It's late January and snow is falling and yet all I can think about on these snowy days is how are my bees doing. Like many beekeepers in northern climates we busy ourselves with a multitude of tasks in preparation for the next season during the colder months. Reading and learning, cleaning bees boxes, reviewing our notes, processing wax and more. But just because it's cold outside and bees aren't flying doesn't mean there aren't important tasks you can do in the bee yard.
The summer months can be so busy for most of us that it doesn't always allow us time to observe and reflect as much as we would like. Winter provides us an opportunity to take a look at our hives and develop new observation skills. It becomes a time when more than ever we can look and learn. I often try to find a warmer winter day to go out and check hives but even a cold snowy day can be a great day to do a hive check and sharpen your observation skills.
Preparing for your visit:
First depending on how warm it is you may want to prepare to wear your bee suit. Don't assume just because it's cold out you won't get stung. Guard bees are still in the hive doing their jobs even in cold weather and will sacrifice themselves to chase you down and remind you you are not welcome. Because there is less noise overall bees seem more sensitive to even the slightest sound.
Bring your smoker; although you may not need it but again, don't assume you won't need it. As always, plan ahead for what you might need and decide what you want to do if the weather permits.
Things you should inspect for from the outside;
Look closely at your bee yard. Is it free of any debris that might attract animals? Make sure you haven't left any frames or boxes out or in such a way that it is inviting hungry animals in need of food. I always stack my boxes outside in order to 'freeze' any problems until I have time to clean them up properly. Even the boxes that are not being used by bees may be inviting to mice or other animals. Make sure boxes are stacked tight and if they are sitting on a base you may want to install mouse guards regardless.
Always observe hive placement in relation to the weather. Maybe you will want to move your hives seasonally or maybe you will want to consider a new placement once the weather warms up. Are you bees in a spot where they get the warmth from the sun on a sunny day? Are they placed in such a way that offers them protection from the winter wind? What's happening on a 'ground level' is the snow melting around the hive? Again look for signs of intruders. Do you see any scratching in front of the hive? Animals digging for dead bees. Are you seeing dead bees that have no heads? This could be a sign of shrews. Do you see footprints around you hives? A warm hive in winter will always be an attractant to hungry animals.
The first thing I will do for my bees is make sure the doorstep is clear of snow. This helps ensure proper ventilation and that bees can get out on a warm day if need be. This also allows you to inspect the bottom board for dead bees. Don't be alarmed when you see them. Winter losses are normal and the good news is in a strong hive the increase has slowly begun inside to replace the bees that die.
On cold winter days bees will not remove the dead bees. Do not assume you have a dead out just because you have a lot of dead bees on the bottom board. Do try to help your bees out whenever possible and remove the dead bees. This is where your smoker may come in handy. If you make too much noise they may try to remind you they ask for housekeeping.
On warmer days you may also notice dead bees in the snow, this is not a bad sign, this is a sign of an active hive taking care of business. Either way try to make sure there are not a bunch of dead bees in front of the hive. Attracting hungry animals to your hive is never a good idea. Come prepared to sweep out the bees and dispose of them away from the hive. Removing the dead bees helps reduce potential moisture and mold in the hive and bacteria that can grow. A large piece of cardboard cut as wide as the hive entrance works great. Place it on the ground in front of the hive before you clean out the bees. Using your hive tool or a stick gently scoop the dead bees out of the hive. You may see up to a quart or more of dead bees. Do not be alarmed, a strong colony will naturally have more dead bees.
Next inspect for signs of warmth. Is the snow melting around the hive? Did you know that even in temperatures as cold as 40 below bees can generate up to 90-95 degrees heat inside the hive? Don't feel like you need to shovel your hives out of the snow. If there is snow around the hive it can be a natural insulator. As long as there is ventilation your bees can handle the cold temperatures. There are bees that overwinter in upstate New York and Canada every year and survive extreme temperatures just fine. The cold is less of a problem than moisture. Hopefully you installed a wicking box on your hive to help manage the moisture and if so you can certainly crack the top and feel inside past the insulation to see if you feel warmth. Whatever you decide, any time you remove the top you need to remember you are letting out precious heat. Always work as quickly as possible and don't open the hive more than necessary. Never fully open a hive if the temperature is below 40-45 degrees and then only in extreme cases.
You should also gently lift the back of your hive to feel the overall weight. In January or February the hive should still feel plenty heavy. If not you will want to make a plan to feed your bees as this is a critical time for their survival. This is the only scenario for which I would completely open a hive in winter; if the bees are facing starvation. If possible I would try to find a helper to work with you to reduce the time you hive is open.
If you decide you need to feed your bees you will want to choose the warmest day possible and work quickly. Again this may be a time you need your smoker. Having it ready to go to keep the bees from flying off in the cold can be useful. If you need to feed your bees you should never feed liquid syrup this time of year as the moisture is a major issue and also liquid syrup can drip down and get bees wet and unable to protect themselves. Sugar boards or bricks and pollen patties can be placed at the top of the hive. If you are giving them pollen patties leave the paper on but slice it with your hive tool so the bees can access it easier. If you are placing pollen patties you only need to give them about the size of your hand. I will cut mine in half. You also don't want to stimulate brood rearing too much and have bees use up all their resources before they make it to spring so I tend to be conservative with pollen patties in January and February especially.
If you have sticky boards I recently read you can also use those as a way to inspect during winter. While I have never done this I may try it this year. This will allow you to see where the cluster is located and possibly even give you a clue about mites in the hive. I have read if you are concerned or see alarming numbers of mites you can vaporize with oxalic acid during the winter although it may not be extremely effective it may help in extreme cases.
Lastly, and this is my favorite, listen to your hive. Put your ear up against the side of the hive and listen. It may be hard to hear but often if you have been moving about the outside they know you are there and you can hear a slight buzzing. I have had some beekeepers say to knock on the hive if you hear nothing but I would say do so very lightly and only once and only if the temperatures are around 40 because you don't want to cause them to break cluster on a cold day and freeze. If you have a stethoscope you can use that too. I don't have one but plan on adding one this year. There is no greater relief as a beekeeper in winter to hear the soft sound of buzzing inside the hive.
Be sure to check on your hives at least once a month or so and never assume the best or the worst. Remember that just because they aren't flying doesn't mean they aren't active. December 21st, the winter equinox is the day increase begins in the hive. January and February when the months are the coldest are the hardest months for the bees. Don't miss out on doing minor maintenance that can have a major impact.