Winter Inspection of beehives

Winter Inspection – Season 6

Winter is the easiest and the most difficult season. Not much needs to be done. And not much can be done, when things go very wrong. Often, the weather plays a big role. It may be very cold, or very wet. Nosema is a big threat because of those cold and wet months. It may be that the temperatures fluctuate so much, that the bees get confused and the queen starts laying in February, just when it freezes again, and the bees cannot keep their brood warm … Chalkbrood is often a result of that. Or maybe the queen was not mated well… By winter, she exhausted her supply of sperm and is losing her pheromones effect on the colony. The colony gets confused and does not stay clustered together well. The bees slowly die off during the coldest nights… This list can go on and on. In the beekeeper’s world, everything can go wrong in one year. Bees are not pets. Beekeepers, even hobby beekeepers, are farmers. Farmers need a plan to stay on track and hope for the best. A little planning and a lot of prayer can go a long way.

My winter inspection method:

1. Every time I come out to feed the bees (it looks like weekly now, due to the warm weather), I always look at the landing zone. Dead bees is a bad sign. One poor frozen bee is not a disaster, but three or four bees on the landing board and some bees on the ground, could mean disease is present in the hive.

2. Next, I look into the feeding super. After I remove the old bottle, I look for bees to come out and see what is going on. If I see no bees, it is either very cold (I still give them food, because it gets warm here every few days) or the colony is in trouble.

3. I gently lift the hive to check on its weight. Does it weight at least 25lbs? If the hive is very light, and it is cold, the bees won’t be able to move the syrup into the super. I will need to open the hive and force feed the bees, by filling a few frames with syrup, with a turkey baster. I may not even smoke the bees, if it is very cold, but I do need to act quickly. Extra wrapping of the hive is necessary to keep the colony warmer than usual, so that the bees can move onto the syrup filled frames.

4. If it is below 48F, but the hive is heavy, the bees may just not want to come out… So here goes the next step. I simply get on my knees and pull the bottom board tray out slightly to look under the hive. I use my flashlight on my phone to check on any dead bees on the mesh floor of the bottom board and look at the size of the cluster. This is where having a mesh floor and a hive stand at least 18 inches above the ground really helps! This is a low tech method, which has worked for me. Some beekeepers invest in thermal cameras. Indeed, if you can afford one, it may be fun to try using it 🙂

5. If I see dead bees on the bottom board, or maybe there are no dead bees, but also no live bees in a cluster, I am forced to open the hive and pick inside…

Final word

Force feeding the bees and providing extra insulation saves a lot of experienced beekeepers’ colonies every year! Yet, if the queen is inadequate or the adult bees population has dwindled down to just a couple of bee spaces (spaces between the frames), there may be nothing to do but to wait until the spring…

If the colony is lost, it is better to remove the hive from the apiary and inspect it right away. Waiting until the spring may invite other bees to come and investigate and carry dead colony’s pathogens to their own colonies.


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