Checking Your Beehive Has Signs of Life

Beekeepers spend their winters inside hoping their bees are strong enough to survive the harsh cold. But there are plenty of options to help ease your stress levels until spring.

Completing winter hive checks can help with early detection of problems within a hive and gives you the opportunity to help your colony survive. It also gives you the chance to review the bee yard itself, too. Whenever possible, it’s best to head out to your hives to check on them on a day that’s sunny with little to no wind and 40 degrees or more.

Is My Hive Alive?

Before considering what, if anything, your colony may need from you, you first need to determine whether they are still alive. Though it’s a harsh reality of beekeeping, many beekeepers do lose hives during the winter months.

The loss of a hive can happen for various reasons, often depending on the region and type of management plan used by the beekeeper. The most common reasons for these losses are to varroa mites, weather, and starvation. The Bee Informed Partnership does a great job completing research with data they’ve collected to track beekeeper stats throughout the US. Review these stats with their loss and management surveys here to learn more.

There are many ways you can check in on your bees. It is always preferable to do so without opening the lid (which may break the propolis seal your bees have created before winter began, to keep in as much heat as possible).

On the Front Step

As you approach your hives, taking a quick look at your beehive’s entrance and the ground out front can tell you a lot, no matter the season but especially in the winter months. Bees typically only leave the hive during the cold months on the warmest days, to defecate outside. Therefore, fresh feces may tell you that your hive has been active. If there is quite a bit of bee poop out front of the hive and snow around the hive, you will likely see yellow stains, left as your bees conduct their cleansing flights.

Despite the initial shock of seeing dead bees outside, it can actually be a good sign because it shows that the hive is operating as it should. Even in the dead of winter, bees remove as many of their dead as possible. Ironically, not seeing any dead bees outside could mean the colony isn’t strong enough to remove them, which could indicate a problem.

Knock knock…

A knock on the side of the hive will often create a small commotion within their cluster. Just by gently knocking on the outside and holding your ear to the side of the hive, you may be able to hear that telltale buzz, assuring you that the colony is still tucked in safe and warm. Be aware, though, that on a warm day, a guard bee or two may decide to leave the hive to find out what’s making that racket!

It should be noted that some beekeepers express a concern that knocking on the hive can disturb the bees and, in the worst case, potentially break up the cluster. We don’t necessarily share that level of concern if the knock is as gentle as possible, but be aware of this and consider if this is the right approach in the situation.

There are other options for checking inside a hive for a live colony, like using the light knock method along with a stethoscope to better hear through the hive’s thick walls. You could also try using a thermal imaging camera or temperature sensor to determine heat levels from the outside of the hive, too.

Some beekeepers check by using their cellphones to take a video and record any sound near the entrance of the hive. If you hold the mic area of your phone next to the top opening and record a video, you may be able to hear the buzzing inside when the video is played back. Recording the sounds inside after a light tap on the side of your hive is another great way to check for activity with little disturbance to the cluster.

What the Cluster’s Location Can Tell You

During the winter months, bees use the strength of their numbers to huddle up in a cluster of bees, working together to stay warm and survive until spring. The cluster will move throughout the hive and consume their honey stores as they go, often moving upwards within the hive.

If a cluster of bees has moved through its stores and is now at the top of its hive, there may be a need to give them supplemental winter feed. Adding feed like winter patties, fondant/sugar bricks or even granulated sugar can be a huge help in avoiding death due to starvation.

Using your screened bottom board is a great way to not only tell that you have an active colony within a hive but to also determine where the Cluster may be located. As you check the debris on the bottom board, you can use the accumulation of wax cappings to tell what position the cluster may be (left/right/front/center) in the hive and which frames they’re digging into to consume some of their honey stores. Cleaning your bottom board tray 1-2 times per month can be a great diagnostic tool without having to open the hive.

Beekeeping Monitors

Ahead of next winter, consider investing in a beekeeping monitoring system that can show you what’s happening inside the hive without you needing to leave the comfort of your living room.

These fascinating and increasingly common devices send data straight to your smartphone and can indicate a great deal about what’s going on in your hive. Simply install the temperature and/or humidity sensor during one of your summer or fall inspections and you’ll have access to tons of great information from anywhere. Check out our “Learn More” section below for more details about using monitors in your hives.

What if They Didn’t Survive?

If you haven’t found any indication of life in the colony, you may have a hive that perished for one reason or another. Don’t panic and break open the hive’s seal to check them inside straight away, though, wait a week or two and check again. If they are in fact still alive and just quiet, opening them up too soon can cause harm to the colony.

Though it can be disheartening and quite sad to lose a hive, it can be an opportunity to learn more about what went wrong for that colony and to learn more for better success with future ones. In fact, most experienced beekeepers see a “deadout” as just that – a true opportunity to build their knowledge. Learn more about what a beehive autopsy entails here.

Learn More

Learn more about using hive monitors to glean more data from inside your hives in our article When Advanced Monitoring Meets Beekeeping. Some additional information about overwintering honeybees can be found in An Introduction to Overwintering Honeybees. And if you think your colony needs supplemental feed, learn more in our article The Beekeeper’s Role in Avoiding Colony Starvation.

Colony members can read more in the Colony Forum with threads like “How to Know if Your Colony has Survived the Winter” and “Honeybee Evictions“. Don’t forget to learn through the lesson on How Bees Maintain Temperature and Moisture, too!

Not yet a Colony member? Click here to read more.