wintering

The winter hive: to tap or not to tap

A beekeeper in Kentucky wants to know if tapping on the winter hive is really as dangerous as her mentor claims. She writes:

[My mentor] came over last Sunday to help me with a winter checklist. While we were standing there, I leaned down and tapped on the hive to hear the bees inside. This made him super angry. He said tapping upsets the bees and causes disruption in communication, absconding, and energy loss. He says I’ll be lucky to keep them alive this year. Forty minutes later he was still going on about tapping, but never mentioned mites or feeding or inspecting, as if there was no point in worrying about any of that, as if they were already dead. Did I kill them?”

My first thought? Get a new mentor. This guy is out to lunch, even if he sincerely believes his own nonsense. Furthermore, if in the course of a winter checklist, he didn’t even mention mites or feed, why is he even there?

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“THE RAVEN” BY EDGAR ALLAN POE

I can’t understand why some beekeepers pass so much judgement on others without ever bothering to think. People don’t even get married these days, yet we seem to have legions of old wives out there telling tales. What ever happened to common sense and good judgement?

It’s a noisy world

Sounds happen, even in winter. Overhead, a multitasking chipmunk chatters like a teenager while dropping pinecones, one after another, hoping to collect the seeds. Kerplunk! goes the metal roof. Buzzzzz! go the bees. A woodpecker, always hungry, decides to widen the space between your box joints, sounding like an automatic weapon as she probes for bugs. An unexpected wind thrashes the branches and drops the remaining apples, which land with a vinegary splat and ooze across your landing board.

Hive tapping: Unexpected noises should be expected. A beehive covered in snow.
Unexpected noises should be expected.

Your dog runs across the yard, barking sharply at the local cat, while your neighbor blows his dead leaves at 90 decibels into your flower bed. A thunder clap like a cymbal crash makes your kids squeal with terror as they scurry past the hive and into the house, slamming the door behind them. Meanwhile, an enormous jay, feeling blue and territorial, paces across your hive cover, his claws clicking against metal as he squawks annoyance at the woodpecker.

The thunder brings not rain, but hailstones that pound on the hive and break off a limb which lands there, too. Noise, noise, everywhere is noise. Believe it or not, honey bees take all this in stride. They will survive multiple auditory assaults to live another day, regardless of what your mentor says. Come to think of it, bees even lived through the asteroid strike that took out the dinosaurs. Betcha that made a hell of a racket.

Even “real” beekeepers do it

So that’s the common sense part. The good judgement part has to do with the way you tap on your winter hive. You needn’t slam the brood box with a hammer, baseball bat, or the back of a shovel. Just a gentle tap with your fingers works fine. When I do it—and yes, I do it—my tap is as gentle as the tall grasses that whisper against the hive in summer. In fact, I often don’t get a rise out of the bees after the first try, so I have to step it up a notch. The gentle buzz that follows tells me all is well, and I move on to the next one. And the next.

But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door…

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

In addition, you don’t have to tap every day or even every week. You can use an infrared camera or a stethoscope for more careful observations, but if you don’t have those things with you, a quick tap can be comforting to the beekeeper. Or, if you get no response, you know it’s time to fetch other diagnostic tools for a closer look.

An occasional gentle tap on your hive is not going to hurt anything. Sure, hive tapping may get the bees a bit riled, but so do other sounds in their environment. And yes, they might require a bit more food to make up for frequent upsets, but an occasional tap won’t make the difference between living and dying.

A noise is a common everyday occurrence whether bees live in a human environment or a wild one. To paint hive tapping as an evil, unconscionable act of supreme ignorance is unjustified and just plain wrong…so tap away.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

45 Comments

  • I’m sure you get lots of “Goshm I LOVE the way you write!!” e-mails, but here’s another one! I LOVE the way you write!!

  • Wondering what the purpose of tapping is? I mean if you hear the bees buzzing, that may give you some comfort knowing they’re still active but what if you don’t hear them. You mention moving on to other investigative methods but what’s the point? There’s nothing you can do about it that time of year if you’re not hearing them is there? Or perhaps the purpose is to put in an order for a new nuc?

