Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Don't Code Your Hive Until It's Spring

Today, the weather is in the mid-30's F. Not too cold to go outside and look at the hives. (Ha! This tropical/sub-tropical girl must be adjusting to New England to believe that temps only slightly above freezing are ok. But I digress.)

Why did I want a look-see? Saturday was lovely -- upper 40's -- and bees were flying. But certain hives had less activity than expected. Thought I'd put a stethoscope on them to see if I could detect a heartbeet (sic -- get it?)

I started with Peach, then Austeja, and Hippolyte. The thing is, I really couldn't hear anything in any of the hives. So then I checked Elsa because, based on the number of bees pouring out of her on Saturday, I knew she was alive and extremely well. Dang it. I couldn't tell a difference between her and the others.  (Note to self: Get a Flir next year.)

What to do? What to do? I popped open Austeja's observation window. Not a single bee in sight. Had she absconded?

Hmmm... I tried one more thing. There is an almost foolproof scientific test for determining whether your bees are alive. It's called Kick the Hive. 

After some kicking and banging, a few heads began poking out of Buttercup, Celestia, and Persephone. Bummer. That gave me 4/8 colonies. However, after waiting another 5 minutes, some bees started pouring out of Bubblegum as well. Cool. 5/8 hives was fewer than I'd hoped, but not bad.

Bees starting to check out the banging 

Before heading back inside, I figured I might as well take some photos of Austeja's empty comb. That's when she gave me a surprise. On opening the window again, bees started breaking cluster and crawling toward the window. Now I'm up to 6/8!

The window is really dirty, but if you look really hard, you'll see some bees on the combs

What about my remaining two colonies? Until we get several consecutive days of 50+ F temps, I've decided not to diagnose them dead -- hence today's post title. 

So what's happening with my bees. I have some naive theories:
  • They may just be very tightly clustered, which is why Austeja's bees were originally not visible through the window. Maybe that's why I had trouble finding the clusters with the stethoscope.
  • They may simply be very quiet and conserving energy. Mike Palmer in VT says that the bees that overwinter best in his brutal climate are the ones that barely make a buzz in freezing temps. These are the ones he breeds. I got my original bees from Sam Comfort, who in turn collects local wild bees, but he's also got genetics from Mike Palmer and Kirk Webster in his stock. Could this just be a quality that my girls have inherited? I don't know.
  • Even though Elsa was alive, I gave her some good kicks and poundings, too, just because I wanted a Kodak Moment. Yet no amount of abuse would induce her bees to come outside. Hippolyte and Peach could be dead (seriously, I didn't have high hopes for Peach going into winter), but they could also be ignoring me like Elsa. So I'll just wait until the weather is warmer. After all, bees that I could've sworn would die/were dead have surprised me on more than one occasion.
In any case, I'm pleased to even have 6/8 alive. 8 hives was a lot of work last year, so if a few are dead-outs, that's fine. They'll provide space for new splits in the spring and give me a chance to retrofit a couple hives with insulated roofs/walls.

Going forward, I'll probably open the hives to make sure they have some sugar near the clusters, but that's for another day. A warmer one.

In any case, it's amazing how different I feel this winter compared to my first winter, or even last winter. My first couple of winters, I was on tenterhooks the entire season, praying every day that my bees would survive. Last year, I thought at least one or two hives might make it through winter, but I was still uncertain. Finally, I've reached this calm, confident place where losing 1, 2, even half of my colonies is not the end of the world. It's ok. I like this feeling.


  1. My first winter, I didn't know enough to worry, the next several I worried like crazy and this year, I'm not worried at all. If they make it great, if not, I'll catch some swarms and start over. I do check on them visually on warm days, but even then, unless it's in the upper 50's for a few days and the sun is shining directly on the hive, they may be like Elsa and want to just stay inside. It's been several weeks since that's happened and may be a few more.

    Glad most of your colonies are still hanging in there!

  2. Thank you Julie & Don,

    January 25th was the last time I saw them. We had very mild weather that week and then got to 65 degrees, a saw a few dumping the dead and I took a quick peek inside to add a little dry sugar, only to discover they hadn't really touched the stuff I had added as insurance back in November. As I left for work this morning it was already 65 degrees no action no sound, that sinking feeling of we didn't make it this time...but maybe I can catch some. I'm not as upset as past years. No need to autopsy until spring arrives fingerscrossed I'm wrong.

    1. I've had temps in the lower 60's for a week with no signs of bees, but then magically, they appeared. I also find that this time of the year, they only come out when the sun is directly shining on the hive so many days I miss their short flight times. One of my hives only started showing signs of life yesterday while the others were flying for a week. Fingers crossed that your bees just like being cozy in a cluster until the real warmth arrives!

      Poor Julie is dealing with a fresh foot of snow today!

    2. Fingers crossed for you, Mavis. Taking out the dead is always a good sign. Don also makes some really good points. My bees seem prefer to fly when the sun is directly over them as well.

      Don -- glad to hear that another hive is showing signs of life Mine are all hunkered down. Woke up this morning to 10 deg F weather and 18" (so much for 8"-12"!!!) of snow.

  3. Promising Signs, the weekend weather was 68/72 in Central Jersey. So here I am long face walking around my hive. I see one lone bee for the pass 2 days, but at 5 pm yesterday I see about 10 going in and out of my hive. Poor dears probably don't know what to make of this weather. My chin is up for now. Sorry about your snow Julie, that just a bit too much.

    1. Glad to hear there is some activity in your hive, Mavis. Not to be a debby-downer, but do you know if they are your bees, or could they be robbers. I have a hive down the street from me which didn't show signs of activity and then I got a text from the homeowner that she saw bees so things looked good. I went down a few days later and was watching the bees going in and out, but then were dark, not the golden Italians that were supposed to be in the hive. I opened up the window and saw a lot of dead bees on the floor and only a few dark bees running around, so I knew they were robber bees. If anything is blooming, the bees should be bringing in pollen, so if you see bees with pollen on their legs going in, then you know they are your bees. It looks like it will be in the 70's later this week in Jersey, so you might want to take a quick peak inside to make sure things are good.

    2. 68! Holy smokes -- it's a heat wave! Is your willow or maple blooming yet? Maybe skunk weed? If your weather is that warm, pollen should be coming in.

      Sorry to be another downer, but my first thought was the same as Don's. At that temperature, you should be seeing some real activity if the hive is alive. Have you opened it up?

  4. There's lots of activity the past day or two, It's was smart to think maybe robbers. I'm stuck at work most of the time there enjoying the weather. However, I saw some today and they created their own entry at the back of the hive, through the propolis. If the sun holds tomorrow, I'll go in for a peek and also look for pollen. Thanks again. Will update soon. Julie hope the snow is melting.

  5. Good News,

    There mine, I didn't go in, because it's due to get cold again but I watched for 30 minutes. You can tell I'm a hobbist. Didn't see pollon at all (my eyes not always the best even with glasses) No fighting, heavy orientation flights, sunnying and self grooming. Thank you for your support.

    1. That's great to hear, Mavis! All that finger crossing worked!

    2. Glad to hear that they're yours! That's great news!


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