It’s Wintertime in the Apiary – Again

Increasingly, I am finding that I need each passing year to be longer then the previous one.
By: James Tew

The correlation between bee magazines and beekeeping
Through the passing decades, Editor Kim and his staff have developed this magazine into an impressive, colorful, informative publication. The earliest versions of this magazine were hardly half the size and half the thickness of the vivid color magazine you are presently reading(1). They were printed on newspaper stock and only used the basic colors black and white. To be fair, I must say that the other national publications – including bee supply catalogs – have all exhibited remarkable advancements in recent years. The growth of beekeeping and the evolution of bee magazines, books and catalogs have been a tandem event. Beekeeping today, as are present-day beekeeping publications, is glitzy compared to beekeeping in the past. (I’m going somewhere with this thread. Please don’t give up on me.)

The new supply catalogs and magazines now have many more inventory listings and article information for the largest number and diversity of beekeepers this country has ever seen. Changes seem to be everywhere.

But at its fundamental core, essential beekeeping principles have not changed that much – if at all(2). We have always ranted about queen quality. We continue worry about poor nectar flows. We have always raged about insecticides and their perceived harmful effects on our bees. We struggle to control diseases and pests. We get cranky about imported honey from improbable places. We install packages every spring, and we love to hive swarms that escaped from the colonies of other beekeepers. Essentially, it’s beekeeping as it was and as it continues to be.

And now, it’s wintertime in the apiary – again
So if everything beekeeping is the same, what could be said about Winter management that has not been said over and again? High on our present complaint list is excessive Winter losses. Opinions about what to do to reduce those numbers are readily available in today’s literature. Yet, something still needs to be said about efficient Winter management – but what and said to whom?

Compare this 1896 catalog to the equipment catalogs of today.

New beekeepers everywhere
This is a glorious time for beekeeping. We have more new beekeepers right now than our industry has ever experienced. These people need help and information at the basic level. Writing another article on the topic of Winter colony management must be much like teaching algebra in school. Every year, algebra is taught again and again. Every Fall and Winter, basic articles are presented on successful Winter management. This needs to happen. I recently presented an article series on wintering that I posted at:

I offer this recent resource to new keepers who are educating themselves in wintering concepts, as we presently understand them. From that three-part series, I have selected some topics that follow for a more thorough review.

Some interesting attributes of wintering colonies
Activity within the hive
Within the wintering hive, it looks as though nothing is happening. I have several common types of cameras and audio gadgets, but right now, I am still at a loss to show you the absolute quiet that surrounds the wintering colony. The cold wind blows and a distant bird forlornly sounds off. Invariably, an airplane is droning somewhere in the distance. A Winter day is generally a placid day. Clearly, the bees in my colonies must be sleeping. Nope, they are wide-awake and on the job.

The top of the
wintering cluster. Note the round shape that outlines the cluster below.(3)

Here’s my problem – while I know they are not sleeping, I am not sure exactly what they must be doing. Sure, they are producing heat. That fact is obvious, but there are so many unanswered questions. For instance, what serves as the thermostat? Apparently, colony temperature levels are set by the comfort of individual bees within the cluster core. In their own way, these core bees do calisthenics to “work up a sweat.” The outer bees provide insulation to retain and store heat within the cluster. It appears that the outer layer of bees is comprised of older bees while younger bees provide brood nest duties. Those outer bees must be kept at something like 42°F. The bees in this cluster zone are not much in the way of heat producers. Think about it. Most of the heat they produce is immediately lost to the atmosphere. Though the human response to increasing coldness would, no doubt, be to generate more heat, the insulation bees seem to stay the course. Internal bees must perform heat-generating duties while external bees insulate the cluster. If outer bees tried to produce heat, they would rapidly consume the colony’s honey reserves on lost heat. (I have great respect for the logic of bees and their biology.)

Moving honey, preparing the brood nest, caring for new brood and dying are just a few of the tasks that are ongoing in the busy wintering colony. The colony within the hive appears quiescence, but their lives are just as active during the Winter as they are on a hot July day.

Dead bees on the reversed inner cover. Not too many, I suppose.

Dead bees everywhere
A wintering colony without some dead bees scattered about is a colony that’s dead already. Such individual bee deaths are a necessity. Yet dead bees always frustrate me. I know, I know. Bees are always dying. It’s a normal thing. I see them on my driveway and notice them stuck in my car radiator. Bees live three to five weeks in Summer and up to three months during Winter. I realize there is a broodless gap in the colony population in hard Winter months but only for about a month in February in cold climates. In warm climates, there may be some brood during Winter months, but even that cool season population is reduced. Still dead bees in and around the wintering colony always set me on edge.

Yes, some number of dead bees is a good sign of normal senescence within the colony, but how many expired bees does it take to become a bad thing for the wintering colony? I don’t know, but this is not an issue about which you can do anything. During hard Winter, only the colony can save itself. If you have not seen such a winter die-off, let me prepare you for it. There will be significant numbers of dead bees during late Winter and early Spring as the heat-generating bees naturally die. Last winter, for one of my hives, it looked as though every bee in the hive had already died. There were thousands of dead bees on the snow. I even wrote about it and presented photographs. Yet, my colonies all survived and are now experiencing another Winter. Life goes on. I suppose I should expect the appearance of more dead bees within a few weeks.

You should know that the die-off from all colonies will not look the same. The way spent bees pile up, where they are piled, and how many dead bees are on the landing board are all characteristics that will vary from hive to hive. But one way or the other, to live a colony must deal with dead bees.

