You may think that beekeeping activity in January is confined to catching up on bee-book reading, attending bee conferences, and prepping equipment. Those are all fine things to do. But what if you’re hankering for some hands-on beekeeping? It may be many weeks, or even months, before you can open a hive and pull out a frame again. How are you going to get your bee-fix?

Choose a calm winter day and grab your smoker and gear. There are lots of interesting things to do in a winter bee yard. Being unable to open a hive to inspect frames forces you to sharpen your observation skills, in order to check on the bees’ welfare and to care for them.

A word to the wise on winter beekeeping

Instead of your winter coat, you may want to wear your bee jacket (or suit) on top of warm layers. The bees, if they have been kept inside by the cold, may be rushing out to poop, drawn by the same calm, mild conditions that made you think it was a good day to visit them. In the space of half an hour, thousands of them may fly out while they have the chance. In warm months, bees are pretty discreet about their bodily functions, so this may not be something you’ve noticed before. In winter when air temperatures are below 60 degrees, bees have a very short window of physical stamina for flight. So, they swoop out, do what they need to do close to the hive and then rush back inside to the warmth of their sisters. If you’re standing there in front of the hive, you should expect to get tagged.

What to look for in a winter bee yard

The main question you want to answer in the winter is: are the bees alive and well? Obviously, if they are flying out to relieve themselves you have part of your answer, right away. Even if they aren’t flying during your visit, evidence of bee poop gives you useful information.

Are the fronts of the hive only lightly spattered? That’s normal. Or are the areas around the entrances covered with fecal stains? That’s not normal! If there’s snow on the ground, you may see thousands of brown spots all over it. That’s normal, and if the snow is fresh, it means the bees have very recently had the strength to fly out and relieve themselves, even if they aren’t out on the day you visit.

There may be lots of dead bees visible outside, particularly if you have a lot of snow on the ground. Bees that fly out on a mild day after a snowfall may become disoriented and fly into the snow and die there. While this is sad, it is not cause for alarm.

Look at any dead bees close to entrance. If there a lot of them without their heads, you may have a problem with shrews.

Look around for any signs of other mammals, large and small, that might be pestering your bees.

Listen to your bees

If your bees aren’t visible outside, how can you tell if they are OK without opening up the hive and disturbing them? The easiest way is to try and eavesdrop on them. Although bees don’t use much sound for communication – they don’t have ears – they make sounds that we can hear as they move around and use their wings to control their indoor environment. In cool weather, they may be tightly clustered and not making much noise. Some people have good luck using a stethoscope to hear it. But even without a ‘scope, if you can get your ear flat against the box, you may hear the sounds.

Listening to a Hive

Eavesdropping on the bees.

There’s a trick to getting your ear tightly against the hive body. Stand, or kneel, at the corner of a hive. Set your shoulder against one surface and bend your neck so your ear is flat against the hive body, just around the corner. Still your breathing and listen.

You may hear a familiar buzzing, but you may hear only a faint, breathy, whisper. Both sounds tell you that there are live bees in the hive. Although the familiar hum is reassuring, the softer sound doesn’t necessarily indicate a weak or failing hive, just one that is more clustered at the moment. If you hear absolutely nothing, you might try sharply rapping on the hive with your knuckle. That may produce a cranky roar in response. But don’t keep repeating this as it is disturbing and it may cause some bees to leave the cluster to investigate and then fail to make it back before they become too chilled to move.

Of course, if you have insulation on the hive, you can’t listen to the hive without removing some of it.

Other ways to check on a hive

If you have a shavings-filled quilt box on the hive, you can take the cover off and push your fingers down through the shavings – you will feel the warmth of the bees.

If you have just an inner cover and standard telescoping cover, you may see a circle of melting snow or frost in the center of the cover, on the outside. This, too, shows that you have live bees. As reassuring that seeing this is, you might still want to add an insulation panel underneath the telescoping cover or swap the telescoping cover out for an insulated cover, even though this will eliminate one way of checking on the bees in the future. It’s better to keep the warmth of the air rising off the cluster inside the hive and not condensing on the cold undersurface of the cover.

Do a little housekeeping for the bees

Even if you haven’t seen or heard your bees, continue with your bee-work. You may get confirmation the hive is fine. Make sure your smoker is lit and at hand. Take off the mouse guard from the front entrance. Use a hooked hive tool to pull the entrance reducer free. It may need a hard yank – so be sure to have your free hand braced against the hive to avoid tipping it over. Be prepared to give the entrance a puff of smoke if you disturb the bees.

Now get down and use your flashlight to look in through the open entrance. You may see nothing but a wall of bee corpses. In winter, the morgue bees don’t risk carrying out the dead, they just stack them up near the entrance, awaiting a warmer day. During long periods of cold weather, a lot of bees will die naturally in the hive. Eventually, their bodies may block the front entrance completely, leading to poor environmental quality inside. Your job is to do the morgue bees’ chores and save them the effort of hauling the dead away.

Use a flat stick like a wood yard stick or an extra-large paint-stirrer.

Use a flat stick like a wood yard stick or an extra-large paint-stirrer.

