Checking your bees through the winter is essential to their survival, especially in the Northern climates. Contrary to popular belief, you can pop open the top cover during the winter and take a peek in at your bees. Make it a quick peek, less than 15 seconds or less. Don't bang or slam things around. Be quiet! What are you looking for? Mainly, are they visible? Cluster seen? If so, how are their stores? If I can see them at the top, I put on a sugar brick((see blog post-Easy Sugar Bricks) , right on the top bars, right over the cluster. Others use fondant, winter patties or even just straight sugar. I've even had a beekeeper tell me he used left over candy canes to feed his bees in the winter. It doesn't matter exactly what it is, as long as it is sugar, carbohydrates!! They may have honey on the side frames, but if it is too cold, they can't move over to access the honey. If they can't move over to it, they'll starve where they are.
Another thing to look for is if it is clean and dry, take a big whiff.......Does it smell like the aromatic blend of beeswax, honey and wood that beekeepers love or is it something foul like dysentery, or rotting and decaying. Hopefully it is the wonderful smell. If it isn't.... you have a pretty good indication that your hive is sick and most likely isn't going to make it till spring. That isn't always the outcome, but makes it much more likely.
What do you see? Top bars are clean, everything is dry..... that's a good sign. There is mold or water on the top bars.....not a good sign. Make sure your upper entrance is not plugged or that you have decent ventilation. Lots of dead bees up on the top bars or in my case on top of the queen excluder that I put my sugar bricks on.....not a good sign. Seems even if I can hear the cluster down below but find handfuls of dead bees laying up on the excluder or top bars the outcome isn't as hopeful.
Interventions...In the dead of winter, there isn't much you can do except feed sugar in one of the ways listed above and make sure the hive is well ventilated and that they have an upper entrance in case the bottom one gets blocked by dead bees. Essential overwintering actually begins in July and August by making sure their stores are sufficient and that they are free disease with low to zero varroa mite counts. The majority of my hives are July splits going into winter with queens mated the end of July. So they are smaller going into winter and are usually already at the top of my single deep box. Once January hits, I like to check them every 3-4 wks for feed. Some don't consume the bricks in that time period and don't need the replacement but others are close to or out of sugar and need replacement right away. It's hard to predict which hive will consume what, so I go through and check them all.
Please, please, please check your bees through the winter, please put in a sugar brick or another source of sugar. It is a simple intervention that can sustain your hive until it warms up enough for the cluster to move to a frame of honey nearby or until forage becomes available in the spring again. It is such a simple thing and will save you from having to purchase bees in the spring. It makes much more sense to overwinter your own bees and make a split from them in the spring to increase your numbers. They are already well adapted to your area and have genetics that sustained them through a MI winter.
|Dead bees in front of the hive scattered about, usually a good sign in the winter if there has been a slight warm up and the bees were out making cleansing flights.|
|This January cluster ate through most of the sugar brick, the remaining parts on the outer edges of the cluster. The tan you see on the one brick is propolis, I had flipped that brick over and added more bricks before replacing the top cover.|
|January Cluster up on sugar bricks.|
|Fresh bricks given to this larger January cluster on a 40 degree sunny day, the bees were flying in this weather. As you can see, I don't want them to run out, so stocked them up :-)|