Caution about opening hives in winter?
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  1. #1
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    Sep 2010
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    St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada
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    Default Caution about opening hives in winter?

    I was talking to a new beekeeper today who has possibly lost one of her colonies going into her first winter of beekeeping. From what I can gather, it seems the colony has starved. It didn't have enough honey going into winter. But when I asked if she gave the bees any kind of emergency feeding, she said:

    "No, because I was told not to open a hive until it's at least 60F or 15C."

    That's bonkers to me. While I think it's best to leave the bees alone as much as possible, if I'm concerned they're running low on honey, I'll take a peek under the hood to see how they're doing. Where I live, I'd have to wait until June for 60F / 15C if that's the only time I could open them.

    I dismantled and rebuilt a full hive in the middle of February once to clean up some shrew damage and the bees came through in the spring just fine.

    I'm afraid this new beekeeper lost a colony because whoever first taught her how to keep bees was adamant about not opening the hives in the winter. To me, that's bad advice.

    I've been messing with bees since 2010 and, although I'm basically a mentorless beekeeper because of where I live, I'm happy with my track record so far. Overall, my bees seem to thrive. And I'm not afraid to open the hives in the winter.

    A question for more experienced beekeepers: What's your policy on opening hives in the winter? It is an absolute no-no? do you take a peek under the hood every 6 weeks or so? What do you do?
    - Phillip
    @ Mud Songs

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  3. #2
    Join Date
    Sep 2012
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    Winchester, Wyoming
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    I always thought that around 50+ F was the safe point. We just experienced an unusually warm period, and the girls flying were actively around when in the upper 40’s, I felt pretty safe to open mine. I just picked a time with temperatures in the low 50’s, “zero” wind, nice bright sunshine, and left the hive open “NO” longer than absolutely necessary. A week later, and they seem OK! memtb

  4. #3

    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    I think that it is just as likely that the new beekeeper misinterpreted what she was told. I don’t know of anyone who is adamant about not opening a hive below 60F.
    Heck….beekeepers throughout the world do oxalic acid dribble treatments….opening up their hives when temps are in the forties F.
    Of course, I am pretty adamant with new beekeepers about making sure that their hives have enough winter stores before the weather gets cold. That way they needn’t open them in winter…regardless of the temperature. But that’s just me.
    Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted. - Emerson

  5. #4
    Join Date
    Jun 2016
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    washington, vermont, USA
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    It's a misunderstanding imo. What they were telling her is "don't open up your hives and pull frames out during winter unless it hits around 60. She took it as being "don't open the hive at all unless it's 60" causing her to not want to pop the top to put sugar on. You should explain to her what she is not correctly understanding and hopefully next year she will do better.

  6. #5
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    Jul 2016
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    Somerset, NJ
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    524

    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    I lift the hive by the bottom to check weight. If they feel light I will pop the top and throw in a winter pattie. I've had too many hives starve to death over the winter.

  7. #6
    Join Date
    May 2009
    Location
    Grand Rapids MI USA
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    1,649

    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    I donno, there’s a gal that I tried to help out on the issue and she’s stuck on not opening her hives unless it’s really warm out. I told her that what’s better losing a few bees peeking in on a windless sunny day in the 30’s or waiting for 50’s and risk losing them to starvation. “Well, somebody told me that and I didn’t take any honey off them”, not having a dog in the fight, just let it go.
    I see a lot of people on FB pages that don’t see any activity on 40 degree days and are “going to wait till warmer weather to look”
    Rod

  8. #7
    Join Date
    May 2017
    Location
    Spokane County, Washington, USA
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Cold is mostly temporary, starvation is permanent. Pretty simple really.

    I took one apart when I found there were mice in it this winter. I would have to have a reason like that to do so, but popping the tops to check for feed (sugar), sure, no problem unless it is raining.
    So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

  9. #8
    Join Date
    Oct 2016
    Location
    Albany NY
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    Default

    We have carnis which are a bit more cold tolerant. Brood break here for healthy hives is Oct or Nov - late Jan. During this time they use a negligible amount of honey -- about 10 #. When they begin to brood up they start using stores. The first round is still a small amount of honey use. Mid-late Feb I go around and pop the tips to check cluster size, location, and stores. And feed If necessary. I find 25F and sunny, no wind, to be best time to check. Bees are clustered fairly tightly so you can get a good look at the size. They are not spread out so the capped honey is easy to see. They are too cold to fly up much so they don't bother me.... If not enough honey feed. Check back in about a month.
    I don't open the hives at 40-50 degrees because the cluster is too big to see anything and they will come out at you and kiss you on the nose.
    60F is ok temp for pulling frames but don't leave brood out for long. That is different from popping the lid!

  10. #9
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    England, UK
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    It's been my policy for some years now not to open a hive between the last inspection of one season and the first inspection of the next, unless a hive isn't putting bees into the air when all the others are, during one of those sunny days we sometime get during winter.

    BUT - I have a system in place which allows me to judge whether or not a hive is running low on stores without any need to open the box to check. I certainly wouldn't risk a colony starving otherwise.
    LJ
    A Heretics Guide to Beekeeping http://heretics-guide.atwebpages.com/

  11. #10
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    Apr 2006
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    Pepperell, MA.
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    A quick look on a cold day is fine. I try to avoid windy days although they all seem to be windy lately.
    "My wife always wanted girls. Just not thousands and thousands of them......"

