Late Winter Honeybee Hive Manipulations


IMG_0633.JPGBeekeeping is about weather watching. On February 18th, the Sandhill cranes flew over my middle Tennessee home on their migration north, the mercury on the front porch hit 68 degrees, and the honeybees broke their cluster, flying and madly about the farm.

Assessing Beehives

By the next day, the bees were bringing in light tan pollen. The weather service predicted a few warm days before winter returned. This was the break in the weather that I had been waiting for. Our spring bloom is still 2 months away, but this was a great opportunity to check on the bees. I had not opened a hive since last fall, when I’d inspected and prepared them for winter. (See "End-of-Summer Hive Inspection" at

On the first day of the warmup, I visited my 3 apiaries and each of their hives. I was careful not disturb the brood chambers, where the bees cluster in cold weather and where the queen was beginning to lay brood, but I did manipulate the boxes. It has been my habit to run 2 deep chambers topped by 1 shallow super of honey all year. In all but one hive, I found that the bees had moved up into the 2nd deep brood chamber.

I momentarily set asked the top shallow super of honey while I reversed the 2 deep chambers, so that the bees would have room to expand upward this spring. One hive had bees in both chambers, so I did not reverse this hive. Doing so would have split the cluster area and any brood that the queen had laid. If temperatures dip quickly as they are likely to this time of year, the brood would be susceptible to chilling.

I was happy to see the late winter vigor of most of the hives. I did find one dead hive in each apiary, but I was not surprised. Last year was a bad year for me and for most everyone else in beekeeping. These hives had never completely recovered and had not produced any honey in 2013. In each of them, I found only a fistful of bees, their heads stuck inside empty honey cells. The cluster had been too small to survive the winter, and nearby, stronger hives had robbed them out on warm days. The few remaining bees had starved and frozen. I could tell they’d been robbed out by the massive amount of chewed up wax discarded on the bottom boards. When the bees in a hive eat their own honey, they do it neatly and systematically. When a hive is robbed, the robbers tear the wax away, leaving ragged edges and chewed-up litter behind.

Two other hives that had been so-so in the fall were doing quite well but were low on honey stores. I doubted they’d make it the 2 months until the nectar flow began without starving. Fortunately, I had partial frames of honey in the freezer that I’d stored in the fall. I would thaw and add a couple to each hive the the next day. If I hadn’t had these frozen frames, I could have traded a few empty frames with full ones from nearby hives, as these were still stocked well with capped honey.

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