A Practical Comparison of Cold Storage and Traditional Outdoor Hive Wintering Methods in Central West Virginia

Final report for FNE21-982

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2021: $7,317.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2023
Grant Recipient: Sugar Bottom Farm LLC
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Eric Grandon
Sugar Bottom Farm LLC
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Project Information


Does West Virginia’s unstable winter increase colony loss?  We placed 5 hives inside a cold storage room cooled by a regular air conditioner and a cool bot while the remaining 4 hives were over wintered using traditional methods.  We found a significant difference in losses whereas the outside bees suffered losses of 75% and the bees inside the cold storage suffered a 20% loss.  By keeping bees in clusters instead flying every couple of day's.  The bees in cold storage consumed a third less honey than the outside bees because they stayed in clusters while the outside bees continued to forage on the warm days.   We plan to share results at the WVSU Urban Ag conference this fall.  I discussed these findings with 10-15 of my honeybee customers and still they are quite skeptical because this is so outside our “norm”.  We will continue to share our results with my customers.  These same customers will be purchasing bees from me in the spring. 

Project Objectives:
  1. This project seeks to answer the question, " Will West Virginia winter losses decrease by placing honeybees in cold storage?"
  2. This project seeks to answer the question, " Will honeybees emerge stronger and healthier than outside bees when overwintered in cold storage?"
  3. This project seeks to answer the question,  " Will the cost of colonies saved offset the costs of materials for cold storage?"
  4. This project seeks to answer the question, " Will there be a reduction in spring mite treatment cost?"
  5. This project seeks to answer the question, " Will this method be beneficial for all sizes of beekeepers?

I am a Honeybee farmer which means I raise honeybees to sell.  It seems I get the same customers with some new of course.  I ask my customers what happened to their bees from last year and most blame our crazy winter weather.  During winter in West Virginia, we rarely see a consistent pattern of cold weather.  This is important because in a sustained cold period, 20-30 degrees you’ll find your bees in a fairly tight cluster only doing what bees should be doing, staying warm.  When the honeybees are in this situation they burn little energy which means they eat just a little food. In West Virginia, most colonies fail during the months of February and March mainly from starvation.  Even the beekeepers who leave an excess of honey and provide candy boards or fondant patties to get them through the last remaining days before the first bloom signaling the beginning of spring in which there’s an overabundance of food.  I chose to study if West Virginia’s topsy turvy winter weather is actually the reason for honeybee mortality greater than the national average.  

I am a honeybee farmer.  I grow honeybees for a living and I tend to see the same faces year after year replacing their losses over the winter.  Honeybees are not cheap for one thing, but what about the whole picture of what the losses caused from lost revenue, lost harvest, loss of time and loss of hope thinking maybe they need to give up on agriculture and many do.  Since honeybees are my livelihood I felt I should learn more about sustainable bee farming.  If I lose bees over the winter it leads to lost income for me through the sale of bees.  As a beekeeper I feel we’re there to assist the honeybees since we’ve taken them out of their natural environment and put them in a box.  Having been a beekeeper for almost 10 years I know the importance of the over wintering of my bees.  I set out to study how bees would fare in a consistent environment in which they are not burning their life foraging in February.  I had cold storage training many years ago when we sold produce to the schools.  I was introduced to the Cool bot, a little electronic device that can trick any window air conditioner to think it’s warmer than it really is turning any insulated area into a cold storage room.  I also felt that I could show results leaning towards cold storage: the farmers could easily spend the money for the cool bot using their savings from not having to replace bees.  

I feel the honeybee is the most important part of agriculture today.  Given a third of every bite you take is pollinated by the honeybee alone.  Without this pollinator, we could lose 118 fruits, nuts and vegetables.  Science Times reports that with the loss of the honeybee, we would have no more than 4 years left on earth.  

In the last several years, the average honeybee loss has been at least 40% of all registered hives in the United States.   West Virginia has not been too far off that mark, but is higher than the national average. In 2022-2023 WV average honeybee loss was 41.67%. These numbers have a huge impact for the farmers.  First, the loss of his bees is costing the farmer for replacement bees along with the loss of their honey crop.  Secondly, because of poor harvests due to the lack of pollination carried out by the honeybee.  Losses have been linked to many things.  The Varroa destructor, pesticides, loss of forage, monoculture, humans and weather are all blamed.  I believe our winter weather has more to do with our winter losses due to the extreme temperature shifts when the bees should be in cluster.  

