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Winter hive check: what to look for

When you check your winter hives, what do you look for? How often? Should you open them? Should you use a checklist? What if something is wrong?

The answer for me is simple: I get nervous as a cat if I don’t check my hives at least once a week all winter long. But “check” is an open-ended word. What I check for depends on what I find. Sounds like doublespeak, right?

Checking for me means walking past each hive with a cursory glance. If the glance raises a question, I look further. If not, I keep going. Let me give you an example.

A battle with gravity

Last weekend my husband found it first. He came to me all anxious, “You have a hive that’s tipping over.” And he was right. One tall hive that sits on its own stand was leaning like the Tower of Pisa because the front two legs of the stand had caved into the ground.

On closer inspection, it appeared that the ground had been undercut by moles. In the dry summer, the parched ground had remained rigid and held up the stand. But once saturated by winter rain, it collapsed, sucking the hive stand into the mud.

Since the whole thing was strapped together with a tie-down, he was able to push it backward while I dug out the ground underneath and forced in some paving stones. Within a few minutes we had the hive level as a pool table. I could hear the bees sigh with satisfaction, relieved of that lurching feeling in their stomachs.

You never know what you might find. Trees down on top of hives, breaches by animals, snow packing all entrances, rainwater running into—instead of out of—the hive. Depending on your set-up, you might find insulation torn away, lids blown off, or hives hit by vandals.

The perfect number of dead bees

I also look at the number of dead bees on the landing board. I like to see some dead bees because it means the others are in there doing what they are supposed to do: keeping the hive clean and healthy.

If I see no dead bees, I gently rap on the hive until I hear them purr. If all sounds okay, I run a stick through the entrance to make sure it is clear. If there are many dead bees behind the reducer, I pull it out and remove the piles of decomposing bodies.

On the other hand, if I see dozens of dead bees on the landing board, I sift through them. Is there a queen? Do I see deformed wings? Are their heads missing? Are other insects mixed it? An excess of dead bees on the landing board may signal a Varroa mite problem. Other insects parts may mean an infestation. Missing heads may mean a vole is leading the good life.

If I’m concerned, I may pull out the Varroa tray and look for insect parts, mites, and leaking honey. Comb debris tells you where the cluster is and how big it is. Pools of honey may signal an invader.

If the Varroa tray isn’t in use, I may put one in for a few days, and then have another look. The Varroa tray can be a great diagnostic tool for things other than mites.

A peek under the hood

When a closer look is warranted, I may pop the lid for a quick peek inside. Many times when I haven’t been able to hear anything, I’ve nervously lifted the lid only to find them bunched up in the candy, munching away. Perhaps they don’t “talk” with their mouths full? I don’t know why I can’t hear them in the candy, but seeing them there is always a welcome sight.

That said, if your bees are gathered on the top frames and there is no supplemental feed, you should check further. You may need to go into the hive and move frames of honey closer to the cluster, or you may need to add supplemental food.

I’ve often heard beekeepers say that though they think their bees are out of food, it is too cold to open the hive. My opinion is that it is never too cold to open the hive if the bees are starving. If you open the hive and dash in some food, some may die of cold, I get that. But if you wait until it’s warm, they will probably all die of starvation. I hate the expression “no-brainer” but that’s what it is.

The same goes for combining hives. The time I sifted through the landing board bees and found a dead queen, I quickly combined the hive with another using a single sheet of newspaper. They weren’t going to mate a queen in December even if they managed to raise one, so the hive would have been doomed. The combination let it some cold air for sure and probably killed some, but it yielded a nice strong colony the following spring.

Beekeeping often involves sacrificing a few for the good of many, but that’s okay. It’s exactly the same thing they do. Since their entire social system is based on that philosophy, you shouldn’t beat yourself up for making a decision that kills some bees—it is far better than losing the entire colony.

Water, water everywhere

Once you have the lid up, you should check for moisture accumulation. Dry honey bees can successfully handle extremes in temperature, but a wet honey bee is a dead honey bee.

There are various ways of handling excess moisture, some very dependent on where you live. Some beekeepers add extra ventilation, some like to tip a condensation board so the water runs down the inside of the hive instead of dripping on the bees. My personal favorite is the moisture quilt, which captures the moisture and then slowly releases it to the outside air.