    • Quentin,

      More than once I’v nearly given up on a colony when I couldn’t hear a response to my tapping. By giving up, I mean stop checking, stop feeding, etc. But instead, I went for my thermal camera just to make sure, only to find the colony alive and well…just quiet. What a great surprise! Some people think that if a colony has lots of disturbances—branches, birds, storms, and such—it is less likely to respond to a tap. Anyway, to me tapping has a purpose.

  • While I haven’t heard of reasonable tapping causing your bees to die in the winter, it doesn’t surprise me that such mentalities are around. I would strongly encourage you do your own research and not wholly rely on mentors that sometimes are too quick to judge a particular action or consequence of a said action. Many times the judgement is based on their (sometimes limited but more in depth than your own) experience. Some have just “never done it that way before” and others have never tried too many new things themselves or haven’t been shown a different way.

    My experience with mentors (not just beekeeping) has been mixed. I’ve found the best mentors are often reflective, slower to respond and offer advice not judgement with options for me to choose on my own. Many times my question causes them to ask me a series of questions that provoke more reading and research, instead of a yes or no answer. Also, a mentor to be trusted tells you the truth-even when it’s bad… as well as if they don’t know or haven’t had experience with something before. No one knows everything so I would rarely accept an opinion stated as fact unless I’ve done enough research to agree with the opinion. (Another important separation is the facts from the opinions or feelings.)

    If you talk to other beekeepers, you will find many people doing things differently than you, your mentor, or the biggest apiary around you. There are many ways and strategies to keep bees healthy and thriving! If you are new to the hobby, don’t be afraid to try new things if you have researched them and believe them to be in your hives’ best interests. Reject the “my way or your bees will die!” mentality from any “mentor”.

    My first trip to one of the local beek shops was about 5 yrs ago and I began chatting with one of the owners. It didn’t take long for them to tell me in our area, only deeps would do for brood boxes and I would kill my bees if I kept them in anything but deeps. Needless to say, 5 yrs later, the apiary has grown, splits have been made and overwintered—some in deeps and some in mediums. I have lost 5 hives so far since starting and 2 were from mites and 3 starved. None, as close as I can tell, died because they were in a medium stack and more perished in deeps than mediums so far… go figure….good luck and happy tapping! Nate

    PS. I get a warm buzz when I hear the girls lightly stir after a little knock knock!

  • I had just come in from checking on the bees when I read this post. I had my stethoscope with me and I STILL tapped on the hives. (Without the stethoscope I might have to use that baseball bat you did NOT recommend. With the stethoscope I either hear them or I tap.)
    I kinda assume I’m annoying them, but when I worried that I was hurting them I decided that they would be buzzing to heat the hive anyway, and if they buzzed too much when I tapped, they could take a coupla seconds’ rest afterwards.

    (SouthHive is still dead. Sigh. The other four are Not Dead Yet.)

  • You are almost poetical in your writings! The beauty of it is that I can see those things you describe happening in my imagination, smell the brown autumn leaves, feel the wind brushing my cheeks and hair, and feel the outside chill on my face. (Homebound) Thank you.

  • Hi Rusty, love your articles, came to the conclusion bees are deaf but highly sensitive to vibration, even a rap must fairly rattle the hive.

    Seasons Greetings from Scotland

    Hamish

  • Hi Rusty! I, too, love the way you write! And I think that beekeeper needs to replace her “mentor” with a knowledgeable, experienced person. And kudos to that beekeeper for wanting advice about feeding, inspecting and mites. She’s many steps ahead of her “mentor”!

  • I usually don’t tap on the box because I have other ways to see if they are healthy. I have a flair infrared attachment to my smart phone. It shows where the hive is balled up in what box and what part of the box.

    I also have a digital laser thermometer that gives me accurate temp readings of the boxes. There are natural normal noises which the bees handle all the time. Not being there with the two doing the check, I do not know how hard the taping was.

