Ever wonder what your bees are up to in January?? There are a few ways to tell. As we should not be doing full inspections in mid winter, there are a few tricks to tell the current status of your colony.
1) If you have created a candy board/quilt box topper on your hives, feel free to give a quick peak in your candy board to see if your bees have made it up to the top cavity to chomp on some sugar snacks. You should be assessing your food stores/candy situation every week or so to know if you should refill with sugar patties. You also can open your quilt box and check on your woodchips to see how much moisture is coming through. Are you chips soaked? Do you have enough ventilation in your hive? Make sure you have an upper entrance for your bees (be sure it is not covered by your bee cozy if you are using one), make sure your quilt box has ventilation holes up top to allow moisture to exit the hive, and clean out your bottom entrance of dead bees to allow for cleansing flights and fresh air to flow into the hive.
2) If you have access to a FLIR type camera, feel free to take a heat reading on your hive. See pic below. It is an amazing site to see your bees clustering in different areas of the hive throughout the winter. Your bees will cluster in cold temps to stay warm, however will loosen their cluster and move about the hive to a new food storage area/new frames when temps rise and allow them to do so. This is why you want to enter the winter with a large colony. It is natural for bees to die in winter, but if your cluster becomes to small, your bees will not be able to stay warm enough to cluster and move around the hive to access available food stores.
3)Tap on your hive and listen! If you have peaked inside your candy board and do not see your colony, tap on your hive and see if you can hear them. Some people even use a stethoscope if you have one. Sometimes shining a flashlight down the hive can also help assess if your colony is in tact, or even giving a quick blow to see if you can arouse the bees for a moment and know they are still alive and well. This being said, be aware of your temps if opening the hive for a moment to check your colony. Warmer temps in the upper 40's and above, are more likely to result in your bees being active, moving around the hive, or even flying or taking cleansing flights. So you may want to bring a bit of protective gear. On colder days, bees are more likely to stay clustered, however there are usually one or two that will take one for the team and scout out the situation aka fly right into your face :)
4) One of my favorite and easiest ways to assess my colony requires doing so every few days, but I like to walk my apiary with the dog every afternoon, so this technique works well for me. I have mostly screened bottom boards with corrugated plastic inserts. As I leave these inserts in for the winter for wind block, I also remove them every few days to clean the bottoms, but seeing the debris on the board also tells me where my colony has been the last few days and tells me that they are moving, chomping on food and so on. One day the debris may fall mostly on the left side of the board telling me the colony is on the left side of the colony. The next week or so they may have made a move to the right. The bees may also be favoring the warmer side of the hive where the sun hits the hive the most in mid winter. To use this technique, it is important to clean your inserts. I usually bring my hive tool out and just scape the bottoms and sometimes even turn them over for a fresh start. You can also assess what is falling from the hive. Usually its a bit of wax, sugar and a drop of honey once in a while. But sometimes you may see beetles, mites, and other foreign objects that may alert you that there is an issue. Especially when temperatures in your area start to rise and pest become an bigger issue. The corrugated inserts are an amazing tool to assessing honey bee hive health and I highly recommend taking advantage of this non-invasive method when possible.
All of this being said, your bees are working hard to make it through the winter. They do not hibernate as people think. They go through a state of "diapause" meaning "a period of suspended development in an insect, other invertebrate, or mammal embryo, especially during unfavorable environmental conditions." Your bees need optimal conditions for your climate, and in our area that means moisture control, back up food source, ventilation and wind block. Making sure your bees have adequate food should be on top of your list during winter. The colony keeps their cluster warm through creating kinetic energy, meaning they shiver to create heat for themselves and rotate this position to preserve their personal energy, all while surrounding the queen. The queen will soon be laying eggs again so keeping brood warm will become the colonies next challenge as we start to enter spring in February/March and food is still not yet available. If you do not see bees up in your candy board, you may still have reserve honey that you left for them down below which is great. But it also may mean that you are not seeing your bees because there is an issue with your colony. This is where using those other techniques listed above may come in handy. If no activity is produced through any of the above techniques, this is where you may want to slowly dive into the hive to make sure your colony is still alive. It is a sad day when you lose a colony, however it WILL happen to everyone. In our early spring club meetings we do a demo on how to assess the reason for hive loss, more on that in another blog post. But for now, this is the latest on WHAT YOUR BEES ARE DOING! Please feel free to contact us with questions, check out our beekeeping 101 classes and be sure to subscribe to our monthly newsletter for more of Beez' Blog!