When honey bees lived in trees, the punky interior of the cavity captured moisture and the bees were kept dry. But in man-made hives, we often have to help things along. In our digital world, new tools such as the BroodMinder are available to help you monitor the humidity in your hives as well as the temperature.

Deciding what and when is up to you

During most of my weekly rounds, I find nothing. But on that occasion when I do, I try to solve the problem as quickly as possible, keeping in mind what is best for the colony as a whole. Some things can be put off for a warmer day and some cannot. It’s up to the beekeeper to decide which is which.

How about you? What do you check for and how do you do it?

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Hives in winter
Hives during a winter hive check. © Rusty Burlew

Comments

Dave Newman
Reply

Interesting article. I just saw a YouTube video about Topor that strongly urges no knocking on your hives because the bees will increase the heat in the hive causing the bees to consume more honey. Google topor, JC’s Bees.

I did purchase a BroodMinder and have it in one of my cypress wooden hives. I will also put a BroodMinder in one of my BeeMax polystyrene hives to compare with. I will eventually share my results.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

Yup, I’ve read that in a number of places, but I will continue to gently tap on my hives because it gives me information that helps me manage the bees. If I didn’t knock on the hives but opened them instead, that would be worse. I’ve never had a hive starve because I tapped on it.

Phillip
Reply

I was a hive tapper until I started using a $7 stethoscope this year. Listening through the hive, I can take a pretty good guess at how high or low the bees are clustering, and in some cases I think I can tell the size of the cluster. I’m learning. I wasn’t sure the stethoscope would come in handy, but I use it all the time now. Not that it’s necessarily a better way to read the bees. It is fun though.

Having lost several hives to shrews last year, I keep an eye out for any signs of them: hollowed out bee corpses and detached limbs and small droppings (smaller than a mouse). I would not hesitate to tear into my hives in the middle of a snow storm to scare shrews away if I had to.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

It seems stethoscopes are really popular. I will have to give that a try.

Bill
Reply

Dave,

I’ve been monitoring internal hive temperatures for a few years now. I have purposely testing the knock theory a few times and notice no increase of a temperature. The knock tests where conducted by knocking with my knuckle and another test with a metal tool. Even several hard knocks on the hive walls caused no measurable temp increase. So, for me, I will continue to knock…. not pound. Also, if in topor, the stethoscope won’t help. – Bill

cgrey8
Reply

With only 3 hives, my inspections are much more frequent. I also run my hives with an empty deep on top so I can put jars of sugar water in the hive. This also makes it very convenient to pop the hive open and not worry about getting cold wind on the hives. The deep continues to shield the cluster even with the top off. In fact, they are so docile at these low temps that I don’t bother with a suit or veil. When I actually need to swap jars, I do put some heavy gloves on just so if one gets offended at my presence, they don’t sting me, they just curl into a thick glove…and they do this from time to time.

The one thing I’m noticing this year is the very different cluster size between my hives. One hive is an early July split that built up a little particularly since we had warm days well into December…in fact, Christmas is expected to be near 70s this year for us. This hive appears to be doing well…covering 2-3 frames wide and 1/2 to 2/3rds of the frames covered.

The “big” hive that was always the biggest hive this year is still my biggest hive. The cluster spans 5 entire frames even in the cold. When its warm, they span 7-8 frames and always have a huge number crawling all over the top bards. Being larger, it’s the one that takes down more sugar water. But that’s understandable, more mouths to feed.

The 3rd was the “middle” size hive most of the year, but right now it is the smallest and the one that concerns me a little. It covers maybe a 1/3rd of a frame (both sides). For a while, they were taking sugar water like the other 2 hives still are. But for the past 2-3 weeks, this hive hasn’t. I thought maybe it was a fault of my feeder keeping the bees from being able to reach the water or a buildup of unmelted sugar on the feeder holes. But that’s not the problem. They just don’t seem to be taking water. Although they are still in there right under the jar and come out when it’s warm enough. It’s just enough smaller cluster than the other two AND they aren’t taking water which concerns me. Any idea why one hive would not want/take sugar water, but the other 2 would?