In late summer / early fall, the queen begins to lay the winter bees which can live 4 to 6 months allowing those bees to carry the colony through winter into spring when the new brood will start being produced.  By regulating temperature to a constant 38-40 degrees F., bees will consume less honey, age more slowly, and clusters will experience fewer winter weather related losses than those bees kept outside in West Virginia's extreme temperature fluctuations.  

I believe that placing winter colonies into cold storage here in WV will decrease winter losses and will also be stronger and healthier hives.  I plan on using a normal insulated room and window air conditioner tied with the Coolbot system.  It will place the honey bee colonies into a light cluster allowing the bees to be able too eat but at the same time rendering them unable to fly.  


Description of farm operation:

Sugar Bottom Farm started as a small commercial vegetable farm selling our products to area schools through the Farm to School program. In 2017 we began our Honeybee business and literally exploded. The business continued to grow to the point we couldn’t keep up with the vegetables and the bees. In 2019 we added honey and honey and beeswax value added products. This was about a month prior to COVID. During the times when restaurants were closed and people were isolated in their homes there was a huge push towards Local, Know your farmer know your food, this turned out in our favor because we only sell raw honeys which is where all the medicinal properties are. We are in about 18-20 different locations and the customers love our products. These markets range from restaurants to indoor farmers market to high end gift shops and we’ve recently started adding state parks to our list of customers. We also have an e-commerce site and have received orders in all regions in the country.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Michael Shamblin - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

On January 15th, 2023, we moved 5 living colonies into the cold storage unit and left 4 living hives on the outside. The room temperature ranged from 37 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 42 using a plain digital indoor outdoor thermostat. On the outside I used a  Lacrosse indoor outdoor weather station to monitor the  temperature and humidity. SEE CHARTS.  In the control room we kept the bees in total darkness with the exception of a red light for us to maneuver within the cold storage area safely. Honeybees cannot see the red light which made inspection safe for us.  Since the only feasible solution to measure the temperature and size and position of the colony within the hive we used the Flir 1 thermal imaging camera which measured the internal temperature in the hive and within the cluster itself.  See photos. We performed this type of inspection weekly to ensure the colonies were still alive and their location in the hive.  This information would basically tell me how they were doing with their honey stores.  The hives on the outside were also inspected weekly with the FLIR 1, and observation was also used.  On any given day when temperatures were at 50 or above you could see the bees flying or foraging without success because there’s no food for the bees during the winter months. We removed the colonies on or about March 15th and completed in hive inspections.

In the spring of 2022, I purchased 45 3-pound Italian Honeybee packages to not only use for this project but to also sell as established colonies to compensate our farm business due to the tragic death to about 50 colonies last year because of pesticides.  I installed these packages with 2 days of arrival giving the best chance of initial survival and to decrease the amount of Absconding colonies.  Throughout the season I sold bees to other farmers except for the 35 colonies to use in this study  We did not place an identifying number on any colony upon arrival to our farm as written in the proposal.  I felt if we would have identified the colonies to be used in the study then they would be treated better than my other working colonies.  I made the decision to identify colonies to be used in the study in late November 2022 with the cold storage move to be made on or around December first.  

I have learned, after attempting to place my control group of bees into cold storage without success, that I have no control over the weather. We were 45 days late and if we had stuck to my original schedule I probably wouldn’t have lost 26/35 colonies due to extreme and extended cold weather during December.  For almost 6 days the temperatures plummeted to near zero degrees Fahrenheit and below rendering the honeybee cluster worthless because at those temperatures the honeybee literally goes into a hibernation mode just to prolong its life hoping the temperatures increase to allow movement again to keep from starving.  

I entered the cold storage room with the control bees on January 15th with 5 hives inside and 4 hives outside.  The Coolbot’s thermostat was set to 39 degrees Fahrenheit and the bees are still living.  

I do feel the study will be inconclusive secondary to the lost time in cold storage in cluster vs the highs in December on my farm which gave the honeybees reason to fly and forage up to five miles for food that was no where to be found.  That does not deter the Honeybee foragers from trying again and again with the right temperatures.  In December alone, my bees flew a total of  16 days wasting precious life that would not have happened if they had remained in cluster. In January they have flown another 9 days with 2 more days remaining in the month.  If these bees were spring/summer bees they would be nearly at the end of their lifespan.  

