Now and then I will access SAWBAA’s news letter online, I cannot help myself in wanting to add to or take away from some of the suggestions made concerning the wintering of bees. I will comment on items as I feel needed. Some are good, and some are bad. Keep in mind my comments are only my opinion, and as always I expect others here to weigh the information against common sense and logic. Since beekeepers are already a highly intelligent group in general I think most of you here will be able to decipher things put forth.

Here is the page on the net I am commenting on.

My comments to the text in the news letter put out from SAWBAA’s August News Letter will be in between these two key strokes, < & >. Other wise this is the whole section on wintering hives in the letter.


Wintering Hives:

Is there a correct number of bees to have for successful overwintering? Most bees are summer foragers and will die shortly. You want young bees going into winter; so the queen needs to be laying eggs as much as possible.

Me here, notice the < >, My text is between these two key strokes. okay then, here we go;

<Not 100% true, in my opinion.

So, do not cage the queen for no reason. For wintering, it is important for the hive to bring on the new long lived bees that winter. If you cage the queen to obtain more honey then later there will not be young bees present to care for the brood that will end up wintering. The new long lived bees that are produced in fall before winter are fed better than usual, and go into winter with more body fat than their spring and summer counterparts. This will enable them to endure the length of winter, and still have protein on board in their bodies to care for new spring bees even if there is no fresh pollen coming into the hive.


There is a time when the colony needs to stop brooding to conserve stores, the bees, if genetically disposed to be conservative with stores, can figure this one out on their own. in my opinion, if they cannot figure this on their own then their genetics are not suitable for what ever area your keeping bees. So it is not the beekeepers choice to have a colony produce young bees out of season, this is the colonies choice.>

Tom Elliott starts feeding about 100 lbs of sugar as soon as he pulls the honey. He winters outside in three boxes. The top two are full of sugar and the bottom one is full of brood by the time winter arrives.

<Excellent stratagy, But then Tom is a very knowledgable beekeeper>

Steve V feeds but not heavily in August the queen will still lay eggs. In Sept, he feeds heavily two gallons a day to have a hive weight good for winter.

<Well, he almost got it right, in my opinion. September cannot be trust to always be conducive to bees being able to reduce sugar syrup as it can get to cold and wet early on in September. Like Tom above, feed early.

Only two gallons a day is rather slow when you can put ten gallons on at one time on the bottom. You can put 75 pound of dry sugar in solution at a rate of 2 to 1 sugar to water into a hive in only a few days using the bottom feed method. I can explain this method if needed, let me know if you are interested in this method by starting a new thread in a new post.>

Discussion on where the queen should be and brood placement. A person may need to add a super on the bottom for the queen to lay eggs.

<This probably should have been done much earlier on when the hive was building up in late spring during June. This is an unlimited brood nest method. Questions on this please start a new thread.>

Feed in August the same as in spring so the queen is still stimulated to lay eggs. Pour 25 lb bag of sugar into a 5-gallon bucket and fill with hot water. In September, the strategy alters. Use 25 lbs sugar plus more so there’s still sugar in the bottom.

<The bees should be shutting down brood rearing soon in late August to mid to late September, so stimulating them to brood out of season should be avoided. Feed 2 to 1 sugar syrup in August shortly after taking of honey.>

Bees don’t do well going through excluders in winter. In a double queen system, most of the bees go to the top leaving the bottom queen unattended except for a handful of workers. The queen excluder catches all the dead bees which cut off the air circulation.

<This seems to me to be a no brainer, wintering bees need lots and lots of ventilation, more than most beekeepers give.>

There is no “ideal” set-up. Every winter is different. Each strategy has an element of value to it. Wintering indoors and outdoors strategies are different. Don’t insulate too soon. Regardless of which, add a pollen patty on top in January to encourage the queen to lay eggs.

<Do not insulate to soon or to much.

