|I spy with my little eye...|
|A queen! I do, I do! Esmeralda in Hive #1.|
Quick, regular hive checks are an excellent way to see if your hives are on track for spring survival. When the weather is under 50F, you can quickly gauge the status of your hives by 'hefting' them. It's about as simple as it sounds. Go to the back of the hive, get your hands under the base and lift smoothly and gently from the back. If you can lift the hive without effort, the colony is short on supplies and should be reinforced. Dry sugar, syrup, fondant, and full frames of honey from another colony are all options for supplementing a hive light on food.
|Tasty, tasty refined sugar. While Hive #1 has consumed a large amount of dry sugar, Hive #2 has consumed none.|
What you give them will depend entirely on what you have available and what kind of mood you're in. Honey from another hive (a deadout, perhaps) is the best and most natural option. Dry sugar is the easiest, but is messy and sometimes the bees don't care for it. Fondant requires time and effort to make, but is nice and clean and the bees take it easily. Sugar syrup is the hardest to use as a winter emergency feed. It is easily cooled to a temperature that prevents the bees from taking it by chilly weather at night. Anything under 50-60F, and the bees won't touch it. Not much help there.
When the weather is well over 50F, you can do a real inspection to see how your bees are doing. If they're flying, it's warm enough to open them up. Even so, you'll want to be quick about it to limit any disruption or potential damage to developing brood. Keep in mind that the bees may be a bit more defensive than normal, and may continue to be so until spring brings new sources of nectar and pollen to distract them. Don't be alarmed, but do be careful and make sure you have your smoker lit and your veil at the ready.
There are a few things you'll want to keep your eyes out for. First and foremost, the priority is to make sure that the hive has adequate honey and pollen to make it until spring. What qualifies as 'adequate' is completely variable and subjective. Some bees are very frugal with their stores and need much less in the way of honey and pollen to make it through the winter. Italian bees from Georgia, for instance, require much more food than northern-bred Carniolan stock. You'll have to make your own determination as to whether your bees have enough food, based on your own experience. The heft test is still a great resource in warmer weather. Remember, if the hive is easy to lift, you should consider supplemental food until natural sources become available.
|Hive #1 has about 10 frames this full in their top brood chamber.|
While checking for food should be your first priority, if it is warm enough to get in the hives, you should check for signs of brood rearing, as well as indicators of disease. In particular, look out for sick or dying brood, frass (poop) from varroa in brood cells, and dead varroa under the screened bottom board. Even in the dead of winter, many hives will intermittently raise small patches of brood to supplement the cluster with young bees. If you spot a small patch of eggs, larvae, or capped pupae, don't be alarmed, but do take caution. Take note of the size and location of the brood, look for any signs of disease, and put the frame back before the brood is chilled. A small patch of brood is solid evidence that your queen is healthy and laying and a good sign that your hive is doing well.
|Lovely hand sized patch of brood. Brought to you by Esmeralda.|
Eggs, larvae, and capped pupae.
A large patch of brood is potentially worrisome. Too much brood early in the spring can prevent the bees from reforming a winter cluster if the temperature dips again. Workers will not abandon young, even at the cost of their own lives. If they can't cluster up, they won't be able to create enough collective heat to maintain their internal temperature and they'll die of cold. Ick.
|Queen Lazing from Hive #2 made an appearance.|
If you don't see any brood, don't panic. Some queens will hardly lay at all in the winter, and you won't see any brood at all until spring. Just make sure that they have enough food, wait it out, and chill.
Better you than the bees.