BTW, the sugar mix I’m giving is 2:1 (it’s thick). I’ve also taken a laser temp sensor to the water jars in each hive and even when it’s 30s and 40s outside, the jar at the top is in the mid 60s. Point being, the bottoms of the jars are plenty warm enough for them to consume from.

cgrey8
Reply

I was right to be concerned about my smaller hive. It kept getting smaller and smaller. Add to that, it started having more and more hive beetles around it. Then the thing that really triggered me to dig into the hive is the frames all looked wet.

Digging into it, there were only about 2-3 dozen bees in a small cluster. All the cells around the bees were full of honey/sugar water but were not capped. Sure enough, they were all wet…some were even bubbling like they were fermenting. We’ve had a REALLY warm winter so this doesn’t surprise me. But most importantly, there was NO brood and NO queen. I looked through the dead bees on the screened bottom, but didn’t see a queen down there. I suspect they’ve been queenless for about a month now and it’s just taken this long for them to dwindle in population to the point that I other signs of a problem were too great for me to ignore. I guess it’s possible I could’ve combined them with another hive if I’d dug into it last month. I just didn’t know to.

Next year, I’ll know to trust my instincts when I suspect a problem and dig into a hive to look for problems if something just isn’t sitting right with me.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

That’s a really good observation and valid point. Many of us have ignored problems when our suspicions told us otherwise, and usually the outcome is bad. Folks like you know much more about beekeeping than you realize, so those little suspicions in the back of the mind should be taken seriously.

By the way, that bubbling syrup actually is fermenting. Some of those bees probably really enjoyed their last days.

Stephanie
Reply

Wonderful article that answered some of the questions I had about examining the hives in the winter. I have knocked but can never hear any buzzing or activity. I see them flying so know they are there. Thank you!!

Tom
Reply

Rusty
You are a jewel. Btw, we have young grandchillin in Oly and are considering moving there from E’burg. If you know of any one level (I’m 80) with a little space please let me know. Oh, we travel w/Carniolins.
Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Okay, Tom. I will ask around.

JoAnne
Reply

I got an old stethoscope and now I use it to “listen” to the colonies in winter. So far I am just figuring out what sound means they are good and what sound is just swishing. In one colony I could definitely hear more in the lower box than in the upper box, so that sounded good. Has anyone else used a stethoscope?

Myrna Warren
Reply

When it’s too cold to open the hives in the winter, I have a stethoscope and listen to the bees that way. You can tell by the sound where the cluster is and by the volume if it’s large or small. I use it in the spring and summer too when I am not opening the hives for their regular inspections.

Erik Brown
Reply

Since I put a Broodminder in two of my hives (out of three), I check them every morning to get a temperature reading (the humidity reading does not seem to work properly so I generally ignore it). This morning it was 25F outside and mid-40’s at the top of the hive, so I assume the bees were clustered up a bit below the top keeping themselves warm.

As a first year keeper, I really appreciate these “what-to-do” posts you share every so often. Much appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks Erik. I finally got my BroodMinder working (I had to buy a new smart phone first). My first reading was 74 degrees and 71% RH. I thought this hive was weak, but they are more comfortable than they would be in my living room (68 F).

Joe Douillette
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for your blog. It is so helpful in so many ways. I, too, purchased a Broodminder this year based on your article. I was curious what a healthy humidity range should be. My beekeeping mentor was not able to tell me based on a percentage. I have place my Broodminder on the top, underneath the inner cover. I have insulation over the inner cover, beneath the outer cover. I get humidity readings between 60 and 80%.

Rusty
Reply

Joe,

I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that, but I’ve been getting RH readings in the 70%s and I’m really happy with that, especially since it hasn’t stopped raining for the past three weeks.

Joe Douillette

Thanks, Rusty

For the record, I just took a reading. It’s a cool rainy day here north of Boston and the humidity reading in the hive is up to 90%. I think it’s time to take out the insulation. Looks like we’re staying in perpetual sprin/summer in the Northeast!