I would not add pollen patties in January. Again the bees know when to begin brooding on their own, stimulating brood rearing will change the bees own strategy, and force them to brood to early, and as a result will also force the bees to use more stores than they normally would have. Another point here is adding pollen in January will force the bees to need to defecate sooner than normal and this will run the risk of the bees relieving themselves inside the hive because they may not be able to exit the hive because of weather. One more thing, opening the hive in January will stress the colony unless it is really warm, say upper 40’s Fahrenheit.>

It is important to have the bees have all the food they need to get through winter BEFORE winter arrives. Once the bees are clustered up and cold, they won’t be able to break cluster to take the sugar water. If they run out of food in January, candy will only extend their lives for a few weeks—not months.

<So feed before September, and feed enough early on so they can reduce the syrup before it gets to cold. Uncured and unsealed honey runs the risk of going rancid during winter and thwarting your efforts to winter. Bees forced to feed on rancid honey in winter can sicken bees.>

Most of the time, the most common reason of not being successful in overwintering is lack of food. Try to get them fed up to weight as quickly as you can.

>Bottom feed as soon as honey is taken off.>

40 degrees is the ideal temperature for surrounding air for overwintering. Hive and the Honeybee has an article on this. Cold stresses the bees. However, if it is warmer, then there is the difficulty of waste products, eating more food, and increased metabolic rates. At 40 degrees, the bees will come out of the hive by crawling out and will crawl to the light. It is important to have air circulation in the hive. Root cellaring of bees has been done a lot in this area. The hive needs to have an upper and a bottom entrance. Excess moisture is often a problem.

<No need for a top entrance if a screened bottom board is used, this will give lots of ventilation so the bees control their winter environment inside the hive on their own. Bees do this naturally.

Heat can stress bees too, best to let them control this. So the screened bottom board is good winter and summer.

In my opinion, a lower temperature than 40F is Okay if all their needs are met, That 40F number might be ideal for winter in Alaska inside, Dennis Murrel who kept bees in Delta in the 1970’s told me from his experimentations that mid 20’sF was ideal for him inside.>

How does one transport a hive? Transport them inside. Staple screens to the openings. Once the bees are placed at the wintering location, the screens are removed to allow the dead bees to be thrown out. If the wintering area is inside, red lights should be used. You will always see 3-4 bees crawling around. Foam hives will have more bees moving around. Those hives do the best in Steve’s wintering conex.

<Foam hives should have very little problems wintering outside, so no need to move them inside.>

Tom E. uses 4“ of Styrofoam. At 10 degrees the bees are not clustered. They are more active and use mre stores. He provides a 2”x1/4” opening at the top and bottom. Styrofoam at the top is a good idea. He usually has a 3” dead space on the bottom below the bottom entrance. This area will be filled with dead bees but will not plug the entrance air flow. Placing a 2×4 frame provides the dead space.

>This is an Okay strategy, More ventilation may be needed if in a moist environment.>

After the first part of August, most beekeepers said they didn’t manipulate frames. A Homer beekeeper has an extra box of feed in case his bees have burned through the feed in early spring. Even a medium box works as the cluster won’t move sideways to get the food. Add a box only on WARM days! It’s important to keep the hive out of the wind. The southside of the house gives the best protection for wintering outside. If you want to add a box, take the box inside until it’s warmed up. Then place it on top of the box of bees. This may be a good strategy if they’re out of food in March. Don’t take out frames or move the cluster—this is a disaster!

<Good strategy, traditionally this would be called a feeder box. I recommend using only one size box throughout the hive for uniformity, which gives the beekeeper ease of manipulation in the spring and summer.>

The inner cover can be notched to provide a ventilation hole approximately 2” x 1/2”. A circular hole works too. It’s shape is not important. You don’t want a large opening on the bottom or mice may enter and destroy the hive.

<Regardless the winter hive needs a mouse guard in place, 1/4″ hardware cloth placed securely over all entrances is needed. Shrews that are tiny can even get through this cloth, not much I know of that can help with tiny shrews. 1/4″ is as small as one can go reducing mice out of a hive.>

Jack Anderson discussed how used straw in top of the hive as read in Canadian magazine. It works well to hold the moisture and allows the moisture to evaporate when the temperature warms.

