beehives in the snow

How to Overwinter Honey Bee Colonies: Essential Tips

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Overwintering honey bee colonies is a crucial aspect of beekeeping. The cold, harsh winter months can be a challenging time for bees, and proper care and attention are necessary to ensure their survival and health. Beekeepers must know how to overwinter honey bee colonies and take essential steps to prepare, including assessing colony strength, providing adequate food stores, and monitoring for pests and disease.

In this article, we will explore the best practices for overwintering honey bee colonies, including understanding the natural survival strategies employed by bees and implementing practical steps to support them. We will also cover strategies for managing varroa mites, insulating and ventilating hives, monitoring food stores, promoting healthy genetics, and maintaining equipment.

Key Takeaways:

  • Overwintering honey bee colonies is crucial for their survival and health during the cold winter months.
  • Adequate preparation involves assessing colony strength, providing enough food stores, and monitoring for pests and disease.
  • Practical steps beekeepers can take to support bees include managing varroa mites, insulating and ventilating hives, monitoring for food stores, promoting healthy genetics, and maintaining equipment.

Understanding Honey Bee Winter Survival Strategies

Honey bees have evolved a set of natural strategies to survive the harsh winter months. Understanding these strategies is essential for beekeepers to provide the best possible care for their honey bee colonies and ensure their survival.

One of the most critical strategies that honey bees employ is clustering. As the temperature drops, honey bees huddle together in a tight ball, with the queen at the center. They generate heat by vibrating their muscles, which keeps the temperature within the cluster at around 95°F even when the outside temperature falls below freezing.

To support clustering, beekeepers should provide their colonies with an adequate food supply. Honey bees require around 60-90 pounds of honey to survive the winter, so it is crucial to monitor food stores and supplement them if necessary.

Another natural strategy that honey bees use during winter is reducing their metabolic activity. This reduction in activity helps them conserve energy and extend their food supply. Beekeepers can support this strategy by minimizing disturbances to the hive during winter and avoiding opening the hives unless it is necessary.

In addition to clustering and reducing metabolic activity, honey bees also adapt to changing environmental conditions by developing winter bees. These bees have a longer lifespan of up to six months, compared to summer bees that live for around six weeks. Winter bees also have a higher fat content, which provides them with increased energy reserves to survive the winter.

Beekeepers can support honey bees’ natural winter survival strategies by providing adequate insulation and ventilation in their hives. The insulation helps to maintain consistent temperatures within the hive, while ventilation prevents excessive moisture buildup and reduces the risk of mold. Beekeepers can also use entrance reducers to regulate the airflow into the hive and protect against cold drafts.


Understanding the natural strategies that honey bees use to survive the winter is essential for beekeepers to provide the best possible care for their colonies. Along with providing adequate food supplies, insulation, and ventilation, beekeepers should focus on minimizing disturbances to the hive during winter and avoiding opening the hives unless it is necessary. By following these practices, beekeepers can help ensure the survival and health of their honey bee colonies throughout the winter months.

Preparing Honey Bee Colonies for Winter

Winter preparation is crucial for the health and survival of honey bee colonies. Beekeepers should start preparing their colonies in the fall to ensure that they are strong and healthy enough to survive the winter months. Here are some essential steps to follow:

  1. Assess colony strength: Before winter sets in, beekeepers should evaluate the strength of their colonies. They should check if they have enough bees, brood, pollen, and honey reserves to survive the winter. Weak colonies should be combined with stronger ones, or they may not survive the cold season.
  2. Manage disease: Winter is a critical time for honey bee diseases, and beekeepers must take extra precautions to ensure their colonies do not fall ill. Beekeepers should inspect their hives for signs of diseases such as American and European foulbrood. They should also treat their colonies for mites, which can weaken bees and make them more susceptible to disease.
  3. Supplemental feeding: Bees require significant amounts of food to survive the winter, and beekeepers must ensure that their colonies have enough food stores. If the colony does not have enough honey reserves, beekeepers can provide supplemental feeding in the form of sugar syrup or fondant. The feeding should be done in the fall before the weather is too cold for the bees to access it.
  4. Protect against pests and predators: Winter brings a host of pests and predators that can weaken bee colonies. Beekeepers should take measures to protect their colonies from pests such as mice, skunks, and bears, by installing entrance reducers and mouse guards.
  5. Reduce hive size: Reduced hive size can help bees conserve heat during the winter months. Beekeepers can reduce the size of their hives by removing any extra honey supers, which are not required during the winter.

Following these steps will go a long way in ensuring the health and survival of honey bee colonies during the winter months.

Managing Varroa Mite Infestations

Varroa mites are a significant threat to honey bee colonies, particularly during the winter months. These parasites feed on the bees’ hemolymph and can weaken the colony, making it more vulnerable to other pests and diseases. Beekeepers must take steps to monitor and control varroa mite infestations to ensure the health and survival of their colonies.

