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

    Proposal summary:


    Whereas the value of honeybees in our agricultural system is well-understood, there has been significant attention and resources put towards researching Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). While CCD consists of many variables that continues to challenge researchers and beekeepers alike, the effects of winter loss on beekeepers is always acknowledged but rarely addressed beyond anecdotal research. More importantly, as the price of replacing bees each spring continues to increase, winter losses affect the financial viability of any beekeeping operation. Combine the price increases with the unprecedented decreased winter survival rates in the past decade and it’s no surprise beekeepers are looking for previously ‘unnecessary’ insurance policies against winterkill. Our project aims to provide a reasonably thorough analysis of five low-cost sheltered wintering strategies small to medium scale beekeepers could implement on their own farms using existing farm infrastructure.

    As of 2012, there are an estimated 115,000 – 125,000 beekeepers in the United States maintaining 2.64 million hives. Small-scale beekeepers account for the vast majority of those, and tend to keep less than 25 hives. Commercial beekeepers account for 2,000 of those beekeepers while managing apiaries of at least 300 hives up to 10,000-80,000 hives. This is a unique challenge for the research community because the series of problems affecting the largest quantity of honeybee colonies reaches the fewest number of beekeepers. This project is important to our farm and to every other farmer/beekeeper in the North Central region because it focuses on the majority of beekeepers, those who keep their bees locally, maintain small to medium apiaries, and are therefore faced with the long, harsh winters typical of our region. If we can mitigate this problem with some ingenuity and existing infrastructure, then we can boost winter survival, reduce operating costs, increase business viability, and demonstrate a model of beekeeping that does not depend as heavily on massive transportation costs, and southern bee factory farms.

    This is a big picture issue, but one that can be reasonably explored on a small scale. Our innovative project intends to gather accessible data regarding the opportunities and challenges associated with five different forms of shelter. After we lost 60% of our colonies in 2012-13 and 90% in 2013-14 – customers and beekeepers began asking us the same questions we were asking ourselves – isn’t there somewhere we could put the hives that would protect them from the elements? Jonathan Scheel put three of his hives inside his hoophouse last fall and while they seemed weaker than some of our outdoor colonies in the fall, all three survived. Was this dumb luck? Or is there a significant opportunity here?
    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.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Test the opportunities present in utilizing existing farm structures as potential enclosures to increase the chances of honeybee colony survival through the long, harsh, winters found in the north Central United States.
    2. Benefit the environment by exploring ways to minimize the need to transport bees south for the winter.
    3. Compare the cost of different treatments (shelters) for honey bees and harvestable honey, to answer fundamental cost/benefit economic questions faced by beekeepers of all sizes.
    4. Improve the social wellbeing of migratory beekeepers by reducing the need for them to spend months away from home every winter.
    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.