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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Bawden

Maintaining and Wintering Mini-Colonies Thru The Year In Wisconsin: Part One

Our guest beekeeper Greg Vorontsov shares his secrets on maintaining and overwintering mini mating nucs in Wisconsin. This really impressed us!

mini queen mating nuc frame
Solid brood pattern on a free standing mini-frame

April 2024 is finally here and the second winter for my bees in the mini-colony format proved to be sufficiently successful. I am now convinced that the mini-colonies can be maintained in Wisconsin through the entire year. I am still improving the process and solving the minor issues as I face them, but overall I will continue this method in my side-liner beekeeping.

I practice very limited mite treatment, therefore my losses could be significant. The success of this project is measured in the ability of the mini-colonies to winter at least at the same rate as the conventional colonies winter. The last two winters showed the survivability of the mini-colonies to be at least as good and even better than the same of the conventional colonies (see table). If more significant mite treatments are applied, the survival numbers should improve overall. However, high survivability is not my goal. Certainly, several more years of data are needed to solidify the current findings.

winter honey bee survival
Winter colony survival in Greg's apiary

Why are these findings important?

The findings are important because they show that significant numbers of locally produced and mated queens can be produced with low inputs and successfully wintered directly in Wisconsin. It is possible to select, produce and maintain the local queens better suited for the year-around beekeeping in the state. The importation of the bees and queens from outside the state should not be necessary when the local production can cover all the local needs.

Why the mini-colony?

Mini honey bee nuc colony
A growing mini-colony in a small container

The mini-colony is a low cost and low resource way to create and maintain the queens year around, achievable even by hobby beekeepers. Only strong colonies can winter in Wisconsin in double or triple box Langstroth hives. This is false. I have consistently wintered colonies equivalent to 3-4 conventional medium Langstroth frames. Normally, such small colonies are not capable of wintering in conventional setups. I do not combine the colonies for the winter so to avoid wasting potentially valuable queens to a random chance. All mated queens should have a chance to prove themselves. Wintering them in the mini-hives affords this.

Only strong colonies can winter in Wisconsin in double or triple box Langstroth hives. This is false. I have consistently wintered colonies equivalent to 3-4 conventional medium Langstroth frames.

What type of equipment are the mini-colonies are kept in?

I keep my mini-colonies in a variety of Styrofoam coolers easily obtained for free. I also use my own free-standing custom frames. These can be fit into most any well insulated container used as a mini-hive.

Foam mini hive
Typical mini-hive from recycled and painted Styrofoam cooler

What are the known problems with the mini-hives?

From experience I found that over the winter months regular Styrofoam containers do need extra protection from wildlife or they need to be kept in animal-safe locations. Bees may chew the Styrofoam in summer when they are overcrowded. Practical ways to harden the foam containers are still a work in progress. But they undoubtedly provide superior environment for the bees overall.

Are there any special methods when managing the mini-colonies?

Mini nuc in winter
Wintering the mini-hives in Wisconsin

It is a general understanding that the smaller hives need more attention – this is not a new idea. Overall, the mini-colonies are managed in the same general ways as the conventional colonies are. However, due to the small size the mini-colonies require more attention as they quickly run out of space and, thus, require more frequent inspections, expansions, and splitting. During the flows they can produce significant amounts of honey and quickly run out of space. During the winter the mini-colonies require more frequent checks and supplemental feeding due to the very small sizes of the colonies and their small living quarters. Dry feeding works very well in this hives.

Are there special ways to raise the queens in the mini-colonies?

No, nothing special is required. The very same basic principles of raising the queens via splitting apply. However, all management is taking place in much smaller hives with very little resources involved for the queen creation and maintenance. Small size allows for very easy manipulation of the hives. With the conventional hives only one-two splitting's are done over the course of the summer. To compare, with the mini-colonies 4-5 splitting rounds are possible over the same summer. It is typical to produce and mate 3-5 queens from every mini-colony over a single splitting rotation.

About the Author:

I started helping my Dad with his very defensive, local bees when I was seven. Now I myself am a hobbyist beekeeper Dad. My main interest is in bee selection towards localization and non conventional beekeeping techniques. My hope is that one day the locally sustainable bees in Wisconsin will become a common place. I offer queens via my mini colonies and nucs from my layens hive for purchase. Contact via

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