How did we get here??  Inspections began 4 days after installation of the Honeybee packages into my prepared hives. The initial inspection was only to ensure that all 45 queens had been released from the wooden queen cage and had began her duties as the queen.  After the initial inspection, each and every colony was inspected on a 7-10 day schedule which continued throughout the season. Our inspections were driven by a hive inspection checklist.  The checklist were to ensure each hive was inspected using the same technique required by the checklist.  Inspectors recorded findings on the checklist attached to each telescoping top of the hives.  A sticky piece of acetate larger than the checklist kept the inspection list secured to the telescoping top while providing weatherproofing of the blank sheet.  Recordings were made using an erasable wax pencil which was not erased until the next inspection giving the inspector a quick rundown of the colonies' health during the last inspection.  This allowed any inspector to base any change from the previous inspection.  The checklist includes a number of critical observations and/or manipulation procedures to ensure colony health.  A few of those worth mentioning is finding and assessing the queens health and functionality by recording the mood of the colony, the amount and laying patterns of the brood found in each hive, the amount of food, pollen, nectar and honey, and finally the amount of bees, their ratio of workers and drones and completed swarm management techniques. The inspector recorded his assessment of colony health based on the data and observations.  The grade of Strong, Weak, or Normal was given and if any negative discovery was made, immediate action was taken to bring colony back to near normal conditions if possible.  This can be done by feeding an individual colony with synthetic carbohydrates and proteins in the form of Pro Sweet for carb enhancement and ultra bee dry pollen substitute for lack of protein.  Also natural fixes were first choice to increase food stores and increased population through hive manipulation transferring frames and bees from one colony into another weaker colony.  

Research results and discussion:

There were so many factors that made staying with the proposal almost impossible.  It began when after my honey house was built it took 10 months to get electricity installed setting the timeline forward.  The temperature fluctuated from days at zero degrees to the seventies 2 days later.  Unable to get the heat regulated with the air conditioner.   The loss of so many bees in December limited our comparison numbers. During this study many things were learned as well.  Like hiring a HVAC person to connect the heat and air conditioner in the control box. We were unable to provide any heat during the times the temperatures dropped to 30 degrees and below. We learned that keeping bees in a constant dark environment proved two things: 1.  The queen begins eggs at a greater rate in preparation for spring since the days become longer.  Upon initial inspections of the cold storage colonies I went through every frame and was not finding any signs of the queen having laid any eggs so I just figured I had killed the queen during the move in or out or during a food check possibly smashing her with lid.  I eventually found the queen and I was about to destroy her but I figured she would not have known the equinox even took place because of the total darkness. The only negative thing was it would be another 21 days before the first adult honeybee was to be born.  The indoor colonies quickly caught up in comparison to the outside hive which had been brooding up since the end of December.  Each of the remaining colonies had a decent honey harvest but the indoor colonies were able to start producing my honey much quicker than the outdoor colonies because they had eaten most all of their stores which had to be replaced before they could produce any honey for me.  2.  The second significant observation was the mites which would overwinter with the honeybees were not present because they require capped brood for their breeding.  The indoor hives were broodless for about 2 1/2 months which was enough time to eradicate the Varroa.  Another observation was the indoor colonies ate only about 15 pounds of stored honey and 2 fondant patties.  The outdoor colony had consumed over 60 pounds of honey plus 2 pounds of fondant.  That extra45 pounds is worth about $990 per indoor colony and that is money enough to complete any renovation to convert any unused areas into a cold storage unit. Keeping the bees in cold storage throughout the winter not only conserves food but also the honeybee life giving the colony a big headstart when the first blooms come on.  

This has been an exciting study in my opinion. When you take anything out of its natural environment there will always be losses due to our inability to duplicate nature in a wooden box. From the very beginning of learning about the honeybees and their “norms” in nature, I have tried to emulate that natural environment and use their successes and apply that to my management strategies. 

With raising honeybees, it's all about measurements, observations outside the “Norm”.  From day one it’s just like a new baby that requires constant attention and once it gets older we start to relax a little, but that’s only seen in the movies.