<Dr. Betridge used to use straw when he was here in Alaska, and it worked well. He wrapped using the black corrugated wintering boxes sold by bee supply companies, and would stuff the space around the hive and the inside of the black box with straw on the sides and top.>

Discussion on the middle hole in the inner covers. The inner hole is only meant for a Porter bee escape. Steve uses only solid inner covers. He covers the hole with duct tape except to feed.

<I have used no hole in the inner cover for years, there is no need for this hole. It is good Steve caught onto this.>

Steve moves bees into his conex around the end of October or whenever there are no longer any warm days for cleansing flights.

<They can be left out longer until snow begins to stick.>

Frame feeders may be left in but it is best to not have syrup in them. The hive top feeders should be removed and replaced with inner cover and lid. By springtime, it’ll be a stinky moldy mess if left full. Pollen patties are applied in August and September for extra protein. Steve doesn’t put pollen patties on until two weeks before cleansing flights to give a protein load with additional gut load. They cannot hold it for more than a month= big mess in the hive.

<Stimulate brood rearing out of season? Why?>

Isn’t it remarkable how it was with our lousy spring and then to have the bees build up and produce such great crops this year? Pollen patties help the bees brood build.

<Only feed pollen in the spring if there is no pollen entering the hive from outside, when pollen is coming in you may stop feeding pollen.>

Beginners should plan on failing the first few years. Then you’ll learn and will find out what works for your area. All beekeeping is LOCAL!

<This one I like the most, “Beginners should plan to fail”. Personally I do not think anyone should plan to fail. My suggestion is to Plan to Succeed. Beginners need mentors, more than one is better than merely one. This way you can weigh the information put forth by your mentors. Study, study, study, what can I say, the more you learn, the more you will know. Yes, experience is good, that is what your mentors are for. The more you learn about bee behavior, and bee biology, the better you will be as a beekeeper. What ever you do, do not plan to fail, the bees are always planning to succeed, I hope you do the same.

I think what this person writing this was trying to convey is, do not give up if you do fail, even experienced beekeepers lose bees. A person keeping one or two hives does not have the advantage of one keeping many more hives when it comes to percentages wintered over.

What does all beekeeping is LOCAL mean when bees from outside our environment are being kept?

To me it means we must winter bees and breed bees more suited to our local areas. This IS the NEXT phase in beekeeping in Alaska that we MUST get a grip on, but it will take most all beekeepers working together to accomplish quick results.>



2 Responses to WINTERING KEYS

  1. Joshua McClain says:

    I wanted to thank you for your informative views. I have tried to ask all those I know that keep bees what they do that works, and what doesn’t. Unfortunately I don’t get as much time watching my hives as I would like to really gain insight more quickly; but I am reading as much as I can. I am in my second year of keeping bees, and decided instead of 1 hive to do 3 this year. Good thing too! I would love to learn more of what you are doing to winter, where do I start? I had a very strong hive swarm, then an afterswarm just over a week later (when the 1st queen hatched presumably.) I caught both, so now I have five hives, but won’t know the status of the new queen soon enough I’m afraid. I’m not even sure I can identify the new queen without being marked!

    Thank you again for being a pioneer in some thoughts and techniques in Alaska! I would love to learn and be a part of what you are trying to do. I would be thrilled to one day have all “truly Alaskan” bees that produce more than they need so I can have some, but so they can honestly make it through a winter on their own stores. I agree with “Less is more!”

  2. keith says:

    Thanks Joshua, As time goes on I am more and more committed to learning and sharing details, often over looked, and information that is important to keeping bees in harsh environments. Information must be pieced together from many sources that works where you are keeping bees.

    Joshua wrote;

    It is a matter of providing a way for the bees to do what they have been doing for longer than man’s creation. Wherever they are kept they need an environment that is suitable for their existence. Bee behavior and biology are essential to learn for a beekeeper to provide what bees need to exist year around. It would also help to learn what their natural environment is supposed to be so they can live as they where created to live and survive. I suggest to everyone that wants to learn to keep bees similar to how I do to visit this link at my web site;

    After a study of Mike’s site you may have specific questions on details of wintering in your location. Please post your thoughts and questions latter so we can all learn more. What I am doing may not work best for your location. You may need to tweak management to suit your location or circumstances.