  12. #11
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    Oct 2019
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    Wakefield, Rhode Island, USA
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Setup first: I remote monitor temperature and humidity on three hives. I monitor temperature on all other hives via a dial thermometer. I weigh my hives and feed in the Fall to a weight goal or more. I do not use top vents. I use a duck cloth inner cover with an 1/2 inch spacer above for the monitors and "tee-shirts". I enclose my hives on five sides with 2-inch XPS - no leaks but with a 1/2 inch air gap.

    If I see something wrong based on landing, removable bottom board or inner environment readings I will peak in under the inner cover by peeling it back some. I will peel it back to check outer frames for honey.

    I avoid "going in" as much as possible, peaking is OK anytime but problems should be solved so I do what is necessary. I do not want to disturb brood rearing - all winter. For me, pollen coming in early( amazing) and a 55F day I will start checking for brood now or very soon to verify queen status - quickly. Chilling brood, anytime, is not a good idea but sometimes necessary. I plan on diving into one hive today as it will be above 50F. It has bees and honey but acting oddly.

    A warm hive will replace heat loss, if insulated well, in a few hours. Likely by tightly clustering up first and then loosening up the layers after a dive-in inspection ( speculation by observation of numbers). Ps. My temps and RH have been stable all winter, temps going up with brood rearing - always above the dew point by a few degrees or more at the top.

  13. #12
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Interesting responses to this posts. Thanks.
    - Phillip
    @ Mud Songs

  14. #13
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Most have nailed it. Temp isn't nearly as negative as wind chill. A calm sunny Colorado day, in the upper 30's, is good for a quick peek, but there better be a darn good reason. Entrance activity will tell me most of what is needed. Weight can be gauged by hand. Left very heavy with honey, & unopened from roughly Oct- April/May, most of them survive.
    After 40 years of beekeeping, I've come to realize that the bees can fix most of my mistakes.

  15. #14
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    2nd year 6a. All 5 hives over wintered. Never went into the brood nest after October. Opened the top to pour extra sugar in at least 2X per month. Used vivaldi type board where you can see fondant/patties but #8 hardware cloth keeps them from flying out. Also sprayed water liberally on sugar cakes from December on. Sugar can dry out and water helps them metabolize it. Being able to assess food stores without digging down was very helpful.
    I'm smart but at the end of the day I'm still the help.

  16. #15
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    It takes over two million hives from all over the country to pollinate almonds every year in California.
    The bloom is typically around the 10th of February.
    Every single one of those hives have their lids popped, sometimes multiple times during late December and January.
    What "should' be done and what "can" be done sometimes differ.
    I have exactly ONE more hive than you.
    That makes my opinion beyond dispute!

  17. #16
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Ahh yes, the old "depends" discussion ... Obviously, the timing of beekeeping manipulations depends a great deal on where you live. As the OP is from Newfoundland, I'd advise against doing it like they do in Cali. One might wait for a Northern Vermonter, or some such...
    After 40 years of beekeeping, I've come to realize that the bees can fix most of my mistakes.

  18. #17
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Quote Originally Posted by Colobee View Post
    Ahh yes, the old "depends" discussion ... Obviously, the timing of beekeeping manipulations depends a great deal on where you live. As the OP is from Newfoundland, I'd advise against doing it like they do in Cali. One might wait for a Northern Vermonter, or some such...
    I'm not northern Vermont only SE Michigan, but I hadn't been able to do a proper full inspection until last weekend when we had a freak warm up to about 65 and sunny with little wind. Other than that the weather has been poor, but occasional warm breaks have allowed the bees to get a lot done. If I had not been worried to make sure they had feeders installed and had plenty of room to avoid swarming, I'd probably still be waiting. On the other hand, seems like some of our more southern friends are already making splits! Local condition indeed
    USDA 6a, 8 frame equipment

  19. #18
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Quote Originally Posted by Colobee View Post
    Ahh yes, the old "depends" discussion ... Obviously, the timing of beekeeping manipulations depends a great deal on where you live. As the OP is from Newfoundland, I'd advise against doing it like they do in Cali. One might wait for a Northern Vermonter, or some such...
    Not sure if you were replying to my comments...
    ALL hives sent to almond pollination from ALL states have lids popped PRIOR to the long, expensive trip to California.
    Almonds are in California.
    Hive grading happens PRIOR to shipment.
    This means in December and January in the beekeepers home state.
    I have exactly ONE more hive than you.
    That makes my opinion beyond dispute!

  20. #19
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Quote Originally Posted by HarryVanderpool View Post
    Not sure if you were replying to my comments...
    ALL hives sent to almond pollination from ALL states have lids popped PRIOR to the long, expensive trip to California.
    Almonds are in California.
    Hive grading happens PRIOR to shipment.
    This means in December and January in the beekeepers home state.
    This 60 degree minimum temperature recommendation to open hives is simply bad advice. But
    the reality is, those hives you are referring to from the northern states by and large are moved to warm weather locations before Thanksgiving and worked there for 3 months before grading and the trip to Almonds in February.

  21. #20
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    Default Re: Caution about opening hives in winter?

    Can a hive be opened in cold temps? For sure. Would I do it under normal circumstances? No. I keep bees primarily for Honey, in Colorado, at an elevation of about 7,000'. A deep dive into a hive, here, in March or April (or earlier) is likely a death sentence if it isn't sunny, calm, & 50+*. A quick peek is likely no problem if it's warm, sunny & upper 30's.

    The critical point here seems to be "what are your intentions?". Are you just doing a quick inspection, or are you dismantling the hive? Are you keeping bees for honey in Newfoundland, or pollination in Cali?

    So, as always, likely the best answer is "it depends..."
    Last edited by Colobee; 04-14-2020 at 11:34 AM.
    After 40 years of beekeeping, I've come to realize that the bees can fix most of my mistakes.

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