Winter Housecleaning

On the farm in southwest Washington where we and our bees live, we just had the coldest temperatures in 40 years. Single digits. Our normal is wet and gray and I can keep a cool weather kitchen garden going all winter. We’ve lived here for 12 years, only had snow three times. This cold spell was a frosty deep freeze that stayed nearly a week.

Today the weather turned the corner. The fields lifted into fog as everything melted into a warmer day.

I had a look at the hives and saw not one bee, as I expected. I found a few dead bees scattered outside the front entrance, a good sign because it means someone inside did a little house cleaning before the freeze. In the still cold air I put my ear up to the hive side, careful not to knock the hive which would disturb the hive. I held my breath and listened to each hive. Thankfully every hive hummed an answer to my ear’s question, though much quieter than usual.

There’s not much beekeeping to do in the cold of winter but there are a few things to keep in mind. In cold freezes I watch that the doorway doesn’t get plugged up. During a die-off from cold or hunger, hundreds of dead bees may fall to the hive floor. Some die-off is normal, even a hundred bees a day can happen from natural attrition. Normally the housekeeping bees will come down and clean the mess up, dragging dead bees outside and if it’s warm enough they’ll pick them up and fly off, dropping them a ways from the hive so the cadavers don’t attract pests.

If it’s too cold the housekeeping bees won’t break away from the warm safety of the cluster and go down to clean up. Dead bee bodies may pile up enough that they block the entrance. Given time they may even start to rot. This is bad.

Year round the door must remain open and the size of the entrance will vary according to traffic and weather. In the glory of late spring an entrance is fully open so dozens of bees can enter and leave at will. In winter it’s better to keep the entrance smaller, which can be done by the bees themselves closing it up with propolis, or with an entrance reducer. But this is winter so the entrance will be narrow but always open.

On a sunny winter day, bees come out for defecation flights. If they can’t get out, they poop in the hive and from there it’s a downward spiral to diseases. Additionally they will sometimes make water runs if there isn’t enough moisture in the hive to prevent dehydration. A blocked doorway can kill.

If the entrance is blocked with bee bodies, don’t open the hive. Doing so will break the propolis seal that helps them maintain the inner temperature by sealing all the cracks. If you open it, you could cool it down too much or leave behind drafts that won’t get sealed again until warmer weather. Best way I’ve found to clean the bottom without opening is to use a long feather and sweep the dead bees out through the front door.