During irregular midwinter visits to the apiary you need to check if the hive entrances are clear and to determine whether the colony has sufficient stores for the remaining winter. The rate at which stores are used depends upon the number of bees in the colony, the strain of bees, the temperature and whether they’re rearing brood or not.
The apiary in winter …
The easiest way to ‘guesstimate’ the level of stores is to gently lift the back of the hive an inch or two, and to judge the effort required. Beekeepers call this ‘hefting‘ the hive. Colonies should feel reassuringly heavy. After all, you’re only actually lifting half the weight of the hive – the front remains on the hive stand – and if that feels light it might indicate a problem.
The hive will be full of torpid bees on a freezing cold winter day. On really cold days the wooden floor of the hive might actually be frozen onto the stand. Don’t force it and jar them. And if you can gently lift one side, don’t just drop the hive back onto the stand afterwards. Ideally you want to judge the weight of the colony without the bees being disturbed at all.
Be gentle …
However, judging the weight takes experience. Is it a lot less than last week? Is it less than it should be? In the picture at the top there are 5 hives, only two of which (those on the closest stand, and above) are comparable. You can’t easily compare hives if you have only one or if they’re not made of the same material.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Over time you will get experience for what feels OK, and what feels a bit light.
And if any do feel dangerously light then you need to intervene and give them more stores – in the form of fondant – as soon as possible. At least, you need to intervene if you don’t want to risk them starving to death. I’ll discuss topping up the fondant in a future post.
Technology to the rescue
You can get a much better insight into changes in the weight of a colony by, er, weighing it. Luggage weighing scales are widely available, cheap and accurate. With a little ingenuity you can fashion a means of attaching them to the side of the floor. I drilled a 6mm hole through the side runners of the floor and securely tied an eye bolt to some strong polypropylene attached to the scales.
Winter cluster …
Friendly scales …
Weighing a hive …
In a similar way to hefting a hive, lift each side carefully, but this time note the weight and add them together. It’s helpful to use scales which automagically record the maximum stable weight. Note the weight down in your hive records and see how it compares over time.
As before, be gentle with these colonies in winter. Don’t go bouncing them up and down. The bees will not appreciate it. With care you can weigh the colony and barely disturb them at all.
What? You want even more accuracy and even less work? Look at the hive monitoring equipment from Arnia, SolutionBee or others. These use under-hive scales hooked up to a mobile phone to upload weights (and lots of other data) for analysis from the comfort of your armchair.
At a price 😯
Frugal bees are better bees
Different strains of bees use their winter stores at different rates. ‘Black bees’ (Apis mellifera mellifera, or Amm) are well known for being frugal. In contrast, some Italian strains chomp through their stores like there’s no tomorrow (and if you don’t feed them, there won’t be).
My Heinz strain 1 of locally-reared bees exhibit variation in the amount of stores they use. The two comparable hives on the same stand in the top picture both started the winter packed with stores. By Christmas one of them remained reassuringly heavy, whereas the other one was feeling light and was given a fondant supplement.
All things being equal, I’d prefer my bees use less rather than more. When the time comes to rear queens later in the season the thrifty colony will be favoured.
Some beekeepers take a harder line than this … if a colony can’t store enough to get it through the winter they let it starve and so allow ‘natural selection’ to operate.
I’d prefer to have the luxury of an additional colony in Spring. I won’t rear queens from it and I’ll minimise drone brood to prevent it contributing to the next generation. Instead, I’ll build it up in the spring and then split it for nucleus colony production in late May or early June.
Unnatural selection perhaps, but it’s a solution I’m comfortable with.
Given the choice, I suspect it’s what the bees would prefer as well 😉
Not Whether to treat? … to which the answer is yes. Instead, a poor pun on the choice of how I use temperature as an indication of when to treat colonies in midwinter …
Midwinter OA-based treatments
Oxalic acid-based treatments for midwinter Varroa control are most effective when colonies are broodless†. This is because oxalic acid (OA) treatments only kill phoretic mites and are ineffective against mites in sealed cells. They are therefore ideal for use on swarms, packages and broodless colonies in midwinter.
How can you tell whether your colonies are broodless in midwinter?
On a warm, sunny, Spring afternoon this takes just a couple of minutes … remove the roof, crack off the crownboard, gently lift out the dummy board and the adjacent frame, look carefully at the mass of bees covering the top bars, aim for about the middle and gently prise apart those two frames, lift out a frame from one side of the ‘gap’ and – Hey presto – brood.
Just writing that in early December makes me hanker for much warmer days …
Memories of midseason
Actually, you can do exactly the same in midwinter. There are videos on the internet showing an experienced and (in)famous Finnish beekeeper opening his colonies at -10ºC.
I’ve opened and briefly inspected colonies at low temperatures (though not sub-zero). The bees are usually pretty torpid, reluctant to fly – or simply too cold to – and you can be in and out in just a minute or so. Bees cope pretty well with this. It undoubtedly disturbs them a bit and it breaks the propolis seal on the crownboard, but – done carefully and quickly – it’s the only foolproof way to determine whether a colony is broodless in midwinter.
But what if they’ve got brood and it’s therefore not the optimal time to treat? Do you go back and repeat the entire process in 1-2 weeks? What if it’s snowing next time, or there’s a howling gale blowing?
An alternative approach is needed∞.
The annual brood rearing cycle
As the colony moves from summer to autumn the egg laying rate of the queen drops. It goes on dropping, although not necessarily smoothly, as the days shorten further, the temperature drops and the sources of pollen and nectar disappear. If the queen stops laying altogether then the colony will become broodless about 21 days later.
At some point, perhaps early in the New Year, the queen starts laying again. Slowly at first, but at increasing levels as the season starts. Once foraging starts in earnest the egg laying rate increases markedly and peaks sometime in June.
