Clean Up Your Overwintered Hives

Reader Contribution by David Burns

Here my daughter Karee is setting up more hives to expand our numbers this year. Here in Central Illinois it’s time to head out to the hives and clean up. It’s not quite time to reverse the deep hive bodies because we still have weeks of winter left.  And you NEVER want to reverse the hive bodies when the brood nest extends into both boxes. I have hives that overwintered in various ways.

Some clusters have moved all the way to the top box, which on some of my hives are medium supers. Others are in the top of the deep second deep hive body, and others have expanded their brood nest into every square inch in the hive. Each hive requires different management styles. But one consistentcy is that the healthiest hive still has lots of dead bees on the bottom board. It’s a natural result of how bees make it through the winter.

Here’s a picture of a hive that has a brood nest all the way through all boxes. Even the lower box is full of bees and brood. So, I do not reverse this hive. I simply keep it all the same. They are in good shape to start up fast when the nectar flow starts. These hives will need to be split because they came out of winter already overcrowded. We sometimes cause this to happen by fooling the colony with brood patties and sugar water. Thus, the bees think they can start building up since pollen and nectar are available. Very little work needs to be done to a strong colony in late winter, especially when the brood nest area is throughout the hive.

  In Illinoisa typical colony would have moved up into the highest area in the hive leaving the lower section(s) unoccupied and the bottom board full of dead bees. If the hive has three boxes on, like the one in the picture, most of the bees will try to go in and out of the hive higher up so as not to go through the bottom boxes and near the dead bees. See how these bees are moving in and out through a crack at the top.

To help a colony organize itself for maximum growth, the beekeeper must inspect the overwintered colony and usually reverse the boxes so that more empty comb is above the queen.

Let me walk you through how I clean up hives and “set” them for spring. First, I remove the bottom, unoccupied deep hive body by taking off the upper boxes. It was a cool day to work, about 49 degrees and windy.

The hive in the picture to the left was hard to do because the second deep box had no handles so I had to hug it to move it. It was a strain. The reason the box doesn’t have handles is because I bought a bunch of used materials years ago and this one didn’t have handles. When it is full of honey, you cannot pick it up.

Once I have the upper boxes off which contain the cluster, the overwintered bees, queen and brood, I then take off the lower empty hive body and set it aside, which exposes the bottom board. The bottom boards can be filled with dead bees, those who died of old age and cold snaps.

Last year, this bottom board was accidentally put on upside down which makes the screen sit below the actual bottom surface. A family member was helping in a hurry and didn’t notice what they hand done.

So when the dead bees fell in this pocket, the bees did not attempt to drag them up and out, so I scraped them out with my hive tool. I carry a bucket of bleach water and thorough clean my hive tool and hands between each hive just in diseases may be present in early spring.

Now I added another small pallet to the one it was on, because pallets sink a bit every year into the ground and another one will bring up the hive about 6″ above the ground. Pallets are free for us and fast so we place most of our hives on pallets. We usually place a thick piece of plastic material below the pallet so grass cannot grow up through it.

Now, I begin to muscle the handle-less hive back

onto the clean bottom board and once it is in place I will begin to inspect the hive. It is not uncommon to find dead bees throughout the hive even though the cluster is fine. Small pockets of frozen bees can sometimes be found, usually caused by a winter warmup followed by a rapid temperature drop which did not allow enough time for the bees to recluster in one cluster.

This is what I found in this hive. So, I removed the frames of dead bees, scraping the bees and comb away. When the nectar flow starts, they will quickly repair all of these areas in the comb.

You can see the honey in the comb where they have been eating it, but then this group of bees were too small to stay warm. In the picture they look alive, but believe me they were not. Since I use plastic foundation, I can merely scrap out the comb on this side and it just leaves a small bald area that the bees will quickly repair.

It is very important that old, dead bees be cleaned out of the hive as soon as you can do that on a warm day. The bees will do it themselves eventually, but we feel it cuts down on possible spread of disease or moisture. Believe me, all beekeepers who have ever lost a hive know the smell of rotting bees. Clean up your hives.

Plase your hive back together and get ready for a great spring!

David Burns

Long Lane Honey Bee Farms

Photo Credits: David Burns

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