How to check bees in the winter without opening the hive

When temperatures are cold, can be a bad idea to open the beehive. Opening the hive can break up the cluster. And possibly freeze the colony to death. However, there are several ways to see how your hive is doing without opening the lid. 

First, you can place your ear next to the wall of the beehive and knock on the hive. You will hear live bees buzzing inside. 

Another way is to look for a spot of melted snow on the outside of the lid, usually in the center. A healthy colony will form a cluster inside the hive around the honey stores. The heat from the cluster will melt the snow on the outside of the lid. Or if the snow is melted, it will cause the spot in the center to be drier than the rest. Don’t worry if this spot is off-center. It means bees are clustering on one side. 

A third way is to lift the hive and guess its weight. A hive full of honey stores will be heavy. We like a two-story hive to weigh about 100 pounds going into winter. 

Remember that the critical time to feed bees is in early spring (February-April) when the bees are brooding up and stores are running low. In December and January, they should have plenty, assuming hives were heavy enough going into winter. 

Preparing Colonies for Winter

We like to finish harvesting honey around Labor Day here in Provo, Utah. Any nectar bees collect after Labor Day will be used by the bees to build winter stores. 

Ideally, the colony will be 2 deep  boxes and weigh 100 pounds by November 1. Bees will fill both boxes and form a large cluster that covers 10 or more frames. If there are fewer than 10 frames of bees, we will often winter them as a single story colony or in a nuc box. This gives bees less area to heat in winter.  

Ideally, bees would eat HONEY in the winter. Honey is the best food for them. But, if bees are low on feed, meaning that the entire 2-story colony weighs less than 100 pounds, feed them heavy sugar syrup until the colony weighs 100 pounds. Just keep filling up the feeder when bees empty it. (See earlier post on mixing sugar syrup).

Within the hive, most of the frames with honey should be located in the top box. Bees like it when there are a couple of empty-ish frames in the center of the box, with honey in the outer 7-8 frames. The empty frames will give bees a place to cluster. This is the way bees naturally arrange honey stores going into winter. When harvesting honey, try to put it back that way. **If you are reading this in December, don’t run out to change the frame order in your hive and freeze your bees to death. Trust the bees to rearrange things how they want them. 

In winter, DRY is more important than warm. Removing moist air is key to overwintering bees. Moisture is released when bees consume honey, which is 20% water. Some lids have a built-in ventilation hole. Others require an inner cover. We like to have lids with the ventilation hole. It makes it so we don’t have to store another piece of equipment. For extra ventilation, we also drill a 5/8” hole just below the handhold in each box. This serves as an entrance and moisture vent. And the bees seem to like it. 

Below is a photo of an inner cover vent. Bees plugged it up with propolis. 

Here's what happened in inside of the lid without a working vent. The moist air froze to the top instead of venting out.

In the photo below, notice the drilled hole below the handhold. Also notice that the hole in the lid to vent moisture is filled in with frost. It is working.

Place a fist-sized rock on top of the lid to prevent it from blowing off. 

Wrapping hives: The decision to wrap or not wrap hives is a management call. We don’t typically wrap our hives. Wrapping and insulating hives will increase bees’ activity during winter. Increased activity means bees will consume their winter stores more quickly, and there will be more labor to feed them. Not wrapping means colder temperatures, which causes bees to slow down, giving them a well-deserved break during the winter months.  However, wrapping can be beneficial if you want bees to raise brood in the winter, like if you are sending bees to California for almond pollination, or if you want an earlier start in the spring. Keep in mind that in colder states, like Minnesota and South Dakota, they do wrap hives for overwintering success. It is much colder there than in Utah. 

If you decide to wrap, make sure there is ventilation to remove moist air. Removing moist air is more important than wrapping in Utah. Bees also need to be able to go on cleansing flights on warm winter days. Be sure they have an entrance to do this. 

Below are hives we insulated to prepare them to go to California for pollination. 

When hives die, inspect the equipment, clean off any burr comb, and store it in a cold, pest-tight place. (The wax will attract wax moths, wasps, mice, etc.) It is important to remove it from the apiary to prevent robbing. You can reuse disease-free equipment when dividing hives in the spring. 

Look inside your colonies on a warm day in March. If needed, feed honey or light syrup and pollen substitutes. If a colony is dead, remove it to prevent robbing. Feed as often as necessary. When bees finish honey or syrup, fill up the feeder again. Repeat until they stop eating it. Bees prefer real nectar and will stop eating sugar water when there is a nectar source. 

Hope this helps!