    Joshua wrote;

    Old rule of thumb, keep no less than two colonies in any one location. One colony lacks resources if things go wrong, with two or more in one location problems can be remedied with resources from a colony very close by. Another benefit to keeping two or more colonies in any location is so a beekeeper can compare activity at the entrance so a person can make decision as whether to enter a colony or not. There are other reasons, these are only two reasons.

    Joshua wrote;

    Here is what most likely happened, especially from very strong colonies, of which can cast swarms and still bring in honey for taking while still having stores to winter on. The bees can keep a newly hatched queen from destroying all the swarm cells from the prime swarm, and just before those left over swarm cells hatch the newly hatched queen from the prime swarm leaves with a after swarm. These after swarms are usually smaller than the Prime, and has a virgin queen that will need mated, as it takes 9 to 12 days for a newly hatched queen to mature for mating. An after swarm happens before this 9 to 12 day maturation period. Be sure to leave the after swarm alone for about 10 to 14 days to give the queen enough time to mate and begin laying.

    It is my believe that queens produced under the swarming impulse to be superior as they are intentionally produced by the bees from the very beginning to be a queen, unlike commercially produced queens which are produced under the emergency queen impulse, where a larvae 12 to 24 hours is used by the bees to produce a replacement queen. They are not fed from the beginning to be a queen, but a worker instead. Swarm queen are fed lavishly from the very beginning to be a queen, producing a queen that is very healthy, strong, and most likely long lived. Only the fastest and strongest drones can catch her, ensuring Strong and prolific workers. A good ingredient for wintering bees.

    Joshua wrote;

    I recommend to work with unmarked queens for reasons that benefit the colony and the beekeeper. As I am beekeeper who chooses to not put any thing in a hive that the bees will not bring in on it’s own. Paint or any substance used to mark queens are something bees will not bring into their home. Tar has been known to be brought into the hive, but it is to dark to be marking queens with as the queens thorax is very dark. Just kidding, I would never think of actually using tar to mark a queen. If I were highly concerned about keeping complete track of queens, I would use a glue on number system.

    As I am looking for a queen, (Kind of like “Looking for Waldo” as in “Where’s Waldo” the game, unless the queen is the same color as the comb they are on, she will kind of stick out like a sore thumb.) I also look for eggs. Sometimes she is near where lots of eggs are laid. Another thing I do while looking is from the outside in to the middle of the comb I look in a spiral motion, and then back to the edges of the comb. Most time the queen is larger than workers, but rare occasions she can be small. Remember the queen has a bald thorax, unlike drones and workers where they have a little fur. The queen does not have the same markings as the workers and has a thinner abdomen than drones. Like Waldo, she is the odd ball, with practice she is mostly easy to find.

    If a beekeeper relies on a marked queen he can overlook a new queen and think he has no queen when indeed there is a queen inside. In the mean time he might try to requeen unsuccessfully, wasting a good mated queen.

    Sometimes there is no queen.

    Beekeepers can be very unsure at times if there is a queen in the hive or not. In this situation a beekeeper can take from an adjacent colony a frame with open brood with eggs, and larvae of all stages,Preferable on not very old worker comb, and places this comb in the center of the colony in question of having a queen. Mark this comb for ID and check back in 5 days to see if emergency queen cells have been started. If queen cells are started they have no queen and decisions can can be made then as to how to proceed. If no queen cells present then they do indeed have a queen or something they recognize as a queen such as a laying worker.

    Joshua wrote;

    Sometimes it is not the bees fault they did not survive a winter, but instead were light on their own stores. Because of timing and the bees maybe being a little behind the curve for getting ready for winter, especially with late splits and late swarms, Bees in inactive periods, such as winter, need fed back honey. Either by placing in colonies short on stores honey frames harvested for extraction, or by feeding back extracted liquid honey in jars above the nest frames when stores are judged short. This can be judged by hefting the rear of the colony, or using a scale, to weigh it.

Leave a Reply