although a mouse won’t eat bees, it is still the hive’s most invasive pest during winter and a common reason for colonies starving.
Mouse guards are a great way to keep them out. You could also create a wall of pointy nails or cover most of the entrance with a hardware cloth. These protective barriers will allow bees to come and go but should deter something bigger like a mouse. Of course, you’ll also want to keep honey boxes off the ground.
Read our article on how to keep mice out of hives to learn more.
10. Varroa mite inspection
Varroa mites are a huge threat to bees as they transfer life-threatening bacteria and viruses between hives. They can destroy a colony without proper treatment.
Inspecting a hive for varroa mites is a year-round requirement, but they are most prevalent in late summer and fall. Beekeepers can use a sticky board to count the number of mites in a 3-day period.
If the varroa mite count is unacceptable then immediate action is crucial. Check out our varroa mite treatment guide to get answers.
While the other winterizing steps in this guide are set-and-forget activities, checking for mites is an ongoing requirement, even through the winter.
Do I need to winterize a beehive?
Winterizing beehives has become extremely important in recent decades. Global warming is causing extreme weather patterns, with some bitter winters putting stress on honey bees.
Modern beehives are another reason beehive winterizing is crucial. They don’t have the same insulation that the bees get from a cavity in a tree trunk.
Advantages of winterizing a beehive
Not all beekeepers choose to winterize their beehives. While this process isn’t so important in warmer climates, there are some real benefits to winterizing a hive.
- Surrounding the hive in insulation will keep the bees warmer, giving the bees more energy to access honey stores.
- There is less need to disturb the bees at a time when the hives should remain shut.
- Bees don’t burn as much energy so food supplies last longer.
- Insulated the hive ceiling will keep the hive dry.
- Beekeepers get increased peace of mind through winter.
How does temperature affect bee activity?
Weather conditions dictate honey bee activity, with temperature having a big impact. As the mercury drops, so too does the level bee output.
- Drones and the queen will remain in the hive as the temperature drops below 70° F (21.1° C).
- Worker bees will stop flying and rearing brood, instead choosing to cluster when temperatures reach mid-to-low 50° F (10° – 12.9° C).
Handy gadgets that can help during winter
There is a range of devices that beekeepers can use to help their hives get through winter. A special infrared camera will show the position of the cluster and its internal temperature. Humidity monitors, like the BroodMinder, are also useful tools for analyzing the internal hive condition without having to open it up.
Commonly asked questions
When should I winterize my beehives?
In climates that experience cold winters, beekeepers should do a final hive inspection in fall before the first cold snap arrives. Once winter sets in, avoid opening the hive unless there is an emergency. The final beehive inspection in late fall is known as “putting the bees to bed”.
Should I feed bees sugar water in winter?
It is never a good idea to feed honey bees in winter as they have to work extremely hard to metabolize the solution. This increases moisture within the hive which encourages mold, disease, and fungi. Cold droplets of water may also drip onto the brood, causing it to chill.
Should I move beehives inside during winter?
Some beekeepers choose to transfer their hives into a garage or shed during winter. It is okay to move the hives, but make sure it is done after foraging season. Moving too early will mean foragers collecting pollen won’t be able to locate the hive on their return.
What should I feed starving bees in winter?
If your bees are low on food supplies, then beekeepers can help out by offering sugar bricks, candy boards, or fondant. Although this may help, it is no replacement for honey and pollen stores.
Can I feed my bees pollen in winter?
Feeding pollen in winter to a colony will encourage them to boost their population. This is the last thing a colony needs as they struggle through the cold months. The only time pollen is recommended, is when commercial beekeepers stimulate brood production mid-winter in preparation for February pollination contracts.
Will prepping beehive for winter safeguard my colony?
Even the best-prepared beekeeper will lose bees through winter. When spring arrives, having multiple beehives will give you the flexibility to split hives and re-built lost colonies.
Why do bees die over winter?
Many factors are working against honey bees in winter. The most common causes include cold weather extremes, lack of food, pests, mites, poor genetics, and ineffective ventilation.
Winterizing a beehive is an important role for beekeepers in cold climates. Erratic weather patterns, introduced pests, and modern beehives are all contributing to winter bee losses. Checking off the 10 steps above will give your colony a greater chance of survival.
For new beekeepers, the first winter is usually a rough one. There may be a strong temptation to open the hive to check how they’re faring. Avoid doing this unless there’s a compelling emergency; you’ll just expose the colony to the elements, making them work harder than they already must.
Of course, if you’re in Florida or some other warm part of the world, this isn’t a page you need to worry about 😉