Jeff in the Adirondacks
Reply

Thanks to you and the website, my girls are ready for the winter. There is no opening the hives here when you are waiting for 5 or 6 weeks for the temps to get up into the single digits. Below zero temps can last a long time here. Super-quilts are installed and there is 1/4″ screening on every opening. No entrance reducers. Wind breaks are up along with the snow shields to keep an air pocket around the entrances in the event that there is a 40″-50″ snowfall and I can’t get to them right away. The last time we had a 48″ storm on top of 30″ already on the ground, it was days before I could get to the hives, but they made it through. Still waiting for my Broodminder- can’t wait to put it in. Guess it will go in on top of the quilt for now when it comes. So far it has been warm with teens lately at night and days in the 20’s. I wish it would stay this warm all winter!

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

For what it’s worth, I put my Broodminder under the quilt. I lifted the quilt with a hive tool, and 1/4-inch was all I needed to slide it in.

Capt Mannering
Reply

I’m trying to be as non-invasive as possible. So each hive has a Perspex crownboard (with optional feeder hole for fondant or syrup, but is closed off when not feeding through the winter months). The hives have apex rooves with insulation in the winter (to keep the crown board warm and avoid condensation). So looking down into the colony and feeding is easy with no/little heat escape.

I bought a thermal imaging clip-on gadget from Flir for my iPhone which shows the cluster and also where it is moving. Interesting, it will also show where heat is escaping – knots in wood are like heat chimneys!

Finally, the varroa boards are left in to provide information on whether there is brood hatching or stores are being eaten – simplistically, I am assuming pure white cappings are stores from the honey super and biscuit brown from brood hatching – not sure about yellowy wax

Correlating the above with some hefting, should provide sufficient information for when pro-active help is required from the beekeeper and some comfort to the natural winter worriers among us!

Happy Christmas all, especially to you Rusty

Rusty
Reply

Merry Christmas to you too!

Those thermal imaging cameras are really cool. I’ve been thinking about one…

Harold Meinster
Reply

I have the strangest occurrence with my two hives. I had two very healthy hives on this one property.

Both hives are filled with winter honey and more than sufficient. Both went into the season with plenty of bees.

This weekend, I noticed that my one hive is empty with less than a hundred bees frozen to death. No queen was seen and no dead bees in front of the hive.

The other hive is full of bees. I surmise that something went amiss in the one hive and they relocated to the other hive.

I have no explanation.

Rusty
Reply

Harold,

It’s odd, but this year I’ve heard several stories similar to this one. I have no idea what is going on and I have no idea who to ask. I think there is much about honey bee behavior that we still don’t understand.

BADDEST BEES
Reply

Harold, sounds like may have gotten honey bound and swarmed. I’m guessing Italians with no place for queen to lay. Even though they downsizing now, it still happens sometimes, a deeper inspection may tell the whole story.

Neil
Reply

Hey Rusty, you mentioned shrews. We have had a larger than usual (it seems) mice population this fall so I am building some mouse guards, but I want to make sure if there is one inside I don’t trap it in. Do those rodents usually flee once a hive is opened or would I need to do a more thorough eviction?

Rusty
Reply

Neil,

I don’t know the answer. I’ve found mouse nests in hives and I’ve found shrew damage, but the only animals I ever found in the hive were dead. I’ve heard that the shrews will run out, but I don’t know about the mice. Let me know when you find out.

Margot Rideaux
Reply

We just did a hive check of our one, first winter hive. We have followed the U of MN’s plan for overwintering. However, we have some mold in the corners of the top cover, under the moisture board, and on the edges of top frames. There are lots of bees on the top frames and they are slowly eating winter patties. The BroodMinder is usually in the 70% range, and the bottom board is out. We keep the telescoping board tipped up a little.

What are we doing wrong?

Rusty
Reply

Margot,

I don’t know that you’re doing anything wrong. Based on your description and the BroodMinder readings, I would say that, overall, the hive is not too wet, but certain areas are not getting good air circulation. The corners of the top cover, for example, are areas where you have “dead-air space.” In other words, the moist air gets trapped there and doesn’t circulate out of the hive easily.

I’m not familiar with U of Mn’s overwintering plan, so I can’t comment on that. For me, the answer to in-hive condensation has been the moisture quilt, and I wouldn’t try to overwinter without one. Although you most likely have a drier climate than I do, you might want to put one together and add it above your top box of frames. I have my BroodMinder under the moisture quilt and the RH is in the 70s, but I don’t have any condensation on the edges of the frames and no mold on the cover. If you have an empty honey super, you could easily make a quilt from it.

