Unpacking Beehives After Winter

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

  • 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
  • Heavily propolized frames can be difficult to remove when cleaning out a dead hive. By turning the hive body upside down and dropping it on an inverted outer cover, gravity will do the work for you.
    Photo by Ross Conrad
  • Conrad provides his comprehensive table of colony death symptoms and causes.
    Illustration courtesy Chelsea Green Publishers
  • In "Natural Beekeeping," Ross Conrad brings together the best "do no harm" strategies for keeping honeybees healthy and productive with nontoxic methods of controlling mites; eliminating American foulbrood disease without the use of antibiotics; selective breeding for naturally resistant bees; and many other detailed management techniques, which are covered in a thoughtful, matter-of-fact way.
    Cover courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

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."

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Natural Beekeeping.

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.

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