Checking Hives In The Winter

I went down to Bruce Bowen’s bee yards in Skagit County this week to help a little and learn a bit more about bees in winter. I check my hives in February, when the weather warms up a bit and pollen starts

Bruce Bowen Checks Bees

appearing on the alders.  Bruce checks his hives now because he needs to determine which hives he will send to California to pollinate Almonds.

Keeping bees is just like raising any other kind of livestock: some animals make it some don’t.  Bruce wants to make sure that each hive that will travel south will be in excellent condition to do its job in the almond groves.

Bruce’s System:

He set out 6 categories:  1) Good Hive; 2) Good and Heavy – lots of stores; 3) Good but needs feed; 4) OK, but not for California; 5) Dink: small, maybe it’ll make it to spring, maybe not; and 6) Problems.

Beekeeper Karen Bean's box of pins and flagging tape to mark hives

Pins & Tape

Each of these designations has its own color marker, or marker and note, which is pinned to the hive.

Marker tape on bee boxes

Marked Hives

(That’s my job: I’m the pinner.) The last four categories will remain in the yards.  The Good Hives and the Good & Heavy Hives will go travel south in January.

Every hive is checked. The top is popped off and the frames are examined from the top.  Some are clearly Good (to Bruce, I’m still a novice at “look at the top bars and see”).  These are tilted forward to allow Bruce to judge their weight and determine if the cluster goes all the way to the bottom of the hive.  Thus the Good and Good & Heavy hives are classified.

When Bruce sees something he doesn’t like, he might pull some frames, separate the brood boxes for a look in side, or both.  Bruce is picky.  He rejects many hives that I would be pleased to have in my yard.  He explained that you never know what’s going to happen to the bees in the almonds.  There are lots of other bees, lots of stresses, so the hives that go to California must be the strongest hives.

This was my first time out to assess bees for pollination, so I was full of questions. Often Bruce’s reply to my “What tipped you?” was simply, “I’ve been looking at bees for over 30 years.”  But he gave me a lot of good tips too.

Bruce Bowen checks the honeybee cluster between brood boxes

Cluster in the middle

Cluster Size:

A basketball sized cluster size is good.  That one I knew, but, as Bruce says, “each hive’s different, and these girls can fool you.”

A strong cluster might not be visible from the top bars.  It might be tucked into the middle of the hive. Or the bees may have not left the bottom brood box at all.  You can pop the top of a hive and see nothing, only to find the entire bottom box is packed with bees.

Honeybees seen with one frame pulled

Bees In a Center Cluster

Equally you can pop the top and see nothing, and you have a dink: a very small hive that might not survive.

Just as empty top bars can be deceptive, so can top bars covered in bees.  Bruce explained, “a grapefruit sized cluster can come up and cover the bars, but they only go an inch or so down in the hive.”

Feed Consumption:

Did they eat all their fall feed?  This is good.

Did they not eat it all, but the feeder is filled with feed, not bees?  These get checked.

Did they not eat it all, and the feeder is filled with bees?  This gets a worried sound from Bruce and a check.


Nearly every one of the over 1,000 hives was tilted forward to allow Bruce to judge its weight.  An overly light hive would get a check.

Cluster Depth:

Depth is checked while the hive is tilted forward.  A hive that had bees hanging down from 6=9 frames in the bottom box can be strong.  But so can one with bees on 1 or 2 frames, because, as Bruce points out: “it’s like a cone” – or as I would have it an American football set on end.

Bees Hang from the bottom brood box

Bees On Bottom of Frames

If few bees could be seen from the top bars, and none at the bottom, Bruce would separate the brood boxes.  Sure enough, the majority of those had huge clusters that were spanning the 2 brood boxes.

Front Door Action:

All this fuss wakes the bees up.  The sooner they start coming out the front door, the better Bruce feels about the hive.  Their numbers have to be up to give them enough guards to watch us at the top an come out the front to confront these large

Honeybees gather at their hives front entrances

Bees Checking Us Out

animals that are disturbing their hives (that would be the beekeepers).

I think tidy bottom boards can help determine hive strength – Bruce, I fear, thinks I’m a little silly about this.  It just seemed to me that when we saw: 1) few bees from the top, 2) only a few at the bottom, but 3) the bottom board was really clean, there would be a good strong cluster of bees in the hive’s center.

I am certain that there are more clues that Bruce sees, but after 30 years of beekeeping the knowledge becomes so ingrained that it can be hard to explain.  I’ll be checking in again with Bruce to experience the loading of bees for the almonds.  It’s fascinating view into a world of beekeeping that I do not normally experience.  I learned a lot, but there’s always more to learn in beekeeping.

Bruce Bowen takes a close look at a bee hive

Bruce Takes A Close Look

What clues to hive strength do you look for in the winter?



That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees & Honey, in Maple Falls, Washington.

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