Preparing hives for winter

Although bees need a lot of room during the summer months, they best survive the winter months in smaller spaces. In almost all areas of the U.S. (with possible exceptions for the extreme upper northeast, extreme upper mid-west and Alaska), bees living in Warré hives should (ideally) be overwintered using only two hive bodies. The upper hive body should be all capped honey, which will provide the bees with about 28 lbs. of stores. There will almost certainly be no shortage of beekeepers who'll tell you that your bee colony needs a lot more honey than that to make it through the winter, but in almost all cases, those folks will be wrong. The lower box should be full of comb, but much of that comb should be empty, so that the bees have somewhere to cluster in the fall and early winter. If the lower hive body has some stores in the top few inches of comb, that is fine; probably even preferable in most cases. The question that many people have is "What is the best way to achieve a hive with the preferred winter set-up?". There are lots of different possible scenarios and options that may exist, but generally speaking, surplus boxes of honey should be removed from the top and unoccupied boxes should be removed from the bottom. On average, a Warré hive will consist of four hive bodies when the main nectar flow has ended, but there might be only three or there might be five or more. Honey should be harvested in the late summer or early fall, which should reduce the hive to no more than three boxes. Refer to Removing Boxes of Honey for detailed information on how much honey to take and how to remove it. Reducing the size of your hive needs to be done for several reasons. It makes mite treatments much more effective, encourages a decrease in the colony's population, increases the likelihood of winter survival and removes the oldest beeswax from the hive. Some will advise to leave all of the honey on the hive for the winter, and you can certainly do that. But as is written in Warré's book, doing so only causes unwanted heat loss from the hive and bee cluster. Honey left on the hive will be above the bee cluster, essentially creating a heat sync that cools the hive. Leaving more than one box of honey on the hive will only make the bees work harder to stay warm, thus causing them to consume more stores than they would otherwise. Excessive consumption of stores during the winter months not only wastes precious honey, it may lead to dysentery and death for your bees. Bees will not defecate in the hive and will hold everything in until they can make their first spring cleansing flight. The more they eat while confined to the hive, the lower their chances of survival are.

Oftentimes new beekeepers, in their due diligence to make sure they are enlarging the hive enough during the nectar flow, will misjudge the potential and add more boxes than are needed. It's not uncommon to find, when looking up through the screened bottom in late summer, that no comb has been built in the bottom box. It should be noted that completely empty boxes don't really count when discussing hive size. What I mean is this; if you have a three-box hive but the bottom box is completely empty, what you really have is a two-box hive that's sitting on an empty box. These empty boxes are best removed, but they can be left in place if you wish. Just make sure that the hive is well secured with either hive staples or a hive strap. Hives are usually pretty light in the early spring, and taller hives are more likely to be blown over during stormy weather.

Typically, if you've harvested honey and left one box of capped honey for the bees, the hive will already be reduced to two boxes (not including an empty bottom box, if present). If this is the case, your hive is ready for winter as far as size and stores. Besides this, there are basically two other likely scenarios that might exist. The most likely alternate scenario is that your hive is reduced to three hive bodies; the top box is full of capped honey and the bottom box is at least partially filled with empty, unoccupied comb. In this scenario, the box of empty, unoccupied comb should be removed from the bottom of the hive. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The first is that a box of unoccupied comb is susceptible to an invasion from pests like wax moths or small hive beetles. The second is that condensation tends to build up on these combs, sometimes to the point that there is standing water sitting in the cells. In general, the more empty comb there is below the bee cluster, the higher the humidity will be inside the hive during the winter months.

The less likely scenario is that not only are you not able to harvest honey, but there's not enough for the bees to overwinter on, either. This can happen from time to time for a number of reasons, including but not limited to any of the following:

  • Poor weather conditions for the season; usually excessive rain, which prevents the bees from foraging.
  • The foraging area may be poor in nectar producing plants.
  • The bees may have swarmed during the height of the nectar flow.
  • The stores may have been stolen by another colony.

Regardless of the cause, any time you have a colony with insufficient stores, reduce the size of the hive by removing boxes from the bottom until you have only two boxes remaining. Then, reduce the size of the hive entrance to less than an inch wide, install your hive top feeder and feed 2:1 sugar/water syrup until the needed stores are given. It takes a maximum of four gallons of syrup to make up one hive body of stores. Don't overfeed. You don't want to add too much moisture to the hive.

Note: Any time you remove a box of empty comb from the bottom of a hive, it can be used under a small existing hive, or stored away for use the following year to either enlarge an existing hive, or to give a package or swarm of bees a head start in getting built up for the season. Steps must be taken in order to protect stored combs. Please see Reusing Boxes of Comb for more information.