When it is above 25 degrees and not windy, it is not a problem to open a colony for a quick check.
What to look for: whenever you open a colony in the winter, having a plan on what to look for before the top is pulled off.
- Alive or dead. This is obvious, but sometimes the bees are down deep in a hive and may be alive. No bees on top? Look deep in the boxes.
- Colony strength, Right now we would like to see at least four frames of bees in the hive. Most colonies should have bees in the top box. The cluster should be spread out over four frames. A Carniolan queen hive may have threes frames of bees, this is fine. Carniolans winter a smaller cluster and build up very quickly. Sometimes a hive can cover the top of the frames in the hive and looks fine for population. In reality, that is all the bees there is in the hive. To get a good idea that there is a good population, leave the inner cover and moisture board on, break the top box loose. Lift up one side of the box and teeter it back. Look underneath the top box. If you have bees covering four frames to the bottom of the top box, that is a good population.
- Food stores. For me the best way to judge food stores is to slip off the winter cover, I leave the inner cover and moisture board on. Break the top box loose with the hive tool and lift the top box off the lower box. This will easily tell the weight of the colony. If the hive box feels heavy you should be good. If it feels light, feeding is on the horizon. If the hive feels empty of food and very light, starvation can be near. Winter patties can get a colony to limp along for the short term before we can feed syrup in a couple weeks.
- Order new bees. If you colony has two frames or less of bees consider them dead. Weak colonies struggle along and can't get their population to move forward. They will not build up to a productive colony without addition of bees from another colony.
- Great bee strategy. If you have a couple hives and have one hive alive or are expanding to a second colony. Some beekeepers plan on doing a divide to expand their colonies. Sometimes colonies do not come through the winter strong, and at divide time the colony cannot be divided. Now the other hive sits empty. Here is the strategy. Purchase a 2 lb package for the empty hive. Install the bees in the empty hive. If the overwintered hive can be divided, the divide can be added to the package. This will assure that all the hives will be filled with bees. The package hive will get very strong. No queen will need to be purchased for the divide. The stronger colony will produce more honey than a package or divide could make. The extra honey the colony makes should offset the cost of the package. Do the math. Package around $128.00 including tax. You don't need to purchase a queen for the divide, cost of a queen $35.00. Now we are at $93.00. If you got an extra super of honey because of the stronger colony, which is about 40 lbs of honey worth at least $2.50 lb that's $100.00. Package bees paid for. I have had several beekeepers use this strategy and they have commented to me on how well it worked.