March has come in like a lion – and despite the bitter cold, it’s entirely possible your over-wintered hives are warm and toasty in the bee cluster, between 7 degrees on the outside of winter cluster to up to 34 degrees and warmer in the middle of the broodnest area. You’ve provided enough food for the hive to survive, and you’ve wrapped it well, keeping out moisture and winter chill. And now, you may be wondering how they’re doing.
Overwintered colonies can begin rearing brood as early as January and February – and in the stretch between then and unwrapping, can consume dramatic amounts of honey and pollen since they’ve woken up a bit from their rest (in which they’re not consuming much). It becomes critical then, to plan an early spring check to determine the conditions of their food stores.
This check should be done once night time temperatures average warmer than -10 celcius for a 14 day stretch – on a warm sunny day with no wind. We can hope for those ‘lamb’ days soon, to allow for this! Get out your hive tool, your veil and smoker. You’ll remove the top covering and insulation, gently pry up the inner cover and use a bit of smoke to keep the bees calm. Best not to pull a frame out right now – it’ll disturb the cluster and they still need to be together to stay warm for a bit.
Things to look for:
- Dead bees on the outside of the hives, near the bottom board, or on the ground outside; it’s been a bit warm, and you may also notice detritus from cleansing flights earlier on.
- You’ll likely stand near the hive, straining to hear some buzzing…it may be quiet but that can be deceiving…when you open it up – you might feel some warmth!
- A nice cluster of bees, likely covering several frames, kind of like a beach ball, should be in the middle of the hive. They may be moving slowly and clustered quite tight.
- Between the frames, take a peek – see if you can find capped honey. There should be four to six frames in contact with the cluster; if these are empty, outer honey frames can be placed closer to the cluster if necessary.
- You could give additional protein supplement, extra honey frames, or an inner feeder of warm 2:1 white sugar syrup (white sugar has less contaminants) if honey stores are low.
- If the colony didn’t make it over the winter, check the stores to see if they’re empty. Look for signs of varroa mites or disease, or if the bees became ice bound – which speaks to a moisture issue or a poorly selected location. Don’t beat yourself up – but learn for next winter! Make sure you remove the dead colonies or close them up tight to prevent robbing.
When you’re done, quietly close up the hive and replace the insulation with as little disturbance as you can manage. You’ll be checking the hive again for food stores in early April, and possibly replenishing protein supplement and honey or syrup provided if necessary.
Complete unwrapping won’t happen, though, until later May – when you’ll do a much more thorough inspection. If your brood is humming quietly but happily for now, keep an eye out for cleansing flights on warm days and general hive activity while you remain patient for warmer days.