Unpacking Beehives After Winter

Open your beehives in the Spring and diagnose any colony deaths.

Winter beehives

When it comes to providing increased hive ventilation for the winter and an emergency exit for the bees, an upper entrance is tough to beat.

Photo by Ross Conrad

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Today's beekeepers face unprecedented challenges, a fact that is now front-page news with the spread of "colony collapse disorder." Natural Beekeeping (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) by Ross Conrad offers all the latest information about beekeeping in a book that has already proven invaluable for organic beekeepers. The new edition offers the same holistic, sensible alternative to conventional chemical practices with a program of natural hive management, but offers new sections on a wide range of subjects. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, "Hive Management."

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The first warm, sunny day in early spring when the temperature reaches 45° to 50°F (7° to 10°C) is a great time to pay a visit to your apiary. This first visit of the year involves primarily a quick check of the hives, simply to make sure they are still alive. A trip to see the bees can provide great peace of mind as one plans for the upcoming season. If it is early in the day and the hive has not had time to warm up, no bees may be visible around the entrance or the opening in the inner cover. In such instances, a sharp knock on the side of the hive should produce a reply that will tell you if somebody is home. If after knocking you don’t hear an answer, a quick peek underneath the inner cover is usually enough to confirm whether the hive is still occupied. This is also a good time to make sure that the colony has at least several full frames of sealed honey to tide the bees over until the first honey of the new season begins to flow. The “heft test” is an expeditious way to judge whether the bees will need to be fed at this time of year. Although colonies will obviously be lighter in the spring compared to the fall, they should still have considerable weight to them. By getting a good feel for the weight of hives within which you have confirmed that there are at least four to five capped frames of honey, you can learn to accurately estimate a hive’s stores with a quick lift.

One of the most sorrowful parts of beekeeping is the discovery that a colony has died during the winter. I find it helpful, however, to view a dead hive as a gift from the bees—the opportunity to become a better beekeeper. As with all dead hives, the first thing to do after coming upon a dead hive in the spring is conduct an autopsy. If we can figure out why the hive has died, we can review how the hive was managed during the past year and figure out what we need to do differently so we can prevent the same thing from happening again. It is an unfortunate fact that the only way one gets to be a really good beekeeper is by killing a bunch of bees, because we tend to learn more from our mistakes than from our accidental successes. Knowing why a colony has expired can help prevent the same fate from afflicting other hives, especially if the brood nest shows signs of American foulbrood. If the equipment is free of disease, however, any supers or frames filled with honey that are found can be used to feed other hives that are low on food, thus saving you the work of cooking up a batch of sugar syrup or bee tea.

The discovery of a dead hive also provides an opportunity to take care of the important housekeeping detail of cleaning the equipment. This cleaning will prevent the frames from getting so glued up that they become next to impossible to remove. Take out every frame in each of the hive bodies and supers that made up the former colony, scraping away all of the burr comb and propolis attached to the sides and frame rests of each empty box. Then clean the excess wax and propolis off each frame before placing it back in position. The most efficient way to remove frames from a hive body in which the frames have been securely propolized into place is to drop the empty hive body upside down on an upturned outer cover so that the box comes to rest on the telescoping edges of the cover, and the frames are able to drop down into the space below.

While cleaning up a dead colony, it’s a good idea to collect the scrapings from the equipment as you work. With the price of wax and propolis significantly higher than the price of honey these days, the value of these precious substances should not be overlooked. An easy way to gather these items is to scrape the equipment above a collection box that will catch the debris as it falls. A simple version can be made by attaching a piece of window screen to the bottom of a hive body. The screen will allow honey and water to drain, while retaining the propolis and wax pieces within the box.

I like to wait until daytime temperatures have reached 50°F (10°C) or higher, on a fairly consistent basis, before I untie the colonies and remove the insulation underneath the outer cover. If a colony is coming out of the winter in a weak condition with only a handful of bees, leaving the insulation in place a little longer will help the colony weather the cool nights until it’s time to reverse the hives. The transition from winter to spring is the time of year when honey bees in the North Country are at their most vulnerable. Hives coming out of winter have been weakened from a significant loss in numbers as individual bees have died of old age or other causes after being cooped up inside for most of the past six months. The temperature swings that occur during this season can also wreak havoc on the bees as they invest precious energy and limited resources in expanding the brood nest during warm spells, only to have the cold return with a vengeance. Due to their decreased population, the bees are often unable to adequately cover the expanding nest area and keep it warm during cold snaps, resulting in the brood getting chilled and dying, a condition known as chill brood.

This is also the time of year that can be lethal should the bees lose contact with their stored honey. On too many occasions, I have inspected the brood nest of a dead colony that still had plenty of honey stored within its combs, but the honey was located several inches away from where the bees were clustered. The telltale sign that the bees have starved from want of nourishment is that many of them are found with their tails sticking out of the cells, as they scraped the back of the cells that form the comb with their tongues, desperately looking for a drop of golden ambrosia. This is why the first visit of the year to the apiary is so important. Should you find, upon initial inspection, that the colony is still alive but has “eaten itself into a corner,” and that the brood area is surrounded by empty comb, move a frame full of sealed honey so it sits next to the cluster. It would probably also be a good idea to feed a hive in this situation in order to be sure they have enough food to last them until the first honey flow of the year gets underway. By making sure that the bees are free from disease and have plenty of honey within reach, many unnecessary deaths can be avoided during the critical transition from winter to spring.

Reprinted with permission from Natural Beekeeping by Ross Conrad and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Natural Beekeeping.