David S
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Winter this year (UK) has turned into a warm, wet, dull affair. Temps are around 12-14 C (54-57 F) most days and when not raining, bees are venturing out. I’ve added a quilt on one colony which was a shook swarm from a friend downsizing in July, adding fondant below direct to the frames. The bees are determined to fill all gaps with burr comb and managed to cement the food bag in place making replacement a little more invasive than expected. Come the spring, I expect a real challenge. With this sort of unseasonal weather is there a greater need to feed as less bees die, or do they need less food as there’s less energy required to generate heat? Both of my colonies were fed syrup through the autumn, no honey was taken but they have both consumed (or stashed away?) 2.5 kgs of Ambrosia feed already and are working on their second bag each. This is my second winter and I’m unsure of the bees needs as the weather is so abnormal. Any advice anyone?

Rusty
Reply

David,

I would expect your bees to eat more in the warmer weather. When it’s warm enough to fly, they do. Flying is energy expensive, yet the bees are very unlikely to find nectar this time of year, so there ends up being no benefit to all that flying. Like a cargo plane flying city to city but not picking up cargo, it wastes lots and lots of energy.

It turns out that bees in a cluster, even in very cold weather, burn through less food than those that are out flying. Whenever I have a warm spell in winter, I think about feeding.

Rich
Reply

4th paragraph of A Peek Under the Hood:
…let in some cold air,

but yielded a nice…, not “an nice.”

Rusty
Reply

Got it. Thanks.

Rich
Reply

Second paragraph of Water, Water, Everywhere…
various ways

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Rich. Fixed.

John W
Reply

Thank you Rusty for a great site and thank you all who contribute your experiences. This information is like gold to a new beekeeper like me. Can someone PLEASE figure out a way we can all add our location to our posts. I just don’t know if what others do will work for me in zone 5- Northern Illinois.

Again, thank you all so much for posting.

Rusty
Reply

John,

If you knew how many times I’ve asked! If someone would teach me how to code it into the comment box, I would do it.

David Newman
Reply

What you could do is when someone posts a reply that the reply form have a location field that his required to be filled out prior to sending. We would have to know what blogging website you have.There may even be solution out there. I’d be interested in helping out.

Dave

Rusty
Reply

David,

That was my idea. I think the comment form now has name, e-mail, and URL (if applicable). I’d like to add another field called “location.” At the very least, the name field could be changed to “name and location,” but the problem with that is if some just put their name, it would go through anyway.

I know there are ways to do this, but I don’t know how to do it. I’m just using standard WordPress.org as a blogging platform, so there must be something out there.

But I don’t know if that’s a change you make to the theme or to WordPress.

David Newman

Rusty,

You actually install a WordPress plugin that extends the comment field capability.

I found an article online that has a video that walks you through using a WordPress plugin to add the fields you would like. Check out: http://www.wpbeginner.com/plugins/how-to-add-custom-fields-to-comments-form-in-wordpress/

I think you can follow video and article. If you need help we can cross that bridge when we get there.

Dave

Rusty

Thanks, David. I have a premium (paid) theme and I’ve been told that this custom-fields plug-in may cause problems because of changes the theme author already made to the comment section. Little bit nervous about it.

Stephanie
Reply

Thank you Rusty for a great site. I wonder if our locations could be identified by the state and the gardening zone. Oregon 7 for instance. I also wonder when I read the comments where these hives are located and could this idea apply to my area. Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Stephanie,

I’ve been trying to figure this out for a while. States alone wouldn’t work because only about 50% of my readers are from the U.S.

Evelyn
Reply

Thank you for your information and feedback… today I went and checked on my hive. I noticed moisture on the inner cover so I made a cedar frame, with an exit hole, lined with heavy screen and put cedar shavings on top (doubled, triple checked plenty of moving space for bees)… cedar absorbs moisture… but I noticed quite a few dead bees on the bottom (I cleaned them out)… the top cover also has a piece of insulation… my big question is once there’s moisture inside the hive, will it balance itself out? Or will the bees remain “damp”? There’s ventilation on the bottom, entrance reducer, exit hole on the top.

