Checking and Manipulating Bee Hives in late winter

The sun finally broke out, temperatures went into the low 50F’s so I finally got out to the hives to check them for honey stores, a bit of hive manipulation, and to put in their essential oil patties.

The sun was somewhat expected – we normally get a few weeks of sunny weather in February. Temperatures in the 50F’s at this time of year are completely new to this area – but as we all know with the weather: Expect the Unexpected. I figure the weather will probably shift back to wet and dismal in March and possibly April, so the February sun is a good time to check the hives.

At this writing, I’ve not gone through all my hives, but I’ve covered all but one of the up river yards. These are in the low mountains that lie along the Nooksack River northwest of Mt. Baker.  (You’ll find the photos after the to-do lists).

Bee Hive Check / Manipulation Sequence:

1) Check hive for honey – if low hand out some honey, either in frames or on newspaper

2) Check bees’ condition

3) Clean bottom boards

4) Open up the hive (Move boxes and frames around without breaking up brood and pollen)

  • Brood box(es) to bottom of stack
  • Empty Bottom box (filled by the bees with pollen during the year) moved up and frames mixed with honey frames to keep bees from being honey bound

5) Remove any empty frames that are older than 5 years and replace with newer frames

6) Put in Essential Oil patty

7) If deadout, figure out why.

8) Load up and head for next yard (loading up: not the fun part)

9) Off-load the truck (really not the fun part)

 

Bee Hive Check: What I’m Looking For

So simple, in concept. But it takes time. I like to examine the hives to look at:

1) Which phenotypes have come through the winter (tends to be the darkest)

2) What the honey and pollen consumption has been

3) What, if any, pollen and nectar are coming in

4) Numbers of over wintered daughters and drones (if present)

5) Queen performance (to select breeder queens and assess last year’s queens):

Amount of brood laid

Brood patterns, including egg to sealed brood ration (I don’t count, I just estimate)

6) Diseases or pests or general problems

 

Bee Hive Check In Pictures

My bee yards vary in locations from flat lands near the Nooksack River to rolling ridges. This one has an honorary “bee dog” – totally fearless of bees. I’ve never had a dog bring me sticks to play fetch with bees flying.

Bee yard in Washington rural mountains

 

The first examination is just looking down.
Two views have been coming up this year:

Honey:

Frames of honey with honeybees

 

And Bees:

Honey bees cover frames in a bee hive

Lots of happy bees

I do leave a lot of honey on hives (about 70 pounds for the strong “adult” hives), because there won’t be any strong nectar flow in my up river areas for another two months. So I like to see the honey.

The downside is that they can get honey bound.

Bee hive top bars covered in honeybees

A nice late winter sight

 

Bee hive frames with bees

Bees top to bottom

Opening Up The Bee Hives

Which means time to move boxes and frames around.

Bee hive disassembled during winter check up at Brookfield Farm

Waiting for reassembly

The brood and pollen frames move as a group.

While the stack of boxes are separated, this is the magic moment to clean up

Clean the Bottom Screens

The bees were last tidied up in September during harvest. A lot of bees have been born, worked, and died in that time. Most are on the bottom – it’s too cold to go cleaning up the hive in winter, so they fall to the bottom.

Dead honeybees cover a hive's bottom screen

Before Cleaning

 

Bottom Screen of a bee hive after cleaning

All Cleaned Up

All my hives are on open bottom screens year round. This helps keep the hive dry as the decomposing bodies “leak” down though the screen. I have not found any detrimental effects of having the screens open all year (although I did bite finger nails the first time I tried this).

The bees, of course, are momentarily confused. “Hey, when we left there was a hive behind this ‘door’.”

Honey bees gather at a hiveless site

Where’s the Hive?

But confusion passes as the brood box is set on the screen.

 

Bee Hive Manipulation

The entire brood box, usually with pollen, moves into a new, lower, position in the stack.

If stores are low, honey frames are added on either side of the area (usually positions 1,2, 9 and 10)

Thoughout the process I’m always being aware that the queen can be anywhere – easy does it.

Usually, there’s a second brood box, which is placed on top of the first. The “sealed brood” box gets position number two, because as they emerge, they will leave room for more eggs.

honey bees on sealed brood

Bees on Brood

This tends to leave me with two boxes: one empty and one of honey. I over winter in 4 boxes (3 on nucs) the winter bottom box is filled with pollen, so by February only empty frames are left.

 

Drawn, empty, frames of comb from a bee hive

Empty Comb

These are interspersed with the combs of honey

honey bees on a frame of honey

Bees on Honey

The combined open comb and solid frames of honey are placed in the third box – if the hive is large enough to need a fourth box it is added – with frames of honey interspersed with the open comb.

Painted honey bee hives

Rebuilt and Ready for Spring

Then I’m done…and move on to do it again at the next yard.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.  How are your bees looking coming into spring or heading into fall (that old hemisphere thing).  Having seen and heard from beekeepers back east, my hopes are that your bees are happily weathering these days in tight clusters.

It has been mentioned that I should end with where you can find us in the “real world”.  I am at Seattle’s Ballard Farmers Market every Sunday these days (some days away for festivals) and Ian, aka the husband, can be found at Seattle’s Fremont Sunday Market on Sundays.  Come by and visit if you’re in the area.

About Bean

I am the beekeeper at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, near Maple Falls, Washington. My bees fly from naturally treated, antibiotic-free hives in the foothills of Mt. Baker (the second most glaciated volcano in Washington). I sell the raw honey my bees make, as well as honey produced by Washington beekeepers who are friends - the emphasis is on raw honey from naturally treated, antibiotic-free hives. I also make and sell Raw Honey Infusions (Ginger, Lavender, and Vanilla Bean; Raw Honey Infused Organic Vinegars; and Beeswas Salves. You can find me or my husband at Seattle's Fremont Market and at Bellingham's Farmers Market. When not with the bees, you'll most likely meet me up some mountain trail, pinhole camera and digital camera slung over my shoulders, and my pack goats trailing behind me.
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