What's on this page?
This is a subject I approach with
trepidation. In America, wintering can be a
bit like rolling the dice. We often have
hives die perfectly full of capped honey.
Our migratory beekeeping paradigm homogenizes the
population which is unnatural. More often
than not, virtually every malady, every piece of
evidence in the post mortem of a dead hive is
blamed on varroa. Not a single mite in the
hive? Probably varroa. Iíve heard it
used. But this website is about proper
understanding and sustainably keeping bees on an personal scale.
Iím not one of those who takes every possible
precaution to try and assure that every hive
survives the winter. Bees in trees and holes
in the ground donít have that advantage. And
yes, the boxes we keep bees in do pose a distinct
disadvantage. But they can survive it and
they do. Ultimately, Iím breeding a stronger
more durable bee.
You can do everything right. You can have a
hive fully stocked with honey and pollen,
insulated, no condensation, no nothing wrong and
still bees can die. So I let the ones that
canít make it in harsher conditions go and keep
and build out of the good ones.
In the future, I plan to have more pictures up of
examples of deadouts so you can see how they look
and learn from them. For now, there is only
one because I only had one deadout this
winter. Good for me, less so for you.
Prepare for Winter
Thereís only so much you can do. Ultimately,
for the reality of survival, it is up to the
bees. First, do no harm. Donít take
more honey than the bees can live without through
the winter. If they are starving, feeding may be
necessary. It may be a better decision if a
hive has not stored enough on their own to merge
them with a better performer. There is no
sense in expending resources to keep a hive alive
that wonít do the work necessary to keep
themselves alive, much less provide you with a
crop. Again, having more hives makes this
Insulation is an important topic to
consider. Here in Northwest Arkansas, Iíve
kept hives successfully without any insulation and
with upper entrances in temperatures as low as -5
degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on where you
live, you may need better insulation.
Explore and see if you can find feral colonies in
your area and see under what conditions they are
living and surviving. With that information,
make a decision as to what you need to do.
The purpose of insulation is not to keep the hive
warm. Bees do not heat the hive, only the
cluster. The purpose of insulation is to
reduce or eliminate condensation. As the
bees consume honey, they release water and carbon
dioxide the same way you do in your breath.
This gaseous mix rises off the cluster up through
the hive and if the temperatures and humidites are
right, the moisture condenses on the top and sides
of the hive. Insulation limits the rate of
transfer of heat through the walls of the
hive. If heat cannot transfer at a high
enough rate at the given humidity, water will not
condense. Water dripping onto the
cluster is one of the quickest ways to kill a
colony. Another factor in the condensation
equation is humidity, see Upper Entrances
below. If insulation is necessary anywhere it is at the top.
Condensation at the sides is not as dangerous as at the top.
I am a fan of of at least small upper entrances, especially in
winter. They allow a small flow of air through the
hive. If the air is constantly being
circulated, or at least generally able to be
circulated, the humidity will stay closer to the
ambient humidity outside the hive. For
condensation to happen, the humidity has to be
above a certain level and the temperature outside
has to be below a certain level. Since wood
does not hold much heat, water canít condense if
the temperatures and humidities are very similar
inside and outside the hive.
Hives with upper entrances are not
chimneys. Iíve heard people propose
that a hive with both an upper and a lower
entrance acts like a chimney with the air rising
past the cluster and chilling it. Aside from
the fact that the bees heat the cluster and not
the hive, a hive is not like a chimney because it
is filled with comb. Comb is a very rough
surface and presents a lot of friction to the
movement of air in the hive. Itís
interesting in northern climates, the water may
condense as it leaves the hive leaving
icicles. Better out than in, right?
I do tend to decrease entrance sizes in the case
of standard slot type entrances. However, I
always keep an upper entrance if the hive has one
and if I need to close one of the two, I close the
bottom one. I find it a better practice to
leave the top open to allow exhausting of moist
warm air so that the hive doesnít get too wet
inside. It is also common practice for me to
close the lower entrances in case of skunks which
is not a problem if the apiary is fenced in
correctly. Everyoneís conditions are
different. Many of my hives have 1.5Ē
round holes for lower entrances. I donít
close these. In fact, it is common to be
able to look in the hole and see the cluster only
a few inches in the hive. It demonstrates
for me how unreliant the bees are on our
When it goes right, remember how it was done, but
donít become superstitious about it. Donít
end up with a huge pile of things you think you
need to do to have the bees come through the
winter okay. Remember that sometimes they
will and sometimes they wonít. Beekeeping is
an art and a science, not a superstition.
Itís also not very helpful to fret over getting it
right every time. Use beekeeping to help you
develop other skills in life. By setting a
hive, knowing youíve done everything you need to
do and leaving it, you develop patience.
Worrying is not a skill. It is a vice.
When it Goes Wrong
It wonít always work. In fact, if you keep
bees treatment-free, it will probably work just a
little less than if you treat and thatís because
your goal is to keep bees that handle diseases on
their own. To develop that ability, pest
pressure must remain on the colony. Some
hives will succumb to the pressure. It is
for these reasons that I recommend keeping at
least five hives. It significantly decreases
the chance that you will lose all your hives at
once. One or two are easily replaced with
splits in the spring. By doing so, you are
using natural selection to your advantage.
When it does go wrong and hives die, it gives you
opportunities to do some maintenance and learn
from nature. The first thing you do is a
Post-Mortem which will be discussed in the next
section. After that, you can clean up the
hive and prepare it for future occupation.
After youíve determined through the post-mortem
that the hive did not die of something related to
American Foul Brood, you can remove old or poorly
drawn comb. If youíre using small cell or
foundationless, youíre likely to get excessive
amounts of drone comb on a frame here or
there. Drone comb is useful in good hives to
provide drones for mating queens. It was Dee
Lusbyís plan to remove any frame with more than
10% drone comb. Iím not so concerned with
exactly that, but I do tend to move frames with
large amounts of drone comb up in the hive to be
used for honey storage.
I have created a Post-Mortem Examination page for this very important topic.
You can do everything right and they can die, or
you can do everything wrong and they can
survive. Itís not totally up to you.
But you can do your part and you can learn from
the situation whether the situation was caused by
your mismanagement or not. As time goes on,
your goal is to rapidly decrease problems caused
by your mismanagement and get to the heart of
whatís really going on with the bees. Itís
part of the fun of beekeeping to learn when a new
situation presents itself. Fortunately for
you, winter presents itself once a year so youíll
have plenty of chances.