Winter Bee Hive Inspection (Do The Right Things!)

winter beehive inspection

The winter season is difficult for your bees, and beekeepers need to know when and when not to open a hive during this time. 

Opening the hive for too long when the temperature is too low can spell disaster for the colony. 

Pre-winter preparation is key to reducing the need to inspect hives in winter.

How To Perform Hive Inspections During Winter

Winter bee hive inspections should be kept to a minimum. Hives should not be opened at all in temperatures below 50°F or 10°C to prevent the beehive interior from becoming too cold. In addition, opening the hive should be limited to quickly replacing supplemental food for the bees.

Winter is a period of little to no activity in the beehive, depending on your local climate. Therefore, opening your hive for inspections in the winter months can do more harm to your bees than good.

Knowing this, beekeepers must plan for the winter season to open beehives as little as possible during cold weather. 

When the need arises to open the hive, it should be planned and executed to limit the time it is open to the elements.

Before Closing The Hive For Winter

You need to perform several tasks to prepare your bees for winter. These tasks should be done in the fall before you close your hives for the end of the year.

  • Remove excess honey supers. You may want to leave a single honey super on the hive for winter resources for the bees, but all other honey supers should be removed. This step reduces the hive’s internal volume and the space the bees must heat during winter.
  • Treat the colony for varroa mites. Bees that go into winter with parasites will lose condition very quickly due to the stress from a heavy parasite load. Treat the colony in the fall so the bees have an easier time in winter.
  • Take precautions against pests. Add entrance reducers to the hives to diminish heat loss and prevent mice and other critters from entering the hive while the bees are less active.
  • Prepare for winter weather. Set up windbreaks to protect your bee hives from icy winter winds. Place a cover on the top of the beehive to reduce snow blocking the hive entrance. Weight the beehive down, or strap it down to prevent winter storms from blowing the hive over. 
  • Ensure the beehives are correctly configured for winter. The arrangement inside the hive for winter is essential to keep your bees happy, warm, and fed.

Proper Winter Beehive Configuration

In cold winter conditions, beekeepers can give their bees every advantage to survive the winter cold and the lack of resources. Part of this preparation is ensuring the beehive is configured correctly for winter.

  • Reduce the bee hive size. Remove excess supers. The bees will not fill these frames with honey in the winter, increasing the volume they need to heat to keep the cluster warm.
  • Position honey frames correctly. If you have a super on the hive, the frames with the most honey should be placed in the middle, above the winter cluster. This reduces the distance the bees must move from the cluster to feed. The warmth rising from the cluster will also prevent the honey from crystallizing in the comb. 
  • Remove queen excluders. When the bees move up to feed in the honey super, you don’t want the queen to be left below where she can freeze. She will also need access to the resources to remain well-fed. Removing the queen excluder allows the queen to move with the cluster and stay warm.
  • Place feeders on the hive. If you are not leaving a honey super, place your top feeder system on the beehive early. This prevents the need to open the hive in the cold to add the feeder. To add food, you can open the lid to install sugar water feeder bottles without opening the entire hive.

Configuring the inside of the hive to the bees’ advantage will help them to overwinter better and come into spring stronger.

The Last Hive Inspection Before Winter

The last hive inspection before winter should take place about a week before your first frost or before the temperatures drop below 60°F or 15.5°C. When the temperature drops below this level, the bees can be compromised if you open the lid.

Doing a hive inspection during winter for maintenance reasons should be avoided. 

If you do need to open hives, this should be limited to short durations. For example, when the feed is replenished, which can be done without disturbing the bees if proper fall preparation is completed.

How To Check On Beehives In The Winter

The best way to check on colonies in the winter is to perform external inspections. For example, check that the hive entrance is not blocked by snow and that there are not many dead bees outside the hive.

Also, verify that the hives have not been gnawed by mice or shrews at the entrance, which could indicate an intruder has attempted to gain access.

Tap the hive on the outside with your ear to the side wall. If you hear a purring from the bees inside, there is no need to open it for inspection. 

The only time the top of the hive should be opened in the winter is to check on any candy or other food stores you have provided for the bees.

Best Time For Winter Hive Inspections

The best time to open the hive to inspect for food resources in the winter is in the middle of a warmer, sunny winter’s day. 

You can open the hive quickly if the temperature is 50°F or 10°C or above to resupply the bees with food, but make it quick! Try to plan your operation to limit the time the interior is exposed.

How Cold Is Too Cold For A Hive Inspection?

Ideally, a beehive should not be opened when the temperature is below 60°F or 15.5°C. However, the hive can be opened for short periods, such as less than 1 minute, to replenish food if the temperature is between 50°F and 60°F or 10°C and 15.5°C.

Bees cannot fly when the temperature drops below these levels, and the hive should not be opened if the temperature is below 50°F or 10°C. Instead, wait for a warmer day when the temperature increases before opening. 

The First Hive Inspection After Winter

The first hive inspection after winter should be performed once the daytime temperatures have increased to above 60°F or 15.5°C.

Don’t remove any winterizations from the hive in case of a final cold snap in the early spring. Inspect to ensure the queen has survived, and the bees still have enough food. Leave any remaining food in the hive until you are sure winter is over.

Once the bees begin to forage and carry pollen, you know the queen has started to lay eggs, and the hive can be prepared for spring.

Remember, any winter inspections should not be intrusive or of extended duration.

The hive should not be opened in temperatures below 50°F.


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