Every year, someone in Minnesota says, "Winter is going to be terrible this year." Then, everyone else says, "I heard winter is going to be terrible this year." We do have our quirks. For example, the forecasted high temps for the next three days are 8, 15, and 37 (Fahrenheit). Of course, it has been wintry, as every year is here, but it has turned out to be a pretty mild winter so far in our area.
In the winter, we don't normally open the hive unless we really need to. The cold temperatures can be stressful or even detrimental to the colony. To find out if they are alive and about how high up they have traveled in the hive (and possibly into their honey/food stores), we use this method:
We did listen when we checked on the hive this last weekend, but we didn't hear anything. Normally there is a constant humming sound inside, like someone left the fan on (with an extra bzzz! here and there).
After not hearing the hive, Mr. Bee opened the hive lid to check the condensation inside. We have a super stacked full of insulation and carboard and it appears to have been working wonderfully. Not too much moisture was present and one bee flew right up out of the upper entrance. After that, we quickly put things back together and checked the bottom of the hive.
Mr. Bee has come up with a very neat way of leaving a door at the bottom of the hive that we can open to scrape out dead bees. We do this to help reduce moisture/mold, to save the bees the work of taking them out, and to make sure there is an opening for when bees do need to come and go. He opened that door and we found something unexpected: a lot of dead bees. It is hard to communicate size in the photo belown but you can see maybe a children's soccer ball -worth of bees that he removed.
It is normal for a colony to lose many bees over the winter, but we thought this was a very large amount. In the end, we took it as a bad sign. It is hard to tell what is going on or if there remains a live colony inside. It is too cold to simply check, but we did see two live bees. We doubt starvation because bees are generally up in the comb of the upper frames in that case. The dead bees were not cold, mushy, or moldy, so this might have happened very near the time we inspected. There was no evidence of nosema, that in my understanding is like a bee version of dysentery. There are no obvious signs of mites. Perhaps the entrance was blocked and bees could not get out. Regardless, there is likely something inside that will explain what we found, but we will have to wait until the weather warms up to see what it is.
Often, as beekeepers, we are reminded that bees are not domesticated. They are wild and they are not always predictable. We are constantly learning and re-learning how to read their behavior and signs to know how to help them survive. It was disappointing for all of us to find this and the chance that the colony has survived is small, but finding the bees in this state helps us better plan for next year.
When we can open the hive, we will know more and I will have an update. Winter, whether mild or fierce, can be so difficult, but we look forward to spring with optimism and thankfulness and we always appreciate the chance to be outdoors, be together, and beekeep.