Opening Beehives in The Winter

I did a quick peek at three hives today. The weather stinks, but the colonies seem to be in pretty good shape.

I have three colonies in another location that I haven’t been able to check on for a month now because I got busy and then I got sick with a flu. But the seven that I have in what passes for my little beeyard next to my house don’t look too bad to me.

This is what passes for my beeyard today (March 24th, 2020).

I don’t think I have a single hive that’s like any other hive this winter. Some consist of two deeps and a medium, or a deep and two mediums. Some have hard insulation over the inner cover, while others have none. Some have ventilation rims, one has a ventilation “box,” while another one has a moisture quilt. Some have rims to make room for emergency sugar feed, while others have empty mediums or shallow supers instead of rims. Some have emergency sugar and some don’t. Some have protein patties, while others don’t have a thing. Some have clusters over the top bars and a few have clusters so far down that I can barely see them. One is set up on the base of a D.E. Hive with the bottom entrance on the wide side of the hive, though the top entrance for that hive is on the narrow side if that makes sense. The only thing they all have in common is that they’re all painted black, they’ve been buried in snow since January 17th, and they’re not wrapped (a huge experiment and a big gamble). But they’re okay.

Postscript: It’s time for an impassioned rant.

I’ve heard from a few new beekeepers in recent weeks who were afraid to open their hives this past winter because they were told never to open their hives in the winter — and subsequently their bees starved to death because they didn’t check on them to see if they were running low on honey. What the hell, man?

I’ve completely dismantled and rebuilt hives full of bees in the middle of the winter and the bees came through in the spring like pros. Last winter, one of my hives had the top blown off it in a snow storm (I’ll post of video of that eventually). Those bees were exposed to snow and freezing rain for a full week — they didn’t have a roof on their house for a week in the middle of a crappy Newfoundland winter — and I’ve never had a colony come through in the spring with such vigour. It was kind of amazing.

In my experience, there is little reason not to open a hive in the winter time if you’re concerned about the bees. It seems better to check on them to see if everything is okay in there than to “let the bees be bees” and let them potentially starve to death, or have a shrew eat away at the cluster (I’ve seen both, and more).

It bothers me when I hear from new beekeepers who needlessly lose their colonies because someone told them to leave the bees alone as much as possible.

I’m stumbling through this beekeeping business like everyone else. I don’t have the means to sign up for a Master Beekeeper degree, but I’ve made huge mistakes over the years that I’ve learned well from (I hope), and I’ll never stop making mistakes because that’s how I get better at what I’m doing (I hope). I think I got lucky by not having a mentor to tell me what’s what from the beginning. Not that I haven’t had excellent teachers, but I largely work without a net and after blindly following some bad advice when I started, I’m at the point now where I barely listen to anyone. I’d rather make my mistakes, follow my instincts and learn the hard way than be misguided by someone telling I should never do this, that or the other thing.

Seriously. It really bothers me when I hear from a new beekeeper who lost their bees because someone told to them to always leave their bees alone. It’s not the first time I’ve seen new beekeepers lose their colonies because they were too afraid to bother their bees. If I didn’t stick my face in my hives every couple weeks for the first few years of my beekeeping, including the winter time, I wouldn’t have learned anything. Yes, there may be some risks in doing that, but the risks of not doing that could be worse.

Messing with my bees more than I should have was the best education in beekeeping I could have given myself. And maybe it still is.

At any rate, I don’t think it hurts to open hives in the winter time. It’s better than letting the bees die.

5 thoughts on “Opening Beehives in The Winter

  1. I’m going into my 4th season with my bees and am still a bit hesitant to “disturb” the bees. I wrapped my hives in tar paper the first winter & took a chance the following years by not wrapping and they survived, so I’m leaving them unwrapped (until an easy way of covering them comes along). No support groups here so it’s “wing it” on my own.
    I’m trying to figure out swarm prevention/control without increasing my hives beyond 10 – 12, any hints or ideas would be great.