  • I’m in eastern TN, yes we got a little snow this week, but we get a lot of random days up to the mid-50s, so the colonies are pretty active all winter. My drive-by inspection process is to observe traffic at the entrances, and estimate how many of the returnees are carrying pollen. When they’re not outside, I’ve been known to rap on the side to try and raise a response. It had not previously occurred to me that I’m helping to train my bees to survive the next major asteroid strike.

  • Never heard of tapping. I lift off the cover and look. Wanna see how strong the cluster is? Pry apart the brood chambers and lift a corner a little until you’re satisfied. Just don’t do this stuff too often. They are being disturbed (we all are a little disturbed). For cheap insurance, I keep a 5 pound bag of sugar on top of the frames, split the top and soaked with water. They love it. And anyone worrying about mites in December didn’t do their work in AUGUST/Sept.

  • Oh yes, I tap!! I also have an infrared hand held camera on the way. I agree, get another mentor. Nate has it right on mentors. I try to give options and it’s always “Well, it depends” before going on with whatever the discussion was about. I also encourage them to get more than one mentor, ask questions and keep learning.

    I’ve been at this 24 years, plus or minus. I declared myself independent of package bees and nucs (seeking sustainability) on July 4th, 2017. I’m now up to 30+ hives. At my age, I’ve reached my limit, LOL. Bee quilts are on! This post of yours will be forwarded to my Mentees email list.

  • The stethoscope idea is a good one.You can hear the buzz with a gentle tap, and you can buy them very cheap on Amazon. Infrared cameras do not work with wrapped hives so Northern beekeepers are out of luck there. A good question is to wrap or not wrap our hives. My guess is that most beeks in zone 5 or lower wrap but I’m sure not all do. Great article. Thank you.

    • John — I didn’t think my infrared camera would work well on wrapped hives, but it may depend on how the hives are wrapped. Mine are wrapped in black roofing felt, tight, but not too tight, and I’ve been able to get half decent readings of clusters through that kind of wrap. You can see what I’m talking about here:

      https://mudsongs.org/beekeeping-with-a-flir-one-for-android/

      Those images are from a couple years ago. However, I’ve been taking thermal (or IR) photos and videos of my hives this winter, and the results are useless. The Flir One app (it’s on my cell phone) updates regularly and with those updates becomes less functional. It was always a bit fiddly, but now it’s the worst it’s ever been. I use it but I’ve never been totally sold on it.

  • Never touch my hives only to clean snow off and hope they are alive in the spring. 6 years and never lost a hive, so far! Just make sure they are ready when I put the plastic wrap around them!

  • Good Morning Rusty,

    I have noticed sometimes when I am out checking the hive in the morning that a bee will fly out and away… even this morning and it is COLD on Lake Huron today … are these bees that must relieve themselves or are sick? Or does this happen? Is this a worry?

    When I lean my ear to the entrance I can always hear a steady warm buzz.. and often what sounds like an individual bee buzzing or moving… which if I stay still stops.. (so I wonder if it is just from walking around the hive.)

    Anyways.. as this is my first winter and most beekeepers in my area are older men ( no judging!) with multiple hives… I sometimes feel silly asking these question lol..

    Thanks in advance,
    Leanne

    • Leanne,

      Have you ever read my post “A personal note to cranky old beekeepers?” Your comment reminded me of it.

      Anyway, one thing to remember is that the winter colony shrinks over the cold months. Just a few days ago I read some numbers (which I can’t remember), but it’s greater than a 50% loss. Some of these bees die and end up on the bottom board, some are carted out on warmish days by other workers, and some fly out in what is known as “altruistic suicide.” In other words, they know they are dying and they fly outside to do it, sparing the colony any disease they may have as well as the effort of removing their bodies.

      So the answer is yes, the behavior is completely normal. As for the single loud bee you can hear clearly, I don’t know why that happens. Certainly I have heard it, but I don’t know the cause. I’m guessing it’s normal because I’ve heard it occasionally every winter.

  • Regarding thermal imaging not working with wrapped hives. My hives are wrapped with roofing paper and the picture is from today, 29 degrees, with a Seek Thermal camera. Each time I look at them with the camera the little part that worries about them relaxes a little.

