Monday, November 2, 2015

Buttoning Up for Winter

A few weeks ago, our temps dipped down into the 40's, and we were getting frosts at night. That's when I decided to close up the hives. There didn't seem to be any point in not winterizing them since I'd already taken my honey and had no plans to inspect, treat, or feed. Of course, I had to pick the absolute coldest day to do it. It actually snowed! Since then, the weather has warmed up by 15-20 degrees, but I'm comfortable knowing my hives are already buttoned up.

Had part of my house resided this summer. Used the leftover insulated siding on the sides of my hives.

Going into winter with 7 hives, I decided that at least 1 of them just had to survive, so why not run some experiments to see which winterizing method worked best? Of course, my "study" would never make it into a peer-reviewed journal since:

  • There is no control group.
  • I neglected to take any measurements at the outset.
  • Test groups are not large enough to provide sufficient data.
  • Each hive has so many variables that it's impossible to decide conclusively if/what impact the applied winterization method might have.
  • Et cetera
Nevertheless... I persist.

So here is a rundown of the various winterization techniques that were applied. (Note: All hives received mouseguards. With the exception of Austeja, all hives received insulation both on top of the bars and on the long sides of the hives. In all cases, insulation added on top of bars had a greater R-value than insulation applied to the sides.)

  • Top entrances. I created an entrance about 2"-3" between the end of the hive and the first bar. The hope is that as hot moist air rises, it automatically vents out of the hive. This is the method recommended by Michael Bush.
  • Vent bars. I made a flat bar (i.e., not wedged), drilled some small holes in it, and covered the holes with screen. These were placed behind the divider board. My dividers have gaps at the bottom so bees can crawl under them to reach feeders, if necessary. The idea is that the vent bars create some circulation in the hive.
  • "Sam's Winter Comfort Method." This approach is sort of a variation of using vent bars. If you've ever seen a talk by Sam, you'll know he doesn't do much in the way of winterizing. He throws a garbage bag full of leaves on top of the nest, and that's about it. Plus, his hives are not the gorgeous furniture-quality pieces most TBH hobbyists craft. If his hives were teeth, you'd recommend a trip to the dentist because they're so full of holes. However, there is a certain logic to this approach. The bees are cold, but they are not wet. Cold bees don't necessarily die, but wet bees do. So this approach, which I've dubbed after Sam, uses a vent bar and some insulation over the brood, but not the sides.
  • Lazutin method. This hive was built as an insulated hive. Straw fills the back of the hive to absorb excess moisture.
  • Completely insulated without moisture control. A long-time local beek who keeps both Langs and TBHs, said that in the winter, he insulates all four sides and tops of his TBH nucs. I asked him about moisture control, and he said he doesn't use any. He admitted to losing some nucs, but said most pull through just fine. Hmmm... Ok. Worth a shot.
Top entrance with insulation. The length of the entrance is about 2"-3" long. Entrance width is about 3/8". I stapled hardware fabric over the entrance.

Vent bar

Vent bar behind follower board with insulation over cluster (Sam's Winter Comfort Method)
Straw stuffed in behind divider board of my insulated hive.
I didn't have a piece of foam big enough for the entire front, so I just tried to cover most of it.
(Completely insulated w/o moisture control)

You know I'm table-obsessed, so here are some notes on the individual hives.

Note that Colony Strength is rated on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the best rating; 1 being the lowest. Colony Strength is not necessarily an indicator of the bees' quality or vigor. Instead it is a rating of how ready I think they are for winter. However, bees, being bees, can always surprise me. They sure did this year when the colony I thought was least likely to pull through was the only one to survive winter.

Winterization Method
Colony Strength
Successfully Wintered?
Peach (Nuc)
Top Entrance
This was my third split, and made a queen in July.
Top Entrance
These bees came were from Wolf Creek whose apiaries are in TN and GA.
Vent Bar
These bees came were from Wolf Creek whose apiaries are in TN and GA.

These bees failed to impress all year.
“Sam’s Winter Comfort Method”
This colony swarmed in late August, and I didn't do much to help it rebound.  As a result, I haven't much hope for it.

The only insulation added was between the observation window and wooden side panel. 