    • Don’t get me wrong. I do everything I can not to disturb my bees, especially in the winter when I don’t want them to break cluster if they don’t have to. Anything that disturbs the cluster takes them a while to recover from and they end up burning through more honey. But taking a peek under the hood isn’t going to kill them if it’s done gently like everything in beekeeping. I think it’s better to check on them and possibly save them from starvation or something worse than not. When I do it, I do it gently (little or no vibrations) and quickly to reduce heat loss, and I do it as early in the day as possible so they have the rest of the day before nightfall to regain whatever heat was lost.

      I’ve been winging in for almost ten years now. Join the club. It’s not so bad. Check out my “Alternatives to Joining a Beekeeping Association” post for a list of resources that can be helpful for people who don’t or can’t often get together with other beekeepers:

      I don’t do anything too complicated to prevents swarms. I try not to overfed my bees in the spring if I don’t have to. Protein patties and syrup can cause the population to explode and if you’re not ready for that, the bees can easily swarm. The main principle I follow once winter has melted away is “Make sure the queen has room to lay.” When I look down and see that all the frames are full of bees (I don’t need to pull out the frames to make that observation; I just look down), I usually take that as a sign that I need to stay on top of them. That means possibly once a week pulling out a frame near the brood nest — any place the queen is laying eggs. That can be in the edge of the brood nest, but it can also be above the brood nest.

      I’ll usually pull a frame of honey on the edge of the nest and replace it with either empty drawn comb, a blank frame of foundation, or an empty foundationless frame. The empty drawn comb will immediately give the queen room to lay. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with empty drawn comb. A frame of foundation or an empty foundationless frame will free up space, which can help ease congestion and allow the queen and brood pheromones to flow more easily through the hive. Those pheromones can relax the bees to the point where they aren’t triggered to swarm. The opposite of that — not being able to smell the queen or open brood — usually tells them it’s time to swarm. The extra space also gives worker bees something to build comb on other than swarm cells (in theory). They’ll want to fill in that space as quickly as they can instead of swarming.

      There are other techniques for swarm prevention, but they all generally aim for the same thing: relieve congestion so pheromones can flow around more easily, and give the queen room to lay. Which often means just dumping another super on top. It can also mean checkering boarding (I’ve written about that on this blog before). But most of it works on the same principles.

      Once swarm cells are present, though, I just remove those frames along with a few frames of bees (not the queen) and start up a new colony in another location. Or I spit the hive in two, as well as the brood nest, letting the queen go to whichever half she happens to be, and then I let them sort it out — sort of fooling the bees into thinking they’ve swarmed. This is also called a walk-away split. (I can always re-combine the two halves later, minus one of the queens.)

      There are much more calculating and manipulative methods for dealing with swarm cells (and possibly more effective), but I like to keep things simple and easy.

      I also don’t freak out over queen cups. I’ll check them to see if they’ve got eggs in them, but the presence of queen cups doesn’t mean the colony is ready to swarm. A dozen of them along the bottom of a frame might, but the scattered one here and there seems fine to me.

      You can Google artificial swarms and the “Demaree Method” for more details. But again, I keep it simple. I’m not a fan of all the manipulation that many people are in love with. I think it’s more a matter of taste than anything else. Whatever works.

  2. Thanks Phillip. Good info. for me. I was thinking of trying a Snelgrove board this year on a couple of hives to se if I can prevent swarming that way and reunite the two boxes after the honey supers come off in early August. There is so much to try to learn in such short seasons. They (Snelgrove methods), seem a bit tricky but if I like the results maybe worth while.
    Thanks for all the work you do for us to enjoy.

    • I have a Snelgrove board that I inherited from another beekeeper, but I haven’t used it yet. Again, it’s easier (for me) to just split up a hive when I find swarm cells and then once all the drama’s over, I can put the two halves back together again if I want to. I’m impressed by people who know how to use Snelgrove boards and get good results. It may take a level of bravery that I don’t possess.

      • Interesting..….. for some reason I never thought of combining the two back together after splitting, making temporary splits I suppose. I just always pictured that once split you had one more hive in the apiary……. no reason why not unite the two at the end of the season except that now you have a queen to “dispatch” I suppose. The reading I’ve done (and what made using Snelgrove attractive to me), points to utilizing the two hives to make a good sized hone crop on the one stand.
        Yes…. for me the bravery is certainly lacking !! I guess that’s where learning from you mistakes comes into play ! I find the mistakes painful though.

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