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?
Honey Bee Suite