When is it too cold to open a hive?
My ancestors were hardy Pennsylvania Germans. They were diligent, clear thinking, and not predisposed to nonsense. Whenever I said something lacking in common sense—what they called horse sense—I got the withering glare, the one that said, “You’re no kin of mine.”
No trait is more firmly etched on my brain than common sense and I became, for better or worse, especially adept at delivering the withering glare. So when someone asks a question like the one below, I’m always grateful there are two computers, a piece of black tape, and a bunch of miles between us.
“I think my bees are starving to death. A month ago the frames were empty and I was counting on the fall flow to fill them up. But now so many bees are dead and it’s too cold for me to open the hive and feed them. Help! What should I do?”
I hardly know where to begin. Ignoring the fact that she lost a month by relying on a mere possibility, it’s the cold comment that really sends me. How can it possibly be too cold to feed them?
Her choices are obvious. She can choose to not feed because it’s “too cold” and lose the entire colony to starvation. Or she can open the hive, feed the colony, and lose some bees to the cold. Where’s the question?
Furthermore, cold losses are usually associated with chilled brood. A colony that’s starving will have little or no brood, having consumed it to conserve energy and resources. And even if there is brood, how long does it take to feed a colony? Certainly all the brood won’t die in the 10 seconds it takes to slide in a sugar cake.
Simply put, there is almost no temperature at which it is too cold to feed a starving colony. Sure, there are exceptions. If you’re in the prairie provinces and it’s 40 below, it’s probably a wasted effort. But most beekeepers can find a warmish day even in the dead of winter.
What’s warmish? It depends on how bad the situation is. Starvation is bad and deserves prompt attention. So is disease.
“I want to treat my hives by dribbling oxalic acid. I bought all the stuff, but now it’s too cold to treat. My white board gets about 50 mites overnight. What should I do? Just wait till spring?”
The same advice applies here, although it may be too late. His choices: treat and maybe save the colony or don’t treat and lose it to mites. Fall colonies are low on brood anyway, so there isn’t much brood to chill. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much time to dribble a colony. I can do one in 30 or 40 seconds, start to finish. If you can’t do it fast, practice with syrup and an empty box until you can.
Preparation is key
Before I open a hive in winter, I prepare thoroughly. I make sure I have all the equipment I will need at the site, and then I review my movements. The colder it is, the longer I review.
For example, I once combined two hives at 22 degrees F. One colony thoughtfully left it’s dead queen where I could see it on the landing board. Nice touch. Since I couldn’t re-queen in the dead of winter, I decided to combine it with a neighboring hive.
When I reviewed my steps, it became obvious that I could put the sheet of newspaper over the receiving hive the instant I opened it. This would keep the bees in place and prevent most of the heat from escaping. The queenless hive was in two partially-filled boxes, but the temperature wasn’t right for fiddling with frames. So I took off the telescoping cover (to lighten the load) and taped over the hole in the inner cover to conserve heat. Then I broke the propolis seals with my hive tool. When all was ready, the actual combination took less than a minute.
I removed the lid off the receiving hive, laid down the paper, moved the upper box of the queenless hive to one side, set the lower box on the newspaper, added the upper box, pulled the tape off the inner cover and added the lid.
How many bees died? I don’t know but certainly some. More important, however, is that I ended up with a thriving colony in the spring which I later split into two again.
Don’t assume you can’t do it
The point of all this is that you shouldn’t assume it is too cold to do something to your hives. Think about the consequences of not doing vs the benefits of doing. Compare potential losses. And once you’ve made a decision, plan your steps, review your plan, and go for it. It’s almost never too cold to open a hive.
Honey Bee Suite
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