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Winter loss - help please

I have two hives in central Wisconsin. Both hives were strong at the end of November. Each hive has a lower brood box and upper food box full of honey stores.

I checked the hives at the end of January and both hives were active. My observation was limited to removing the top cover only; leaving the insulated inner cover. Bees were observed exiting the hive through the inner cover. Both hives were heavy with honey.

I checked the hives two weeks later. One hive lacked any activity (no bees on the inner cover) while the other hive was extremely active. I did not examine the inactive hive any further for fear of exposing any bees that might be alive in the brood box to cold tempratures.

I checked the hives three weeks later. I removed the inner cover from the inactive hive and examined several of the frames. There was a small ball of dead bees within the frames. I scraped 30-50 dead bees from the bottom board. There was not a large quantity of dead bees in the hive. There was still honey in the frames.

The other hive remains extremely active and living off food stores. I removed 100-150 dead bees from the bottom board (considerably more than the inactive hive).

What happened to the inactive hive? Did the queen die and the colony slowly die off? Was it to late in the winter for the colony to make a new queen? To what extent should I examine my hives prior to wintering? Should I "dig" into the brood box to make sure the queen is alive? Should I be concerned about "ruining" any of the brood or foundation when I do the "diggig" or is this a necessary evil?
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