Where, oh where, is the perfect nest site?
Life is tough in nature so honey bee colony deaths are a common event in a natural nest. I frequently hear beekeepers telling about a tree that has had a bee nest in it for continuous decades. Possibly, in some instances that is true, but more likely, the colony frequently dies during the Winter and is replaced by a springtime swarm in short order. Beekeepers all know that a nest cavity that has been previously used is highly attractive to subsequent swarms. It would appear that the house-hunting swarm is perfectly comfortable moving into a nest cavity in which the previous bee cluster did not survive. Should not they be reluctant to move into such a cavity? Because there really are no (or at least very few) perfect natural cavities out there, can I pose the supposition that the swarm will make this iffy decision? It appears that bees are not trying to live in perpetuity. If they were, they would not routinely nest in a rotted hollow tree that is structurally unsound and certainly destined to topple over. In nature, bees prefer to swarm multiple times so that somewhere, some of them survive during some seasons. That really puts demands on beekeepers trying to develop Winter management schemes in artificial domiciles – our common beehives.

So we are left with the unanswered question – “What features make up the perfect honey bee Winter nest cavity?” or said differently, what domicile features are best suited for bee colonies in most years? To date, our best efforts have been our perception of the “modern beehive.”

This is all we presently know for sure – during the Winter season, some colonies survive at some locations some of the time in some types of hives. The unnerving thing is that I am not trying to be humorous with that statement. Some percentage of our colonies have always died during the Winter season. Therefore, our Winter colony management recommendations have always been in flux and are still not perfect. If there are few – if any – perfect hive sites out there, what should we be considering to make our hives more accommodating? I don’t know, but I have some favorite guesses.

J. Tew cockamamie idea #321 – the hive heated feed source.

Hive insulation
I know most, if not all, of the arguments against hive insulation. They are valid arguments. Extra work and questionable survival outcome have been the driving force in not doing anything other than expecting the wintering cluster to cope with coldness in a simple wooden box. I agree with the arguments. Insulation that must come on and off is a pain. We need to keep looking for improved insulation materials or improved hive designs. In some way, the insulation used with the hive cavity needs to be porous and absorb moisture rather than making it simply rain on the bees inside. Moisture is critical to the wintering colony.

Water/humidity within the wintering colony
Bees cluster at 57°F. Well maybe most bees do, but not all bees are home sitting by the physiological fire of the cluster. Some are making dangerous trips to gather cold water when the outside time is as low as 42°F. I was surprised enough to be write an article about these cool season water foragers in Bee Culture last month (See: Well… why does a colony need water during cool weather?) My colonies were absolutely not overheated, so I am positing that when exhibiting this desperate water foraging behavior, the bees are trying to control the brood nest humidity. Not much is known about this wintering in-colony humidity requirement. We do know that below 40% humidity, no brood is produced. Greater than 80% humidity and Chalkbrood can become a common problem. So when we ventilate our wintering hives, are we always doing the right thing? Alternatively, not ventilating can result is a watery mess inside the hive. In a highly ventilated Winter colony, the only water sources are metabolic water or the water stored in honey – which is actually just future metabolic water. If my bees were frantically collecting water at nearly impossible temperatures, do I as the beekeeper just casually assume all those needs have been met as the temperature dips below freezing and all is well now? I suppose that at this point, I can only say that our understanding of the humidity needs of a wintering colony are not well understood.

Winter Feed and Feeding
The best we can do is leave the traditional amount of stores that a colony generally needs during an average Winter season (probably about 65 pounds of capped honey). We have absolutely no way of knowing the nutritional quality of Winter stores. All beekeeper can do is go by the historical record of previous years. Yet, we know that like a wine, some nectar years are better or worse than others. Long ago, I heard a Canadian commercial keeper say that he took ALL the honey and fed the bees heavy sugar syrup as a pure food wintering source.

At lease we have gotten better at the process of Winter feeding. Just a few decades ago, other than occasionally feeding granulated sugar, there was little thought given to actually feeding starving bees during Winter months. Now beekeepers have several techniques for feeding both fondant and crystalized granulated sugar to clustered bees. In a few weeks, I am going to put a protein substitute on to see if the bees will consume it (or remove it).

More than likely what follows will not be one of my better ideas, but I plan to give it a try. Later in the Winter while the temperature is low and the bees are high in the second deep, when I put on the late Winter feed, I am going to tinker with a sports-type hand warmer. I have not used them in many years so this idea could be way, way out in left field. I want to see if I can provide a warm area around the feed and actually heat the feed a bit. The heat pack is functional for 10 hours so the bee cluster will possibly have some time to move up around the feed source. No doubt some of you have already tried something like this. If so, let me hear from you. At the very least I hope these warmers will help keep me warm as I tinker with the late Winter feed.

Again, for those readers wanting a comprehensive review of current wintering recommendations and explanations, have a look at the article series I posted above.

We are all in this colony-winter-management-boat together. Hang in there. Spring is never far away.

Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Auburn University;;; One Tew Bee RSS Feed (;; @onetewbee

(1) Unless you are reading the electronic version, and if you are, then good for you!
(2) I readily admit that Varroa has had a fundamental effect on modern day beekeeping principles, but even with the effects of that pest, beekeepers still primarily deal with the issues of beekeepers past.
(3) I have posted a 42-second unedited video of the cluster pictured in the photo above. The video shows the difficulty in the beekeeper perceiving the activities that are occurring with the defined Winter cluster.