Honeybee Hives: Wintering Bees

There may be snow on the ground and ice on the trees, but your bees are a balmy 96 degrees inside their honeybee hives. Here's the lowdown on wintering bees.
James A. Zitting
GRIT's Guide to Backyard Bees and Honey 2011
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If you feel like you must do something for your hive, set bales of hay or sheets of plywood around the hive (not up against) in late fall to protect it from strong winds.
iStockphoto.com/Andrzej Petelski
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Believe it or not, bees do not hibernate or sleep all winter. How can that be, you wonder? Their survival depends on the heat they generate as they cluster together in a ball inside honeybee hives. The bees maintain a temperature of 96 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the cluster all winter long, so wintering bees becomes quite simple.

The process of warm air emanating from the cluster making contact with the cold, flat surface above them results in a build-up of moisture (or condensation), much like the water that forms on a cold glass and runs down to make a ring on your mother-in-law’s antique end table. Standing water is never a good scenario, whether it’s in a beehive or on an antique end table.

Our local bee clubs usually teach us to give the bees ventilation on top of the hive as well as the bottom entrance; this is to prevent humidity from building up on the ceiling of the hive only to drip into the cluster, freezing them. However, this extra ventilation is problematic because the air draft requires more energy from the clustered bees to maintain 96 degrees and 50 percent humidity. In other words, they’ll have to eat more of their stored food (honey) than necessary.

In the wild, bees prefer to maintain a single opening at the bottom of the hive. A single opening allows them to fan fresh air or ventilate the hive as needed. Fanning also encourages excess moisture to be absorbed into the wood, for use in drier times. If there’s a serious excess of moisture in the hive, the bees can direct it out through the opening.  

Let nature take its course

So, realizing that the droplets of moisture building up on the cold, flat ceiling of the hive is a man-made problem, I avoid the situation by mimicking nature. My Homestead Hive (a top-bar type hive) is made with thick wood to emulate a hollow log, and I let the bees seal up all the cracks as they like to do anyway. I try not to open the hives in the cool of fall. If I must, I’ll press the hive parts back together to allow the propolis to reseal the hive.

Propolis. Propolis is a resin that the bees harvest from trees and plants in order to seal the cracks in the hive. It’s nature’s version of weather-stripping, and yes, it can be annoying. It’s sticky and messy, requiring hives to be pried apart. In commercial bee breeding, they have done their best to eliminate the pesky propolis through selective breeding.  

In nature, you’ll find that the propolis is extremely important to the well-being of the bees. It has medicinal value to the bees as an antibacterial. So if we look to nature as a guide, we should be breeding bees that still have the inclination to make copious amounts of sticky, messy propolis. We need to let our bees breed with the local survivor genetics so that if they want to make messy propolis, they can. Joel Salatin says, “We need to let pigs be pigs.” Pigs need to wallow in the mud. We need to let bees be bees and let them make sticky, messy propolis.

Feeding. For winter feeding of bees, we’re taught by commercial beekeepers to feed our bees high fructose corn syrup or sugar. The economics are simple: It’s cheaper to feed the bees subsidized substitutes. Winterizing the natural way includes making sure they have enough honey to last the winter. If you’re not sure how much to leave, then wait until spring to harvest. It’s painful to wait, I know. The benefit is healthier bees.

Protection. In nature, the bees are usually up in a tree where mice and other varmints can’t reach, so to compensate, we need to reduce the entrance of the hive to prevent mice from spending the winter inside the hive with the bees. Use a piece of wood to reduce the entrance of the hive to 3⁄8-inch high by about 3 or 4 inches long. (Entrance reducers are available to buy, but anything that blocks the opening will work.) The mice cannot squeeze through the 3⁄8-inch slot. What this does is make it easier for the bees to defend the opening. In the early spring, before nectar flows, the large colonies will rob the weaker ones if they cannot defend the entrances.

Warming. I know you’ll watch them from the window of your warm house all winter and wonder how they’re doing. “Should I warm up the hive for them?” “Maybe I should wrap them in a blanket?” It’s OK to watch, but after they’ve been sealed into a woody cavity, we need to let them experience the winter as they have done for 10 million years. When we warm a hive, it makes the bees think spring is here, and they’ll begin the brood production. This will result in your bees eating through the winter stores much faster, and this often leads to starvation.

Snow. You’ll wonder if you should clear the snow off the hive. Snow is actually a good insulator, so leave it be. If you get edgy and need something to do, I advocate taking some great winter pictures of the pristine snow on and around your hive. 

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Information from Karen Keb

You’ll often read about wrapping the hive in tar paper or straw for winter in extremely cold climates. This is a highly debated practice because the hive should never be entirely closed. The bees’ cluster produces warmth and humidity, and that air must be allowed to escape; if it can’t, the moist air will condense and drip onto the bees, harming them.

What you can do is set bales of hay or sheets of plywood around the hive in late fall to protect it from strong winds. Install 1⁄3-inch hardware cloth over the hive entrance to serve as a “mouse guard.”

Use the winter downtime to repair your equipment and get your extraction area in good order for the busy season.  


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