Monitoring Mite Levels

Beekeepers should regularly monitor the mite levels in their colonies using methods such as sticky boards or alcohol washes. This will help determine the severity of the infestation and guide decisions on appropriate treatments.

Using Appropriate Treatments

There are numerous varroa mite treatment options available to beekeepers, including chemical treatments, essential oils, and organic acids. It is crucial to research and choose treatments that are safe and effective for the bees and to use them according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Chemical treatments like formic acid and oxalic acid can be effective, but they can also have negative impacts on the colony if not used properly. Essential oils like thymol and wintergreen are a natural alternative, but they can also harm the bees if used in excess or at the wrong time of year. Organic acids like acetic acid and formic acid can also be effective but can be harmful if used incorrectly.

Implementing Integrated Pest Management Practices

Beekeepers should also implement integrated pest management practices to prevent mite infestations from occurring in the first place. This includes practices like scouting for mites, promoting genetic diversity, and using screen bottom boards to encourage mite drop.

By taking steps to control varroa mite infestations, beekeepers can help ensure the health and survival of their honey bee colonies through the winter months.

Insulating and Ventilating Honey Bee Hives

Insulating and ventilating honey bee hives is crucial for regulating temperature and humidity during the winter months. It helps to maintain the heat generated by the bees within the hive and prevents moisture buildup that can lead to mold and other issues.

Beekeepers should consider using insulation boards to cover the outer walls and roof of the hive. These boards trap heat and provide an additional barrier against cold and wind. It’s also important to use entrance reducers to minimize drafts and to prevent heat loss.

Proper ventilation is equally important. It prevents the buildup of moisture inside the hive that can arise from the bees’ respiration and from any water sources used. Beekeepers should ensure that their hives have small ventilation openings that allow for air to circulate without compromising the hive’s warmth.

Managing Ventilation

It’s important to manage the ventilation carefully to ensure that the hive remains dry and warm. Too much ventilation can cause the hive to become too cold, while too little ventilation can lead to excess moisture buildup. The following tips can help to manage ventilation:

  1. Use a ventilation shim. This will help to ventilate the hive and prevent moisture buildup. It is essentially an additional box placed between the inner cover and the top super of the hive.
  2. Monitor the humidity inside the hive. Beekeepers can use a hygrometer to measure the humidity, aiming for a range of 40-60%. If the humidity is too high, increase ventilation, and if it’s too low, decrease ventilation.
  3. Check for condensation. If condensation forms on the inner cover or walls of the hive, it indicates that the hive may not be adequately ventilated, and adjustments should be made accordingly.

By properly insulating and ventilating their honey bee hives, beekeepers can ensure that their colonies survive and thrive throughout the winter months.

Monitoring Winter Food Stores

As winter progresses, honey bee colonies may consume their stored food reserves more quickly than expected, increasing the risk of starvation. Therefore, it is crucial to monitor honey bee colonies’ food stores regularly and provide supplemental feeding if necessary.

During winter, the bees’ cluster may move around the hive in search of food. Therefore, it is essential to remove the hive cover and check the food stores directly. Beekeepers can use a flashlight to inspect the comb without disturbing the bees.

If the bees have little to no food left, supplemental feeding may be necessary. Beekeepers can use sugar syrup or fondant to provide additional food. Sugar syrup should be in a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water and should be heated to dissolve the sugar completely. Fondant can be purchased or made at home using sugar, water, and cream of tartar.

When providing supplemental feeding, beekeepers should ensure that it is placed close to the cluster, so the bees can access it easily and stay warm. They should also avoid overfeeding, as excess moisture in the hive can lead to issues like mold and dysentery.

Remember to record the colony’s food stores before and after feeding to track their consumption and manage the colony’s health effectively.

Protecting Honey Bee Colonies from Pests and Predators

Winter poses a significant threat to honey bee colonies due to the increased risk of pest and predator attacks. Beekeepers must take protective measures to ensure their colonies stay safe and healthy during the cold months.

Implement Hive Entrance Management

One way to safeguard against predators is to manage hive entrances. Beekeepers can reduce the size of hive entrances to prevent predators like mice and other small rodents from entering and disturbing colonies. Installing mouse guards is an effective way to keep rodents away from honey bees.

Protect Against Skunks and Bears

Skunks and bears are notorious for raiding honey bee colonies and causing significant damage. Beekeepers can protect their hives by using electric fencing to keep larger predators, such as bears, at bay. Installing hive stands is also an effective way to deter skunks from accessing hives.

Consider Using Beehive Wraps

Beehive wraps can provide an additional layer of insulation for colonies during winter and help protect them from pest attacks. Wrapping hives in tar paper or other materials can also help regulate temperature and humidity levels, reducing the risk of mold and other pests.