  • I am a new subscriber to your website and a new beekeeper west of Ottawa in Ontario.
    One of my hives is stronger and the other weaker. Both were fed last fall until they stopped taking the syrup. There was more than a week after that before the weather turned colder. A couple of weeks ago I noticed that there was liquid at the bottom entrance of the weaker hive. It is sticky and sweet. Also, more bees from this hive are taking cleansing flights even if the temperature is below freezing. From both hives they fly from upper entrance.
    Is this a problem and, if so, can anything be done about it?

    I would very much appreciate your advice.

    Best regards, Paul

    • Paul,

      Although this is a really good question, it’s one that I don’t like to answer because I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom. You won’t find one in hundred who agree with me.

      Anyway, here goes. Wet feed—that is, feed that has too much water—can cause honey bee dysentery. Too much water in the diet when the bees are kept inside by cold weather forces them to release their feces. Wet feces is heavier and bulkier and bees can only hold so much. If they can’t get out, they will release it in the hive, which causes unsanitary conditions. You were lucky because your bees found some warm days and were able to get outside, although it was risky. (There’s a nice article about the cause of honey bee dysentery in the January 2020 ABJ by Randy Oliver.)

      Dysentery can be caused by uncapped honey or from fermented honey. I suspect you have both, which is why you are finding sticky patches of liquid. When the uncapped honey or syrup begins to ferment, it bubbles up and out of the cell. Both the sticky liquid and the dare-devil cleansing flights are the result of uncured (uncapped) honey or syrup.

      The problem develops when the bees can’t dry (dehydrate) the syrup enough to cap it as the weather gets colder. As outside temperatures drop, the air holds less moisture, so the problem of drying nectar (or syrup) becomes unrealistic. So, the bees do what they can and just leave the rest. They can still eat it, but if they do, then they have to get rid of it.

      It is for this reason that I don’t ever feed syrup in the fall. Instead, I let the bees make as much honey as they can and then I supplement it with dry sugar or candy boards for the winter. I stopped the fall syrup routine about ten years ago, maybe twelve, and stopped having the problems associated with it. My bees seem to do fine on the hard candy and I don’t get leakers and dysentery in my hives.

      • Rusty:

        Many thanks for your prompt and detailed answer. It confirmed my suspicion and now I have to hope that the hive survives.

        By the way, your blog is extremely useful to all beekeepers but especially to the newbies like myself.

        Paul

  • Good morning Rusty:

    Many thanks for your prompt and thorough answer. It’s very helpful for my understanding of what’s happening. I sent a quick reply last evening (for some reason it doesn’t show) to say I would hope the hive would survive. But as they say, “hope is one thing – reality another”. So here is another question: is there anything you would recommend for me to try to improve their chances? My thought this morning is to wait for a somewhat warm day and insert a patty (Apipasta) on top of the frames. Perhaps they will start eating it instead of the fermenting syrup. Please comment.

    Your help to all the beekeepers and especially the newbees like me is extremely useful!

    Regards, Paul

    • Paul,

      The comments don’t show until I approve them, and that depends on my schedule.

      Anyway, it sounds like they are doing okay. The fact that they are actively taking cleansing flights is a really good sign. If you want, you can add some hard candy, which would give them a choice of eating the liquidy stuff or the dry stuff. If so, lay it on the frames directly over the cluster. You can add a pollen patty at the same time. If the feces is on the outside with none (or little) inside, they are probably in good shape.

    • A brief report: yesterday (3 Feb) was reasonably warm at +3 C so I opened the hive and found the cluster (about 7 inches diameter) on top of the frames; then, quickly inserted a 1 kg package of fondant beside the cluster. After the hive was closed, a number of bees flew out of the upper entrance for more cleansing flights. However, when I checked this afternoon (on another +3 C day), the hive was quiet compared to the days before the fondant was inserted.

      So, it looks like your advice worked – they are eating it! How long do you think it may take them to eat the package clean? I would prefer not to disturb them for a while.