Rusty
Reply

Evelyn,

The cedar chips will absorb the moisture but they have to be able to dry out. That’s the reason for ventilation holes in a moisture quilt. The chips absorb water and then release it back to the atmosphere through the vent holes. I don’t think one hole will be enough, instead you want cross ventilation. See “How to make a moisture quilt.”

Kim
Reply

I have 2 hives that I started at the end of June 2016. I left all the honey they made over the summer, which was a couple 8F mediums on one hive and one 8F medium on the other. It looked like the 8F (brood) deeps were mostly filled with honey on my last check in late summer. I’m in Winthrop, WA and it’s 10-20 degrees with about 6 inches of snow. My FLIR image (so cool! wish I could upload the image!) showed the larger hive cluster in the bottom deep (as I expected for this time of year) and broodminder showed the temp just above the deep at 41F. The smaller hive shows the cluster up in the top medium box already! Its broodminder (also just above the deep) shows 60F. (I’m really skeptical of the broodminder – it just doesn’t make sense – and my initial testing of them in the summer showed some random results, but I have four and they all seemed to be about the same.) My question: should I be concerned that the cluster is already in the top box? Do you think I should slip in some sugar patties? I’m not here all of the time so I can’t do that all winter. Each hive has from bottom up: entrance reducer with smallest opening and mouse guard over it, Varroa tray with the solid plastic insert, slatted rack, 8F deep, 8F medium (one has 2), Imirie shim (with small opening), 3″ moisture quilt (your design), telescoping cover – basically everything that you recommend as far as I can tell. It’s a lot colder here in Eastern WA than where you are, so I was a little concerned about the Varroa tray, but I figure the snow will create enough insulation around it. Any thoughts on the cluster being near the top and those temp readings? Any suggestions?

Rusty
Reply

Kim,

I may not be getting the picture correctly, but if the cluster in the smaller hive is actually in contact with the Broodminder, it will register higher than if it is a few inches above the cluster. Heat is one of those things that follows the inverse square law that I mentioned a few posts ago (although there are other factors, such as convective currents that will affect the readings). But basically, if the Broodminder is a few inches away it will read very differently than if it’s in the center of the cluster.

To me, a cluster that is already at the top is either out of food or missed the food. Usually the cluster moves up in winter as it eats its way through the supply. I would add food for sure. If you get a warm spell, you can go in and look. If you find frames of honey you can move them close to the cluster. You can put frames of honey on both sides of the cluster or above it.

If you must feed, you can add a sugar board (candy board) with 15 or 20 pounds of sugar in it to carry them through the periods when you’re not around. I like no-cook candy boards for this purpose.

Kim
Reply

Yeah, the temp readings don’t make any sense to me either. But I appreciate your recommendation regarding feeding. I thought that I’d read in one of your articles that the cluster typically moves up. It’s supposed to be close to 0$deg;F for a while and I don’t expect it to get above freezing in the near future. I can’t imagine how I could move frames around at these temps. My original plan was that I could slip in a sugar patty below the moisture quilt, but I think they’re going to need more than that. I recently saw your article about feeding from a bag of sugar (https://honeybeesuite.com/the-minimalist-guide-to-winter-feeding/) and I thought that would be a way I could get a lot of food in. I could even put 2 5-lb bags in and that might get them through for weeks. Do you recommend the candy boards over the bag of sugar? (I’ve also had coyotes checking out the hives! I hope they don’t like honey. I’m thinking about creating a bait hive with my cat in it. 😉 )

Rusty
Reply

Kim,

I think the bags of sugar will work just as well as the candy board. As long as they have food, they’re not too particular about the format. But poor cat!

