I have a quick and easy method for inspecting my hives when it’s freezing cold outside like it is today. I take a quick peek under the hood to see how high the cluster has risen. It literally takes three seconds. Not much danger of chilling and killing the bees. When the cluster is so high that the bees are covering most of the top bars, it’s time to give them some sugar. Why? Because in my experience, the bees head to the bottom of the hive once the weather turns cold and gradually work their way to the top as they eat through their winter stores of honey. Usually the higher the bees are in the hive, the less honey they have and the closer they are to starving. (Usually, not always.)
All of my colonies live in 3-deep hives. Most of them seem to have between one and two deeps of honey to keep them alive all winter. Even though that’s more than enough honey, I have considered dumping sugar in all the hives just to be safe. But I think I’ll wait and see what happens. It would be wonderful to get through a winter without having to feed my bees, though chances are I’ll get paranoid and give them loads of sugar even if they don’t need it. My plan, if you can call it that, is to give them sugar perhaps even before the cluster is covering most of the top bars. As of today, though, nar a cluster is to be seen. And I hope it stays that way for the next few months (not likely).
Here’s a detailed copied-and-pasted entry from my beekeeping journal to illustrate what I’m talking about.
First up, 1505, a colony that was inadvertently started from a supersedure cell in July. The first sign of brood soaking in royal jelly from the naturally mated queen showed up around August 10th and I fed the colony sugar syrup until the end of October. It’s not what I would call a fully established colony, though not bad considering it’s only three months old.
Second up, 1401, with an older queen from one of my colonies that was moved from Logy Bay in May when it had only two frames of brood after nearly being destroyed by shrews. I built it back up by stealing brood from my one strong colony and then I split it to create three more colonies. After that I fed it honey and then sugar syrup until late October. It’s in pretty good shape.
Third up, 1501, a colony started from a split and a mated queen in July with fresh brood showing up around July 23rd. I fed it honey and then sugar syrup until late October, maybe even a little into November. Although not a large colony, the bees were always active and brought in a lot of pollen for whatever reason. Not fully established yet, but getting there.
Fourth up, 1504, another colony started by accident from a supersedure cell in July with the first sign of brood showing up on August 5th. I fed it sugar syrup well into October. Not a strong colony, but hanging in there.
Fifth up and finally, 1402, the one colony from last year that I pretty much left alone and it exploded with bees. The bees were always defensive, probably because the queen mated with drones from a nasty, mean colony I used to keep. I would have stolen brood from this colony to boost up my other colonies, but the bees were too mean to mess around with and I don’t like digging into large colonies anyway — it’s a big one. I wouldn’t be surprised if the brood nest spans more than a single deep even now. It might need sugar later in the winter more than the other colonies simply because it probably has twice as many bees as any of the others.
Most of the colonies, judging from how deep the clusters are in the hives, seem to be in good shape.
I’m not too worried.