Use Mouse Guards

Mouse guards are a simple and effective way to prevent rodents from entering hives and disturbing honey bee colonies. Beekeepers can install mouse guards at the entrance of hives to prevent mice and other small rodents from entering and causing damage. It’s important to periodically check and clean mouse guards to ensure they’re functioning correctly.

By taking precautions to protect honey bee colonies from pests and predators, beekeepers can help ensure their colonies survive the winter and remain healthy for future seasons.

Maintaining Healthy Honey Bee Genetics

Honey bee genetics play a crucial role in overwintering success. It is important to monitor and maintain healthy genetics to ensure strong and resilient colonies.

Beekeepers should regularly assess the health and productivity of their queen bees and replace them as needed. A young and vigorous queen can lead to a productive and healthy colony, while an aging or failing queen may result in decreased colony strength and winter survival.

In addition to regular queen replacement, beekeepers can promote genetic diversity in their colonies by introducing new stock and practicing responsible breeding. This can help to build resilient colonies that are better equipped to adapt and survive in changing environments.

Record Keeping and Documentation

Keeping records and documenting observations throughout the winter period is crucial for monitoring and evaluating the health of honey bee colonies. By keeping track of important data, beekeepers can make informed decisions and adjustments to their winter care techniques. Here are some key pieces of data to collect:

Data TypeDescription
Hive WeightRegularly check the weight of each hive to monitor food stores and assess colony strength. Record the weight on a spreadsheet or notebook.
PopulationPeriodically observe the number of bees in each hive. This will allow you to detect any concerning drops in population and plan accordingly.
TemperatureUse a thermometer to monitor the temperature inside each hive. This will help you ensure that the bees are not too cold or too warm.
Varroa Mite LevelsRegularly monitor mite levels in each hive to detect any infestations. Record the level of infestation and any treatments used.

Consider using software or apps to gather and analyze your data. Logging data over several years can be particularly helpful in identifying trends and making long-term decisions about wintering techniques. In addition, keeping detailed notes on observations, hive inspections, and any unusual behavior can be invaluable in diagnosing and treating issues that arise during winter.

Winter Beekeeping Equipment Maintenance

Proper maintenance and preparation of beekeeping equipment is crucial for ensuring successful overwintering of honey bee colonies. Here are some essential tips and tasks for winter beekeeping equipment maintenance:

  1. Clean and store beekeeping tools: Before winter arrives, clean and sanitize all beekeeping tools and equipment, such as hive tools and smokers. Store them in a dry place to prevent rust or moisture damage.
  2. Winterize extraction equipment: If you plan to harvest honey during the winter, ensure that your extraction equipment is well-maintained and winterized. Properly clean and store frames, uncapping knives, and extractors.
  3. Protect woodenware from moisture and pests: Woodenware such as beehives and frames can easily be damaged by moisture and pests during winter. Ensure that all woodenware is free from cracks, and apply a coat of protective paint or sealant. Additionally, place hive stands in a dry location and elevate them from the ground to prevent moisture accumulation.

Addressing Winter Colony Losses

Despite taking all necessary precautions and providing the best care possible, winter colony losses can unfortunately still occur. As a beekeeper, it’s important to be prepared for this possibility and have a plan in place to cope with and recover from these losses.

One strategy that can be effective is requeening. This involves replacing the queen bee with a new one to help re-establish a healthy colony. It’s important to choose a reputable supplier and ensure that the new queen is compatible with the remaining bees in the hive.

Another option is to create a nucleus colony. This involves taking a portion of the remaining bees and placing them in a new hive with a new queen. This can help rebuild the colony and prevent the remaining bees from becoming too weak and vulnerable to further losses.

If necessary, replacement bees can also be obtained from a reputable supplier. It’s important to consider the source of the replacement bees and their genetics to ensure they are healthy and compatible with the existing colony.

How to Overwinter Honey Bee Colonies – Conclusion

Overwintering honey bee colonies requires careful planning and preparation to ensure their survival and health. By understanding the natural survival strategies of honey bees, monitoring and managing potential threats like varroa mite infestations, and providing adequate food stores, insulation, and ventilation, beekeepers can give their colonies the best chance of making it through the cold winter months.

It is also essential to maintain healthy honey bee genetics, keep detailed records and documentation, and properly maintain beekeeping equipment throughout the winter. However, even with the best preparations and practices in place, winter colony losses may still occur.

Coping with Winter Colony Losses

For beekeepers faced with winter colony losses, there are various strategies to consider for coping with and recovering from the loss. Requeening, creating nucleus colonies, and obtaining replacement bees are all viable options to consider.