Use a long, flat, wood stick, or a metal rod with a crook on the end, to gently sweep out all the dead bees, not only from the entrance area but along the sides and back corners of the hive. You may pull out a shocking number of corpses. But, even a quart, or more, doesn’t mean all is lost. Strong hives can lose a lot of bees and still be OK. Do as much clearing as you can before guard bees come down to investigate. Further work after that just results in injuring the curious ones.

It’s best to collect the dead bees as they come out of the hive rather than let them fall on the ground near the hive entrance. Either a cardboard box or a plastic political sign works well. Leaving a lot of bee bodies near the entrance could attract pests like shrews and skunks, which may then continue to pester your bees.

You can carry the dead bees back home to study, or take them a little away from the hive and scatter them for the chickadees to feast on. Replace the entrance reducer (small notch facing upwards to keep the opening above any more dead bees) and reinstall the mouse guard.

Check your mite levels

Next, if you have the right equipment on the hive, why not set up a mite monitoring board (sticky board) and check your Varroa numbers? If you were diligent about treating last fall, the levels should be nearly nil, even over a week or more’s time. That should make you feel really good about your bee-husbandry efforts. If you haven’t run a mite board test before, and you already have a screen bottom board on the hive, you can start one and see what you can find out. See this page for instructions on using a mite monitoring board and an FAQ.

If you find your varroa levels are unsatisfactory, you can always try a one-dose oxalic acid vaporization treatment to bring them down. It won’t be quite as effective as doing it earlier during the natural brood pause, but still far better than doing nothing. Read more about how to do an oxalic acid vaporization.

The neat thing about using a mite monitoring board in winter is that it reveals more than just the Varroa levels. For instance, the stripes of debris on the board (and the number of them) tell you where the bees are clustered. The fine brown dust is from the countless little piercings of the capped honey stores above. Over time, the stripes will change position as the bee cluster moves to fresh areas of honey. And as the colony grows back to full strength, the number of the stripes will keep increasing.

Assess the weight of the colonies

The next step is to assess the weight of the hive, either by weighing it with a game scale or just lifting the back end to see how heavy it is. In January, it should still feel pretty heavy compared to its fall weight because in early winter the bees don’t use up a lot of honey. But the bees will soon be ramping up their consumption of stores (both bee bread and honey) as they start the brood build-up after mid-winter.

If you think your hive may be light, you can feed them to make sure they won’t run short. Except in warm-winter areas where the nighttime minimums are mostly 50 degrees F, or above, they can eat only honey or solid supplemental feed, not sugar syrup. You should plan on feeding loose sugar, fondant, home-made sugar bricks or winter patties. In most cases, you will need to have a feeding shim or deep rim inner cover on the hive to make space for the extra feed. Check out a recipe for making home-made sugar bricks.

Feeding your bees (if necessary)

Now comes the best part of a day of winter bee-work – opening the hive to place patty or bricks on the top of the frames. In cold weather, opening the hive does have some cost to the bees both because of the disturbance and the sudden loss of warmth in the hive. But if the bees are in danger of running out of food, the cost is balanced out.

Choose a time when the air temperature is at least in the mid-40s, on a windless day. The bees need not be flying. Have your lit smoker ready, with the feed supplies close by. If you’re using winter patty, see the box below for how to prepare the slabs.

Preparing to install a winter patty: Leave the paper on both sides of the patty. Use your hive tool to score a cross-hatch of slits through the paper on both sides. This ensures that the bees will have lots of easy places to access the food.

Slab with slits.

Give the bees some smoke through the upper entrance. Remove the cover and any top insulation. Use your hive tool to loosen the inner cover or the quilt box above the top of the feeding shim. Tilt the cover or the quilt box up enough to expose the top of the frames. Apply a bit more smoke if the bees are looking restive as you don’t want them to leave the hive in such cold weather. Gently set the brick or patty down in the center, or right over where the bees are. If you allow the patty to settle slowly down, the bees will scoot safely away. Feast your eyes on your bees for a few more seconds, then quickly close the hive back up again.

Set the winter patty down slowly so the bees will move aside.

Set the winter patty down slowly so the bees will move aside.

Check back in a week or two to monitor consumption and re-supply, if needed. Once you start feeding you may encourage them to move upwards, prematurely leaving some stores behind. So, if you begin to provide supplemental feed, you must keep it up until the bees can forage again. Monitor for upcoming periods of bad weather that might prevent re-stocking and double-up on the quantity to make sure they never run short, even if you can’t get back on schedule. Expect the demand for supplemental feed to increase in late winter when there are more mouths to feed.

Finish up your winter bee day by checking that all the bricks or ratchet straps are still securing the hive tops.

Think about your bees - tropical insects that they are - secure in their winter boxes. Doing a little housekeeping when they can. Expanding and contracting their cluster to keep themselves warm enough to survive. And eventually, starting to raise brood which will need to be kept at temperatures above 92 degrees F, no matter how cold it is outside. In below-zero weather, which is not uncommon up here near Betterbee, that can be a difference of 100 degrees F, or more, all fueled by honey.

As you trudge back to your house, keep that brood in mind. Because it is just a forerunner of the spring build-up cycle. Now that you’ve satisfied your bee hunger (temporarily, at least), better turn back to those bee books and prepping equipment. Swarm season will be here, soon enough. And to deal with that you’re going to need a plan and places to hive some new colonies.