PaulE
Reply

I thought I had my hive ready for winter but started noticing a lot of bees wandering around in front of the hive. I didn’t think too much at first (bad thinking) so it went on for a few weeks. When I started noticing 20-30 of them wandering I took a closer look, bent and deformed wings!! 🙁 So at the end of November I find mites of course infecting my baby girls. I treated immediately but now wondering if it was a little too late. Today was warmer and the bees are moving in and out, looking inside I found my queen looking healthy in the middle of the cluster. I am wondering though, being only 3 years into beekeeping, how big should that cluster be? It seems small, but I am used to a fairly large and healthy colony normally and haven’t had to open much last winters. The current cluster is maybe double the size of a large grapefruit covering maybe 1/3 of two frames, both sides. They have a ton of honey, there are capped cells where I hope brood are doing okay inside with the recent cold weather but it just feels as though the colony is smaller than I think it should be and wondering if my late treatment (MiteAway) was too late, too strong during colder days or both. My bottom tac board, replaced twice during treatment, had probably hundreds of mites, fewer with each subsequent tac board, some SHB’s too. Seems to be controlled now, and current bees seem very active and healthy inside, after inspecting every square inch of the hive today, but still wondering if I should be concerned with the size. I guess not much I can do at this point but thought I would ask around.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

You will probably just have to wait and see. The problem with late treatment is that the bees are most likely already infected with any viruses the mites were carrying. Ideally, you want to treat before the winter bees are hatched. Winter bees start to hatch in September and October, which is why August is the ideal treatment month. That way the winter bees hatched after treatment can go into winter disease-free and be healthy enough to care for the cluster throughout the winter. Many people then add a mid-winter treatment to help keep the mites down until spring.

Some sub-species of honey bees, such as Carniolans, overwinter with fairly small clusters. It’s hard to judge how large a cluster should be without knowing something about their genetics. The cluster may be small due to loses from the viruses, which would be hard to recover from. On the other hand, they may surprise you.

Paul
Reply

Yeah this is what I am thinking, I just wish I saw some sort of effect earlier, hate to lose them, especially after looking the other day and seeing the queen still doing her thing. Fingers crossed. Thanks Rusty.

Jess
Reply

I have two hives that have made it through the winter so far. Both are still clustered below the top bars in the second deep, but I put some dry sugar on top just in case. We recently had two days with day time highs of 55 F and one hive was flying like crazy. I could see yellowish spots in the snow from their cleansing flights. The second hive has little to no activity outside. If I open the top, I can see that the colony is alive but has many dead bees on the frames. Is there a reason one hive wouldn’t be flying on a warm day?

Rusty
Reply

Jess,

It makes sense that the larger colony would be flying first. Basically, the bigger the colony, the warmer it will feel inside the hive. Those bees that feel warm are likely to fly out, while the others remain huddled. It’s too soon to worry. If you see them in there, they are probably fine. I have one like that too, but when I look at them with the infrared camera, I can see them huddled in the center of the hive. Colonies are like kids: they are all different.

Jessie zeh
Reply

Hi, this is my second winter with 1 hive so I’m pretty new to beekeeping. My club has been experiencing high die offs this year and it’s been too cold to see mine flying so I peeked under the lid today. I can only see dead bees and couldn’t hear them at all. Is this a sure sign they died? After reading your blog I am tempted to check again and knock… any thoughts or suggestions?

Rusty
Reply

Jessie,

I would look more closely before I wrote them off. Sometimes they stay holed up pretty well.

Caroline Bergeron
Reply

Great info! I am in Ontario, Canada, where the weather has fluctuated from -35C to +7C within a few days only. It has been generally really cold. One of my hives has started throwing out piles of bees out on warmer winter days, not just a few. Scary looking. They are still buzzing inside, which is reassuring. I will look more closely at the dead bees. I haven’t seen the queen among them yet. My question is: if I suspect varroa, should I do an oxalic treatment with my diffuser? Just afraid to introduce heat in the hive in the middle of winter (more condensation, breaking of cluster, etc.). Thank you?

Caroline Bergeron
Reply

Thank you for this quick response! Reassuring. I was just concerned as, of course, I also have snow peppered with bees, but this one hive makes piles, almost like pushing them off the landing board. It’s incredible how much we care for these little girls, isn’t!

Rusty
Reply

Caroline,

That’s not to say you shouldn’t check for mites if you think they are a problem. My point is that it is easy to get overly concerned about the dead of winter. And yes, I worry about my bees all the time.

Caroline Bergeron

I just looked at them. It’s a balmy 4C outside here! That hive, particularly, is busy flying around. Those outside seem really healthy. I will lift the back a bit as it seems that the back legs of the stand might have sunk with the freezing and thawing. Perhaps moisture was a problem? I am now asuaged! Thank you so much!

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