Should this hive fail to make it, the failure will not really indicate whether Sam's approach works. However, on the off-chance that it survives, I will seriously re-evaluate the amount of work I put into winterizing.
Lazutin Method
Last split made this year. She built up extremely rapidly out to about 20 combs. However, I've downgraded her rating down to 4 just because of the amount of capped brood still in the hive at the last inspection.

One of my concerns for this hive is the entrance; I'm not sure that it's large enough. Additionally, I don't know if the straw is close enough to the cluster to wick away moisture.

However, I really like the insulated hive. I feel like the colony, which was made as a split in July, developed at a much faster rate than the ones made before it.

Also, winterizing was a breeze. All I had to do was dump in straw and staple a hardware cloth over the entrance. No wrapping business.
Bubblegum (Nuc)
Completely Insulated w/o Moisture Control
The entrance is located on the end about 1/3rd from the top of the hive. The position concerns me since I feel cold air may enter too near the cluster.
Completely Insulated w/o Moisture Control
The entrance is located near the bottom of the  hive. This is the colony that got knocked over by a bear in late August.

In the spring, I plan to update this table.

Some hives, like Hippolyte, have developed their own preferred entrances -- like this crack. I did not seal those up.

Of course, if there is a chance the roof could blow off, be sure to strap it down.
(Btw, I didn't leave this hive completely sealed. This nuc has a top entrance. Bees can exit through a gap under the roof.)


  1. Julie,

    Thank you for all this information. I went with the less is more for winter. I only have 1 hive from a swarm I got in mid May. They seem great, but I did slack on my checking in October. They have a 2 small one inch wide wooden boards, 1/4 inch thick on top of bars but under the cover. To allow moisture to escape. then I got a small hay square on top of the brood section just on top of the metal cover. For a little extra. Maybe I'll go with a bag of leaves too. Our weather is still reaching low 70 in the day. Girls are flying, saw pollen on weekend. Not this morning. Keeping fingers crossed as I adore my girls. Took nothing from them and didn't feed.....really hoping a lot.

    1. Thanks for sharing your overwintering technique! I feel pretty comfortable with spring through fall activities, but wintering is still something I struggle with because I only get one shot at it every year, and it's hit or miss.

      Could you remind me where your bees are?

      Certainly, Michael Bush & Sam Comfort are both proponents of the less is more approach, so you seem to be in good company. Hope that your bees thrive so you can make splits next year!

  2. I'm in Barnegat, NJ a few miles from the bay. So central jersey shore. I'm really excited/scared about making splits. I wondered if it's maybe better to have them swarm and trap them. Your thoughts as your deeper into this than me. I'm sure it's easier to make a split...I just haven't tried yet.

    1. Cool! I used to live in Sussex county!

      I think if you wait until they swarm, you run the risk of losing them since there is no guarantee that they will enter your trap. Also, you run the risk of losing after-swarms as well.

      On the other hand, splitting is really easy to do, and you can do it proactively. Whenever they start making drones, it's a good time to split.

      Splitting will also suppress their swarming instinct, so your main colony can keep bringing in honey. When a colony swarms, it's been my experience that the bees making swarm queens eat up all the honey.

      Good luck!

    2. BTW, you can also make a split when your colony starts making swarm cells. Just take out the bars with swarm cells and put them in a new hive. Just make sure you do this while the larvae is still little because bees usually swarm a few days before capping the larvae.

      The only issue I've had with this approach is that they usually don't start swarming until much too late -- at least much later than I want them to. (I think this is probably happening because they're being manipulated to fill a much greater cavity than they would in the wild, but that's another topic.) For example, they start swarming at the end of June or in July, when my spring flow has just about ended, and then I end up having to feed them all summer. Even worse are the August & September swarms.

      This past summer, I had the opportunity to ask Peter Borst ( about the ideal time to split (i.e., to give the split the best chance of building up without feeding but still be able to make honey with the colony that I split from). His advice was to split when the bees are making drones, usually about May for my area. So that's the advice I plan to implement next spring.

    3. Thank you, this was what I needed to hear. I want to be good to the bees and not mess with there natural ways too much, but I also want them to make it and be strong. So taking a few frames in May and moving them to my other hive with some already drawn comb and honey. Sounds good. Now I need to read about splits...and still hope they make it all winter long.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!