The precise timing of all these changes cannot be predicted. It’s likely to be dependent on a range of factors – nectar and pollen availability, the strain of bee, day length (and whether it’s increasing or decreasing) and temperature.
Of these, temperature probably has the greatest influence.
Generalised annual brood and worker numbers …
Here’s a quick’n’dirty graph put together with BEEHAVE showing a generalised annual cycle of total brood (blue) and adult bee (red) numbers. Under the conditions in this model the colony is broodless for ~30 days at the end if the year.
Part of the problem with being definitive about the annual brood cycle is the temperature variation with latitude. Temperate regions stretch – in Europe – from Northern Finland to Southern Spain. Bees are kept throughout this range, but obviously experience wildly different climates.
And then there’s the year to year variation.
So if you can’t predict when the colony is going to be broodless, perhaps you can observe the weather – and in particular the temperature – and make an educated guess.
Watch the weather
Over the last few years I’ve applied my midwinter treatment soon (<6 days) after the end of the first extended cold period of the season. This is generally earlier than most beekeepers, who often treat between Christmas and New Year, or early in January.
So, how do we reasonably accurately monitor the weather for a suitable time to treat?
Ho ho ho
Most of us live in centrally-heated splendour, protected from the day-to-variation of temperature by heated car seats, air conditioning, hot water bottles, Thinsulate and wood-burning stoves. Do you know what the temperature was today? Rather than trust the wildly-variable (in accuracy) national‡ weather reports for the actual temperature near my apiaries, I instead use very much more local data from Weather Underground.
There are hundreds of ‘amateur’ weather stations across the country that upload data to wunderground.com. Most of these provide current and historic data, including temperature (max, min and average). Here’s one for Auchtermuchty in Fife (on wunderground.com) and directly from the weather station.
Once the weather cools I keep an eye on the average temperature over an extended period of a fortnight or so. If it remains low I wait a bit more … but I then treat as soon as practical after it warms up to 8-10°C or so.
I didn’t open my colonies, but others opened on the same day nearby were all broodless. The 7th was chosen as it was the first warm (relatively!) day after a 19 day window in which the average temperature had barely climbed above 5°C.
These treated colonies went into the New Year with vanishingly low Varroa levels.
And again …
This year appears to be repeating a very similar pattern. We’ve had frosts most nights since the 10th of November. It started to warm up significantly in early December as storm Caroline bore down on Scotland and I treated most of my colonies on the 6th …
… by the light of a head torch, in light rain and strengthening wing at 7pm after work.
No, I didn’t open any of the hives to check if they were broodless 😉
It was over 11°C in the apiary when I treated, the barometer was plummeting and the forecast was for near-zero temperatures within 24 hours and remaining that way for another 10 days.
Some of my hives have perspex crownboards. These allow me to check both the state of the colony and if the vapour from my Sublimox has permeated to every corner of the hive. All the colonies were very loosely clustered, with a few bees even wandering out briefly onto the landing board in the dark as I bumbled around preparing things.
The Varroa trays will now be checked in a week or so to work out the mite infestation levels. In the meantime, I can start planning for the coming season knowing I’ve done the best I can to reduce virus levels in the colonies, so giving them a good start to the year.
A Hi tech solution?
Colonies rearing brood maintain a higher, and stable, broodnest temperature (32-35°C) than colonies without brood. It is therefore possible to determine whether a colony has brood by monitoring the temperature directly, rather than trying to infer it from the ambient temperature.
Brood rearing starts …
Arnia make hive monitors that allow this sort of thing to be measured. It would be interesting to relate the brood temperature to the ambient temperature (described above) to determine how accurate or otherwise simply ‘watching the weather’ is. Of course … what you’d really want to do is monitor when brood rearing stops and treat soon after that.
I treated colonies in our research apiary the following day – the 7th – with dribbled Api-Bioxal. The temperature had dropped almost 7°C since the previous evening and colonies were again beginning to cluster tightly. Under these conditions I’m never confident that the OA vapour penetrates fully, so prefer to trickle treat.
I briefly checked one strong colony in a poly hive for brood.
It was broodless, as I’d hoped 🙂
Of course, this doesn’t guarantee all the others are also broodless, but it does give me some confidence that I’d chosen the correct weather to treat.
† This article, like most on this site, discuss beekeeping issues relevant to temperate climates. It’s important to make this clear now as most of what follows is irrelevant to readers from warmer regions.
∞ Even if there is brood in midwinter, it’s going to be in pretty small amounts. The rate at which this brood emerges is going to be low. The chances of determining what’s going in the colony by ‘reading the tea leaves’ from the debris falling through the mesh floor of the hive is therefore not great. It would probably also require repeated visits to the apiary.
ß This needs qualifying … in midseason, when the temperature varies but it’s not generally cold, the nectar flow is probably the rate-limiting step for brood rearing. The June gap is regularly associated with the queen shutting up shop for a while. However, in late autumn and early winter I’m sure the plummeting temperatures is a major influence on egg laying by the queen.
‡ National … Ha! Most are only national if you live within the M25. Anywhere else and you’re usually much better off accessing some data from closer to home. It’s worth noting that the sort of ‘amateur’ weather stations I discuss do vary in data quality. For example, they’re a bit dodgy recording temperatures in full sun (they tend to over-read). However, if you find a local one, check the temperature in comparison to a thermometer in your apiary, you’ll find it’s a useful way to monitor what might be happening in the hives.
§ I don’t routinely generate these graphs – I have a life (!) – but did specifically to illustrate this post. It’s sufficient to simply monitor the average temperature.
Whether the weather be fine Or whether the weather be not, Whether the weather be cold Or whether the weather be hot, We’ll weather the weather Whatever the weather, Whether we like it or not.