Inspecting your hives in the winter
It is important to monitor your hives during the winter. There are important things that you need to check during your inspection.:
1. Do they have sufficient stores? A good process is to lift the back of your hives in the fall to get an idea of how much a healthy hive weighs. Then during the winter, you can lift the back of the hive and determine if it is getting a lighter. This is particularly important during a winter season that has warm periods. Keep in mind that when it turns warm, the bees will fly, primarily for cleansing flights. But when they are flying, they are eating. Most hives starve in late February or early March. They will not eat cold syrup so you need to give them other options: candy boards, fondant, dry sugar, or a sugar mixture like the Kent Williams mixture described on this website. (see our blog Winter Feeding) It is also important the food be above the cluster.
2. How many frames of bees do you have and where are they? Tilt the box(es) up and look at the bottom of the frames. While it is normal for some of the bees to die during the winter,
it is important that there are enough bees to keep the cluster warm.
Check the hive entrance to assure it has not become blocked by dead bees. Also, the bees frequently consolidate in a smaller space. Depending on the configuration of your hive, it is important that there not be excess space to attract wax moths. Wax moths are an opportunistic pest and will take advantage of any space that is not protected by the bees. Remove any empty boxes and store them.
3. Do you see condensation and moisture above the frames? This can definitely be an issue if you are having large temperature swings. Bees can survive cold temperatures, but wet bees cannot. There are several options to minimize moisture such as an upper entrance for ventilation or quilt boxes. We utilize the Kent Williams mixture mentioned above that sits directly on the frames. It is hygroscopic which means it absorbs moisture so if there is condensation, it falls on the mix and does not get to the bees. It is okay if some moisture falls along the edges of the box. After all, the bees need water too. But it must not fall on the bees.
Winter inspections are not done as frequently as other times of the year. We check the weight of the hives at least twice a month in January and February, but we do not open the hives unless the temperature is appropriate. The following is a good practice:
32 degrees or below. Do not open.
Above 32 degrees – Open for less than a minute but do not remove a frame.
Sunny and above 40 degrees – Open for a minute or two and you can remove a frame.
Sunny and above 50 degrees – Okay to remove and inspect several frames.
It is best to do the inspection during the heat of the day. You should close the hive at least several hours before dark to give the bees time to re-form the cluster. Remember, a starved bee is just as dead as a cold one. It is better to look than to get surprises later.