      Many thanks, Paul

        • Hello Rusty:

          Many things have happened since the last exchange of messages two months ago. I kept checking and feeding sugar cake that was not being eaten; however, there were always many dead bees in front of this hive. Finally, 9th March was a warm day so I opened the hive and found that the bees were dead, in a small cluster on top of the frames. It seemed that most bees died outside the hive. On 14th March, in the garage, I did an investigation and found the following:

          1. There was a lot of honey inside the hive: three very heavy frames with capped honey
          2. Most of the other frames had some capped honey, typically on one side only
          3. Apart from that, a lot of uncapped syrup (this is why some of it was oozing out at the bottom entry); the liquid is clear, no bubbling that would indicate fermentation
          4. No evidence of any brood, no queen
          5. Some dysentery but, interestingly, not so much on the frames but on the underside of the inner cover
          6. A few starts of queen cells

          My conclusion is that the queen died sometimes in the fall perhaps around the time I closed the hive. The bees “lost it” and didn’t finish capping the cells; eventually, some emptied inside the hive (although many did their cleaning flights).

          The second hive is very strong and taking sugar cakes. I decided to put a second box on top of it and include three frames with capped honey, in the freezer for 2 days, (point 1 above); three frames with drawn comb; and four frames with only foundation. The hope is that the queen fills this top box with brood and then I would make a split sometimes in the summer. Please give me your comments and suggestions.

          Finally, I have a question what to do with those seven frames partially capped but with a lot of uncapped syrup. If I freeze them, would it be advisable to insert them in the hive thereafter? what other option do I have?

          Many thanks, as usual, for your advice.

          Best regards,
          Paul

  • I just don’t understand why you bang the hive to hear the buzz how does it help?? I put my bees for winter in Dec. and don’t touch them until march and have never lost a hive. Only have 12 hives!

    • Bill,

      Banging is an unfortunate misinterpretation. No banging, only a gentle touch like a leaf fluttering lightly in a breeze. How does it help? Peace of mind for the beekeeper. Never lost a hive? Good for you.

  • Rusty, hi from eastern South Dakota. Yesterday I checked and 3 of the 6 colonies look good! 2 of them were queens produced from the parent queen and that colony survived. So just asking: since the three are looking good, should I split in mid-April early May and see if I can produce a couple of new queens?

    I use the drone gate to prevent the local drones from mating with any virgin queens. Also, do you recommend the oxalic drip soon since brood numbers are low or would I be better administering something else like Mite-Away? Nosema treatment too? I am going to feed all week as our temps are in the upper 50s and low 60s with sun.

    • Alan,

      If you are going to use OA drip, do it before you have a lot of brood. Now, would be good because I think it’s not very warm yet in your area, correct? My own opinion is I prefer OA drop over Mite-Away, but I realize that’s probably just personal bias. I’ve had some queen problems with Mite-Away, especially when it starts getting warm, whereas OA has worked well for me.

      As for splitting, yes! Go for it. You can get new colonies and prevent swarming at the same time. I nearly always do some splits in April if my colonies are strong enough.

      Now I have to ask: What is a drone gate and what does it do?

      • Oh, thanks Rusty! Yep, just fed the three syrup in bee smart feeders. Made some Tuscon Mega Bee Patties put them in. Got some essential lemongrass and peppermint oil in the syrup. I will do the drip tomorrow. 60s all week and sunny almost perfect for early March. The drone gate is a Dadant product. Will send you a pic do not think I can do it here? It actually prevents drones from flying out from any colony and a queen will find it equally difficult to leave. So I used it with success to prevent drones from mating with virgin queens from the parent colony. It worked. 😊 If you want I will send u a picture of it.

        • Alan,

          I must have a Dadant catalog around here somewhere, but I can’t find it. I looked online for a drone gate but can’t find that either.

          But here’s the thing I find confusing: Why would you want to keep the drones locked in a colony where their dead bodies will begin piling up? Drones don’t mate with their sisters anyway (due to pheromones) and even if a virgin queen managed to mate with one, there are thousands of drones in a drone congregation area to prevent that from happening.

          Because of that, I wanted to see what Dadant said about it. Anyway, you can send a pic if you want. It needs to go to my email: rusty@honeybeesuite.com.

  • No need to tap for me. Removing dead bees from the entrance will usually let ya know if they are alive or not.

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