One of the biggest worries facing newbie beekeepers, particularly in their first year, is whether or not the hive will survive the winter. This is a legitimate concern because it is something that is quite common, especially if the colony is not strong enough to survive extreme fluctuations in temperature. So a question you might be asking yourself is, ‘how do I know if my bees are alive in winter?’ The good news is that you can check for this.
Getting Your Bees Ready for Winter
As you already know, bees spend most, if not all, of their time in the hive during the winter months. And in most cases, it is best not to disturb them during this time. However, before they hunker down, there are steps you can take to increase their chances of survival.
This includes moving the hive to a more sheltered location, such as along a tree line or behind a fence, investing in a hive cover, and adding food to make sure they do not die from starvation.
You should also make sure that the hive is well ventilated to prevent moisture build up. Moisture in a hive can lead to problems such as fungus and mold; it is a big killer of bees.
Are Your Bees Still Alive?
Once you have prepared your hive for the winter, you should leave it be and try not to disturb it. Nevertheless, this can then leave you fretting for months on end about whether your colony is still alive, or if it is struggling and whether there is anything you can do to save it.
While it is best not to open the hive during the winter, you can do a check on it. This means walking past to see if all seems in order. For example, in strong winds, your hive could be moved, trees around it might fall down, or it could be disturbed by animals looking for food. It is good practice to at least check that it is where it should be at least once per week.
You should expect to see some dead bees on the landing board outside the entrance of the hive. This is natural and means that the bees inside are keeping the hive clean and getting rid of their dead. Sometimes, the dead bees will be left behind the reducer. If this is the case, you can remove them by removing the reducer and sweeping them out.
It is important to look for signs of disease, especially if you see a lot of dead bees on the landing board. If you notice bees with their head missing or with deformed wings, you should sift through the bees to check for other insects. Bees with deformed wings could indicate that there has been a Varroa mite problem. If you see other insects, then the hive may have been infested. If the heads are missing, then a vole could be inside the hive.
If you do not see any dead bees on the landing board, you can place your ear against the box to check for the gentle humming sound that bees make. If you are unsure of whether you can hear this humming, give the box a soft tap and you should hear it.
Checking Inside the Hive
If you really want to check inside the hive, it is best to wait for a mild day when it is not raining or too windy. If you are worried about the amount of food the bees have, you can take a quick peek at the top of the frames. Do not remove frames entirely if the temperature is below 60F as this can damage any developing pupa. If you think your bees are running low on food, add some comb, sugar syrup, or grease patties.
The best way to tell if your bees are alive during winter is to tap on the side of the box to hear a gentle rumble from inside. You can also check for dead bees on the landing board or just inside the entrance. On days where the temperature is milder, your bees might also emerge to defecate.
While it is best not to disturb your beehive during the winter months, you should try to check on your hive weekly to ensure all is still in order.