Whether a new or experienced beekeeper, many people have the question of “Should I open my beehive in the winter?” With input from master beekeeper, Frank Licata we have some tips that will help answer that question, along with what know if or when you do open your hive in cold weather.
A lot of people, especially brand-new hobby beekeepers are told not to open your hive in the winter time. In Frank Licata’s opinion, that's well-intended advice, but could overlook some important details that could lead to detrimental impacts to your colony during the cold winter months.
Increase survival with wintertime preparation
After you’ve winterized your colony by putting on an insulative bee cozy, some sort of moisture control and mouse guards, many will be tempted to keep their hives closed for the winter and be told by others to not open them tll springtime. Unfortunately, if your bees don't have enough stores to get through winter, they can end up starving and will not make it to spring. Thus, it’s important to know the condition of the hive and ensure your bees have what they need to make it through the winter.
What Frank suggests is that when you start getting into that fall period you should be going to the back of your hive and giving it a little lift just to judge the weight of it to see how much winter store they have to survive upon. Additionally, as winter goes on you could do the same thing to ensure you come back to thriving colony in warmer spring months. This tactic will provide a general idea of the state of your bees and their available reserves. This can be a valuable skill, and over time it will become easier to judge with experience. If possible, the goal is to not open your hive if you do not have to, and this method is the first step in determining if opening the hive is necessary.
If you suspect that your bees may need feed or need further inspection, the next step is carefully inspect the hive. In northeastern Pennsylvania, where winters can be cold and brutal, Frank likes to check on the hives in late-February or March, or with 4-6 weeks until spring warm-up, to make sure that the bees have not depleted their feed before the end of winter. With the cold temperatures at this time, you do not want to pull frames out and chill the brood that the queen is starting to raise. Rather, your goal should be to make sure they have adequate feed and focus on doing so quickly to retain any warmth in the hive.
First, try to perform a hive inspection on a more moderate day, rather than a bitter cold day, as it is better for the bees. In northern regions, this may be a day where the temperature is 30-35 degrees Fahrenheit, and in other regions, the rule of thumb is to select a day where the temperature is relatively warmer than the average cold temperatures of winter months.
Checking the hive
To begin the process, take off the inner cover just by lifting one edge and looking underneath. The next step is to evaluate if your bees have enough feed. If the bees are all up top of the frames, then they are out of feed you have to add feed that is optimized for winter, such as Pro-Winter Patties to sustain them through the remaining cold months.
If your bees are still down below between the frames and you can hear them, they're doing well. In this case, you will likely see capped honey and know that they do not feed additional feed. If your bees have enough feed, you are good to replace the cover and have peace of mind that your colony is doing well.
If you perform your hive inspection and see that your bees are up top, that’s a sign that they're likely out of feed. With a month or more left of winter,it is important to add feed for those bees to survive.
To add feed to your hive, Frank recommends utilizing either an 8-frame winter cover or 10-frame winter cover to fit your hive. The winter cover is simple to install and is placed right on top of the hive, above the top bars and below the top cover. The winter cover provides space for the feed and allows free movement through the hive and frames. To feed the bees, Frank will lay the feed right on the top bars and then cover with a winter cover and lastly with the top cover. This will provide the bees with the sustenance they need to survive until spring.
By performing a check on your hive, you can help ensure that your bees have enough feed to survive the winter and make it until springtime when the colony can begin bringing in nectar on their own. By performing a careful check on your hive in the winter months may only take a few minutes, it can make the difference in your bees surviving the winter and thriving in spring.