Mid Course Corrections: Helping your bees survive these harsh Michigan winters.

It’s It's commonly said that “cold doesn’t kill bees, condensation kills bees”.  However, when we get cold snaps like the one we just had here in Michigan I still have my concerns.  The truth probably lies more in the statement that cold doesn’t kill HEALTHY bees.

 It’s now that we beekeepers second guess everything we did or didn’t do from July on, to prepare our bees as best we could for such a winter.  Focusing on bee health is the number one way to prepare for winter.  If we’ve done that well, our next priority is enhancing their physical environment to ease the impact of our Michigan winters.

Mid-course corrections are our third line of defense and can really increase the chances of a colony’s winter survival.  This article offers some things we can still do to help our bees get through this unusually cold Michigan winter.

We had two weeks of very harsh arctic conditions.  Finally, the weather broke for a few days and we saw temperatures as high as 55 degrees.  It was then that we could take a peek to see how our bees were doing.  I went into winter with 22 hives.  Recently I found two hives that didn’t survive our latest cold snap, which was an unfortunate surprise.  There is still a lot of winter left but hopefully, the rest of my hives will make it through.

A good plan for overwintering success is having low mite counts, strong sized colonies, reduced boxes, plenty of honey stores, adequate ventilation and a mound of sugar up top as insurance for if the cluster of bees eats its way to the top and is in need of supplemental feeding.  (See the “Mountain Camp” method.) 


Mid-Course Corrections

Warm winter days (Sunny and high 40’s) provide us the opportunity to do certain mid-course corrections.  Some things you can do to help your colony’s odds of survival are:

  • Remove dead bees from the bottom board by scraping them out with a stick. 


  • Ensure that the hive is well ventilated. Clear the entrance of snow and check to be sure that there is a way for condensation to escape from the upper part of the hive. 

  • Even propping up the inner cover slightly with a couple of popsicle sticks lying flat on top of each other will help provide a bit of ventilation if you have not accounted for this already.
  • Ensure that the hive has an upper entrance. Often times the lower entrance can get blocked by dead bees, snow or ice. One way to create an entrance without disrupting the hive much is to drill a ¾” hole in the face of the top hive box. This not only provides ventilation but also gives the bees a sure way out if their bottom entrance gets blocked.








  • If you have a "quilt box" on top, ensure that your insulation or shavings are serving their purpose correctly. If it is damp from the bees’ metabolic moisture, replace it.

  • If you use the “Mountain Camp” method for feeding sugar, check to be sure that your bees still have an adequate amount of sugar. Remember that looks can be deceiving.  Bees will eat the pile from the inside like a snow cave.  It may appear that there is a pile of sugar but really it can be completely hollow inside. 


  • Weighing the hive by tipping it slightly from the back will give you an idea as to how much food stores are left. Adding honey frames may be too disruptive at this point. However, adding sugar will be a good benefit.

Remember that an overwintering colony is delicate.  Don’t do anything that will break up the cluster.  Do not split your hive boxes apart.  The queen can start laying as early as mid-January.  You don’t want to chill the freshly laid brood or cause the bees to have to reorganize in dangerously cold temperatures.

Hopefully this information is helpful.  Remember that beekeeping is a process of constant learning.  Utilize some of this down time to read and study.  Take notes and keep records to help make your beekeeping more efficient and productive year after year. 

Before you know it, spring will be upon us and you will have hives busting at the seams.  Prepare now by having adequate woodenware, learning the signs of a hive preparing to swarm and learning how to make splits.  These are steps toward the goal of having a self-sustaining apiary.  And that is a wise and worthy goal to pursue.


  • The other purpose for the sugar is to absorb moisture. Do NOT cover the entire frames with newspaper. Let a gap on the ends of the frames (the front and back edge) to vent the humid air into the sugar area.

    Kurt S
  • I had a good first season with my warre hive down here in Lambertville. However, the colony didn’t survive the most recent cold. It appeared the cluster was too small and when i cleaned out the dead bees i couldn’t find a queen.

    John McDowell
  • I’m your 4th reader.:-)
    I learned another new tip. Thanks for your time.


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