Exploring Shelter-Based Options for Over-wintering Honeybee Colonies in Northern Climates to Reduce Winter Loss

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $10,752.00
Projected End Date: 10/15/2017
Grant Recipient: Bear Creek Organics LLC
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Brian Bates
Bear Creek Organics LLC

Annual Reports


  • Animals: bees
  • Animal Products: honey


  • Crop Production: beekeeping, pollinator health, winter storage
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture



    We spent just under 50% of the project funds up to this point, mostly for personnel and honeybee package purchases. We purchased package bees in the spring, drove downstate to retrieve them and returned and raised the colonies all summer. Most did well, but we certainly had some attrition - causing us to rethink using 4 hives for 7 treatments. Based on our experience, at this point we’ve decided to adjust our controls and tweak our treatments, potentially using 3 colonies per, rather than 4. We are going to do pole barn, straw bale, shed, hoop house, and carport (instead of calf hutch) and use one control wrapped in a Bee Cozy (rather than roofing paper) and one control with no protection. These adjustments are based on local beekeeper feedback (no one had ever had a calf hutch on their farm, but many had carports), and the Bee Cozy product, though more expensive than roofing paper is gaining in popularity and ease of use far exceeds that of roofing paper.


    As we have filed an extension, we have postponed the official data collection and winter shelter research until Winter 2016/17 due to the abnormally warm fall and early winter here in Michigan. We want our work to be representative of more typical winters, and not clouded with an asterisk. Our extension request explained that we would like an 8-month extension due to the unusually warm weather this winter and the confounding variables that it may add to our research project. We are concerned that our Upper Midwest Cold-Weather research project for honeybee over-wintering would produce less meaningful results given the abnormally warm weather and add an unnecessary asterisk to the project and its resultant findings. We want results that are helpful to fellow beekeepers and intend to test our shelter options in a more "traditional" winter environment that features more extended periods of cold and more traditional overwintering behavior. We recognize that extreme weather events such as this may become more normal with climate change, but would like to give it another shot in the 2016-17 winter.

    Our new end date requested, [and later approved] was October 15, 2017.



    Touched on this a little above, but we have learned that 4 hives per treatment may be overkill; we’re going to try 3. Calf hutch is not realistic given beekeeper feedback; we’ve switched to carport. Roofing paper is cheap, but rarely used due to difficulty of application and minimum quantity available; we’ve substituted the Bee Cozy. Also, the effect of varroa mites on winter survival is severe, and we are developing a comprehensive measurement and treatment plan in an attempt to get colonies on a level playing field before going into winter.


    Furthermore, even though the formal research and recording is postponed until next winter, we did put a dozen hives in our pole barn this winter, and a handful in a shed, and thus far, we’ve had over 90% survival in pole barn, 50% survival in shed (mite pressure is a problem), and under 50% survival outside exposed. This is enlightening and encouraging, so we are excited to see what 2016/17 brings. Not only this, we were concerned about how to manage honeybee access to the outdoors through the pole barn, but tested a few methods of entry and feel confident that we can present a realistic solution for this challenge.


    WORK PLAN FOR 2016 /2017

    Our work plan for 2016/17 is very similar to the original grant proposal, just one year later. The tweaks to the plan have been detailed above, and we think that we will be better researchers next year since we used this winter as an unofficial dry run to test out our systems and processes. We are cautiously optimistic and hoping for an average winter!



    Though the project is officially postponed until Winter 2016/17, we have discussed our approach and ideas with our local beekeeping club throughout the winter. We’ve received some feedback, and have even inspired about a half-dozen other beekeepers to start experimenting with building shelters for their hives. This has been a great side-effect and we hope to continue the unofficial research alongside our more formal project.


    Project objectives:

    This project will evaluate the cost, success, and management considerations (labor, equipment, scalability) for each of five different shelter options with a two-part control. The shelters were selected based on likelihood of on farm availability and degree of protection. To derive meaningful results and account for hive variability, four colonies will be placed in each of the five shelters. The five shelters are: 1) straw-bale enclosure, 2) calf hutch, 3) unheated hoophouse, 4) standard shed, and 5) an unheated pole barn. The two-part control consists of four hives with no protection whatsoever, as well as four hives wrapped as one unit in a roofing paper-style pallet wrap – the most commonly suggested over wintering technique.

    This project acknowledges the tremendous importance of managed honeybee colonies as part of our agricultural system and aims to provide concrete data and accessible conclusions to be shared with beekeepers of all sizes interested in ecologically sound, ethical opportunities to achieve and/or enhance profitability.

    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.