Beekeeping 101 – Overwintering bees in cold climates

Hives wrapped in tar paper are said to overwinter better in cold climates.

[captionpix imgsrc=”” captiontext=”Wrapped Up Tight” imgtitle=”right click to enlarge”]


In the great white north winters get a little harsh and bees are not very fond of cold weather. Actually,  overwintering bees in cold climates is possible, it’s the not the cold that causes problems, it’s excess moisture, availability of food, and helping to provide natural heat. Here’s one thing we’re doing to overwinter the bees so they survive the cold.

Our first goal is to make sure we have strong hives going into winter. We fed them a solution of one part sugar to one part water for most of the summer. This was only because we received our bees soon after the nectar and pollen flow was underway and almost over for season. They did find both in the wild, but not in the quantity necessary to build a strong colony for overwintering. Therefore…sugar syrup. (I don’t necessarily like this but for our first year we need to build strong colonies.)

In late September and early October, when the goldenrod nectar and pollen bloomed, the colonies grew extremely fast. Within a week and a half each colony had built out twenty frames of capped honey and pollen. I estimate that they had anywhere from 80 to 100 pounds of honey, which is what we are told they need to get through winter. However if they can’t get to it they will starve. So after consulting our mentor, who also sold us our bees, we developed a plan of action for overwintering the bees.

In another article we’ll talk about a method for emergency feeding we’ll use this winter. For now we’ll only talk about wrapping the hives in tar paper. Wrapping the hives assists the sun in raising the internal temperature of the hives. In winter bees cluster around the queen and this temperature is roughly 95 degrees F. The air in the hive is at ambient temperature so wrapping the hives is a strategy to keep the internal temperature somewhere above outside ambient so the bees expend less energy to stay warm and on those marginal days can move about the hive to feed on their honey stores.

Our hives are all built on what is known as medium supers or boxes. They are about 6 5/8 inches tall and each contains 10 frames for the bees to build on. This winter each colony has 4 supers, which in height is about 26 inches tall, at least that is what we need to wrap.

This is a simple method of helping the hives maintain a better internal temperature and only took about one hour to do. Now that we know our way around the process I can’t imagine it taking more than 15 minutes per hive. A small investment in time to help the bees make it through winter. Let’s hope spring brings us two healthy hives and some surplus honey!












  • reply Justin Mills ,

    Your last video on dead bees, why so many boxes? Why didn’t you consolidate honey and bees down to 3 are 4 boxes?
    Like the tarpaper that has worked well for me.

    • reply Dave ,

      Justin, I’m asking myself the same question. Inexperience is my only answer and I won’t be leaving that many on again. Though the bigger problem was a warm spell in February. The queens were laying like crazy then we got hit with the cold weather again. Bees didn’t know whether to cluster or heat the brood and we lost two hives to that.

    • reply Dave ,

      Hi Dave,
      You are welcome. This will be our 4th year beekeeping. We have two Langstroth hives, and are looking for a better way. One hive, like your, was weak going into the winter and was alive 2 weeks ago, but probably dead. The other seems to be doing well. We are building a Russian hive and will put some local survivor stock in it this June. I will bracket two deep frames together and cut off the “ears” on the lower frame. I think your use of local survivor bees is good. So far we have been using packages from the south, and we want to try to instead use local bees and give them a better home. Good luck, and we will talk more.

      • reply Dave ,

        We read the book “Keeping Bees With a Smile” by Fedor Lazutin. He keeps bees in Russia using double walled insulated hives. The hives are horizontal and have just one level (no supers). The frames are twice the depth of the standard deep frame we use in the U.S. and the hive holds 25 of these frames, so the hive volume is that of 5 U.S. deep boxes. Volume is expanded and reduced as needed with a special division board. To control moisure in the hive during winter, he uses a specialized frame which holds ten pounds of silica gel dessicant. Because the hive is warmer, the bees use less honey during the winter than in hives where cold air is vented through.

        • reply Dave ,


          Thanks for writing. These hives sound interesting and I think I’ve seen the setup on a FaceBook group. Since we are just first year beekeepers we decided to go with Langstroth hives and bees from a local fellow. They are untreated and local survivor stock. They managed well until about two weeks ago when one died from starvation. It was weak going into winter and we added mountain camp feeders both hives, the one just ate everything in sight. We were counting on the January “thaw” we normally get here in upstate NY to add more sugar. It never came. You can see the video at of us doing the emergency feeding. It was cold but we figured we had a 50/50 chance to keep hive two alive until warmer weather. We’ll see what happens.

          Do you have bees? How many hives and for how long?

          Thanks again for writing and passing the information along.

        • reply sue ,

          I would love to raise honey bees in Southeast Alaska, but people who have tried say it is too wet for them here. But I don’t give up easily on projects, so any information anyone can give me to help would be appreciated. Would using some of the products available to absorb moisture work in the hive? I use one in my car and it works great. Looking forward to info from any of you who raise bees in cold and or damp areas! Sue

          • reply Dave ,

            Sue, the thanks for commenting. On Facebook there is a group called Northern Beekeeping and you’ll find some Alaskan beekeepers there who may help out. There are some really smart people keeping bees in cold climates on that group.

            Beekeeping in cold climates can be challenging but I have heard of beekeepers in Alaska. Where in Alaska are you located?

            How long is your summer and flowering season for nectar and pollen?


            • reply Dave ,

              Sue, I apologize for not answering your message completely earlier. You asked about using moisture absorbing products for bee hives and I didn’t answer that so here goes. As long as the hive has ventilation, meaning air access from the bottom and top of the hive, there shouldn’t be a problem with moisture. Ideally you don’t want to introduce any foreign chemical substance to a hive so moisture absorption device probably isn’t a good idea.

              There are other methods of combating moisture such as quilt boxes or mountain camp feeders, which is what we use at Clean Slate Farm. I have a post about mountain camp feeding here and that will help explain the principal in some more detail. Basically it serves two purposes: 1- feed the bees if they need it and you can’t get to them, and 2- absorb moisture and condensation from the hive. Take a look at our beekeeping section.

              I mentioned but also see the organic beekeeper group here and the treatment free group here

              There are many, many helpful people there who can answer almost any question you have about beekeeping. Beekeeping is a fascinating undertaking and you learn every time to go to the hives. I would suggest you read, read, read, and read some more then find a mentor nearby to help. Good luck, and keep me posted on your journey.


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