Despite the potential challenges and setbacks, beekeeping can be a highly rewarding and valuable endeavor. By implementing the tips and best practices covered in this article and continuing to learn and adapt to the unique needs of their colonies, beekeepers can not only ensure the survival of their colonies but also contribute to the health and sustainability of honey bee populations as a whole.


Q: Why is it important to overwinter honey bee colonies properly?

A: Overwintering honey bee colonies properly is crucial for their survival and overall health during the cold winter months. Bees need adequate food reserves, insulation, and ventilation to withstand the harsh conditions and maintain their metabolic activity.

Q: What are some natural survival strategies honey bees employ during winter?

A: Honey bees use clustering, where they huddle together to generate heat, and reduce their metabolic activity to conserve energy. These strategies help them survive the winter by minimizing energy consumption and maintaining a stable internal temperature.

Q: What preparations should beekeepers undertake before winter arrives?

A: Beekeepers should assess colony strength, manage diseases, and provide supplemental feeding to ensure the bees have enough food reserves. They should also insulate and ventilate the hives to regulate temperature and humidity.

Q: How can beekeepers manage varroa mite infestations during winter?

A: It’s important to monitor mite levels, use appropriate treatments, and implement integrated pest management practices to control varroa mite infestations. This helps prevent weakening of honey bee colonies and reduces the risk of winter losses.

Q: How can beekeepers insulate and ventilate honey bee hives for winter?

A: Beekeepers can use insulation boards, entrance reducers, and proper ventilation techniques to help regulate temperature and humidity inside the hives. This protects the bees from extreme cold and prevents condensation and mold buildup.

Q: Why is it important to monitor winter food stores for honey bee colonies?

A: Monitoring winter food stores is crucial to prevent starvation in honey bee colonies. Beekeepers should assess remaining food reserves and provide supplemental feeding if necessary to ensure the bees have enough sustenance throughout the winter.

Q: How can honey bee colonies be protected from pests and predators during winter?

A: Beekeepers can protect honey bee colonies from pests and predators by implementing hive entrance management techniques, using mouse guards, and taking measures to deter other threats like skunks and bears.

Q: Why is maintaining healthy honey bee genetics essential for overwintering success?

A: Healthy honey bee genetics contribute to colony resilience and survival during winter. Beekeepers should monitor and replace queen bees, promote genetic diversity, and practice responsible breeding to maintain healthy colonies.

Q: Why is record keeping and documentation important during winter beekeeping?

A: Keeping records and documenting observations throughout winter allows beekeepers to monitor and evaluate colony health. Data such as hive weight, temperature, and population can provide valuable insights and aid in making informed management decisions.

Q: How should beekeeping equipment be maintained during winter?

A: Beekeeping equipment should be properly maintained and prepared for winter. This includes cleaning and storing tools, winterizing extraction equipment, and protecting woodenware from moisture and pests.

Q: How can beekeepers address winter colony losses?

A: In the unfortunate event of winter colony losses, beekeepers can cope by requeening, creating nucleus colonies, or obtaining replacement bees. These strategies help maintain or rebuild colony populations.

Q: What is the importance of following proper overwintering techniques?

A: Following proper overwintering techniques is essential for honey bee colony survival and future success. It ensures the bees have the necessary resources and conditions to withstand winter and thrive in the following seasons.

Beekeeping Disclaimer:

Beekeeping, like any agricultural activity, involves inherent risks. It is important to understand these risks and take appropriate measures to mitigate them.

Potential risks associated with beekeeping include:

  1. Bee stings: Honeybees are generally not aggressive but can become defensive if they feel threatened or their hive is disturbed. Bee stings can cause allergic reactions or even anaphylaxis in some individuals, which can be life-threatening. It is important to wear protective clothing and follow best practices when handling bees to minimize the risk of stings.
  2. Diseases and pests: Bees can be vulnerable to various diseases and pests, including mites, viruses, and bacterial infections. These can have significant impacts on bee colonies, leading to reduced honey production or even colony collapse. It is important to monitor hives regularly and take appropriate measures to prevent and treat diseases and pests.
  3. Weather conditions: Extreme weather conditions, such as drought or cold temperatures, can affect the health and productivity of bee colonies. It is important to ensure that hives are appropriately sheltered and provided with adequate food and water.
  4. Environmental hazards: Bees can be affected by environmental hazards such as pesticide exposure, pollution, and habitat loss. It is important to be aware of these hazards and take appropriate measures to protect bee colonies and promote healthy environments for bees.
  5. Legal requirements: Beekeeping may be subject to local, state, or national regulations, such as registration or inspection requirements. It is important to be aware of these requirements and comply with them.

While beekeeping can be a rewarding and enjoyable activity, it is important to be aware of the potential risks and take appropriate measures to mitigate them. By following best practices and staying informed about the latest developments in beekeeping, beekeepers can help ensure the health and productivity of their hives and contribute to the well-being of bee populations worldwide.

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