When installing 12-15,000 honeybees into an empty hive you begin your measurements after day one. When a colony moves into a new home the builders get right to work. These honeybees that produce wax are from the ages of day 14-18 of their lives thus far. It’s amazing to watch a new queen prance around the comb before cells are built up. Once she recognizes the first food coming in she can now begin laying eggs. A good Queen can lay between 1500-2000 eggs a day if there’s enough empty cells

Research conclusions:

Sugar Bottom Farm set out to prove or disprove that West Virginia’s topsy turvy weather did have an impact on the hives left outside in the bee yard.  Even with the small number in the study, the loss numbers came in at cold storage hives had a twenty percent loss and the outside hives suffered a 75% colony loss that can be related to the warm temperatures we seen this past winter.  Each day with temperatures above 50 degrees there were bees out searching for food flying up to 5 miles hopefully returning back to the colony empty handed.  All that flying on the warm weather days caused an early death in the winter bees which are supposed to live until replacements are born but were just wore out because of the number of flying days.  

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 On-farm demonstrations
3 Tours

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Our formal outreach is to begin this fall with the WVSU’s Urban Ag Conference. Until then I will be sharing my findings to my customers who are all beekeepers. 

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

During the 2022/2023 season we continue to learn West Virginia’s weather continues to play a key role on Honeybee mortality and overall health of the Colony as a whole.  At least 5 farmer/beekeepers have expressed sincere interest in this study.  Each of us, (farmers), have suffered loss of Honeybee Colonies during the winter months in the past. During this research, I discovered basically the only outside influence that we have partial control in is indoor controlled storage of the winter Honeybee Colony.  As I continue this research, we will continue to discover relevant information to tweak the methods being used in this study.  Sadly, given the small numbers of studied colonies this will become a multi year study to finalize the “Best Practices”, in West Virginia.  It is difficult having 5 new Beekeeping farmers in trusting me to find new management strategies to decrease winter losses in this state. Upon completion of this winter season with recorded results we will be able to at least encourage other beekeepers to adopt different strategies to decrease the mortality of our Honeybee populations.

During the course of our project we experienced several unexpected factors and gained knowledge along the way.  Several of the colonies had pesticide exposure on adjacent property which caused eventual death to the colony.  Other colonies were weakened and did not die immediately but during the cold temperatures in October/November they did not survive to make it to the time for cold storage observation.  Due to the death of the colonies and the weakness of the remaining colonies we did not proceed with the cold storage project because the data would have been comprised at that point.  Now that we are aware of the issues we have talked to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, Department of Highways, Utility companies as well as Columbia Gas pipeline company about the use of sprays that can affect our colonies.  I will be contacting the Department of Environmental Protection to address the use of sprays which harms the entire environment plus collateral damage which I suffered. 

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
$0.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
Project outcomes:

As I look back I witnessed first hand the destruction of chemical inputs into our ecosystem as a whole. If there had been prior warning I could have at least blocked the entrances to my hives. I feel that our Department of Agriculture and the others mentioned above should have to notify one another if spraying is to occur and if any registered colonies are within the area. As a whole the damage I suffered could cost me about $50,000 in lost harvest and revenue this upcoming season. 

The impact of this project is the fact that chemical spraying is having a negative effect in our agriculture communities.  Not only does it destroy the areas that have been sprayed but it effects the water, the soil and our livestock in surrounding areas.  It destroys our pollinators species, not only bees but other insects that can pollinate flowers, foods, trees and other agriculture products. This in turn can affect life cycles of all living things and produce a cascade effect for the future.  Sustainability in and environment like this is next to impossible. 

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

There were several challenges during this project and many out of our control.  Due to Covid 19 we were unable to buy the bulk sugar that we needed to feed the bees during the dearth which is necessary for any starting colony.  There was also very minimal honey flow during the fall due to summer weather.  I traveled to a neighboring state to purchase emergency bee feed to help the colonies survive through the winter however this measure was unsuccessful due to the issues with pesticide exposure.  Also due to price of lumber and supply chain issues we were delayed in our cold storage unit completion until midwinter.  A secondary plan had been developed for meeting the requirements of cold storage however the bees did not survive until that point. I also had health issues which limited my ability during the course of the study. We also realized during this study that the decision to put the bees in cold storage should be based on weather versus calendar date. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.