With spring just around the corner, you are eager to know how your over-wintered bees are doing. You just can’t wait to see if the hive is thriving and the queen is laying.
But at this time of year it pays to be extra careful. You should avoid disturbing the brood nest if at all possible. In fact, the brood nest should not be examined until daytime temperatures reach the high 60s. When you open the hive at cool temperatures, you run the risk of chilling the brood and having workers fly out and perish in the cold. Plus, whenever you open a hive you run the risk of accidentally killing the queen. Kill her now, and you have no way to replace her. It’s time for extreme caution.
At this time of the year there are many clues about the welfare of your bees that you can read without disturbing the brood nest.
- Look at the landing board. A small pile of dead bees is a good thing. The bees are cleaning house and hive life is progressing normally.
- Look at the sides and top of the hive. A small amount of feces is to be expected; large amounts signal that something is wrong.
- Put your ear next to the hive. If all is well, you will hear a gentle buzz. Tap gently and the noise will swell. However, do not tap too hard or too often as it stresses the bees.
- If you haven’t done so, pull out your Varroa drawers, clean them off, and put them back in. Wait a week and then pull them out again. Based on the pattern of debris, you can see how big your cluster is and where it is. The debris will land directly under the cluster.
- Lift up one end of your hive cover and peak inside. If the cluster is on top of the bars, they need feed. If they are lower down, they are probably fine.
If you see excess feces on the hive, or your cluster is sitting on top of the bars, feed the bees hard candy. Now is also the time to give them pollen or a pollen substitute as well—just quickly slip in the feed without disturbing the nest. Do not give your bees liquid sugar syrup until it is warm enough for them to fly freely. Too much liquid consumed by bees that cannot fly causes dysentery.
If it seems like your colony may be too small, it may be because of a weak or failing queen. You may want to go ahead and order a new queen, just in case.
Here are some examples of Varroa drawers that were placed under the hive for just over a week. They are stained with black mold, but if you ignore that you can see the size of the winter clusters.