Checking on Bees During the Winter

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Here in Alaska, overwintering bees can be a challenge. Checking on bees during the winter gives us an idea about how they’re doing. There’s not much to it but what we do is important.

nighttime with red light, beekeeper entering small building

Because we live in the interior of Alaska, overwintering honeybees can be very difficult. Extreme temperatures, several feet of snow, ice, wind, and darkness are just some of the environmental factors that we deal with for over six months out of the year. Our honeybees need protection from these elements.

We carefully prepare them for winter during the fall and get their area ready for overwintering. But what do we do during the months that they’re tucked away until we bring them back out in the spring?

The answer is…not much. However, we do keep an eye on them to help us gauge how they are doing. Here are the tools we use and what we do from about October through April while overwintering our bees.

Tools for Checking on Bees During the Winter

We have a few tools that help us keep track of our bee’s well-being during the long winter months. We’re not completing typical hive checks like those in the spring and summer. We’re simply trying to monitor the bees as best as we can while they’re dormant.

Wireless Thermometer-We have a wireless thermometer (we like the Govee) for each hive. Each hive has a number and we write the corresponding number on each thermometer.

Hand holding two small electronic temperature pucks

They’re small enough that they can just sit right on the candy board, which sits on top of the single hive box that the bees are in. The lid goes on top of the candy board. Now each hive has it’s own wireless theremometer.

Temperature puck sitting in bee feeder

Thanks to an app that comes with the thermometers, each hive is linked by number. So all we have to do is pull up the app on our phone and we can instantly see the temperature of each hive!

The thermometers also tell us the humidity of each hive. We can look back by weeks and months as well to get an overall picture of each hive’s health and activity. It’s really interesting to see their patterns.

This will also alert us if a hive is either dead or too active. For example, dormant colonies will still maintain a temperature in the 40’s. Yes, they’re very good at keeping themselves warm! However, if a colony’s thermometer is registering below 40 degrees, something could be wrong and we need to go take a peek inside the lid to see if they’re alright.

On the other hand, if a colony has a temperature that really high, 50’s or 60’s, that means that they’re active. We don’t want this in the dead of winter. The colonies should be dormant until closer to spring. If they’re active, that means they’ll need to do cleaning flights which they can’t during the dead of winter. They’ll also eat through their candy board and food stores.

Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done in either situation. Sometimes a colony just won’t make it during the long winter for a number of reasons. Sometimes, there are so many bees they eat through their food stores. We keep extra candy boards in case we need to replace any before spring. Either way, it’s just nice to at least have an idea of what’s going on in each of the hives and using wireless thermometers helps us to do that.

Cell phone screens showing temperature readings of beehives

Red Light-Bees see red as black. Because you don’t want to shine any white light on the bees, which would cause them to become active, you only want to use a red light. This way, they won’t see it at all and it will still be completely dark to them.

We have a headlamp that has a red light setting. This is very handy as I don’t have to hold it while I’m going in and out of the bee’s shelter. If you are able to have a red lightbulb in the area where your bees are kept, even better.

Beekeeper entering shed at night with red lamp

How to Check on Bees During the Winter

It’s important to only check on the bees during nighttime. You don’t want any light getting to them when you open the door of whatever shelter you are keeping them in. You can read all about the shelter where we overwinter our bees in this post.

We have carefully sealed it so that no light comes in at all. The light would cause the bees to become active and we do not want that. So we only open the door when it’s dark out and use nothing but our red light to look around.

Unfortunately, you will see many dead bees on the ground that the other bees have cleaned out of the hive. This is normal and shouldn’t alarm you. You should hear a very dull hum of the bees but you really shouldn’t see any outside of the hives crawling or flying around.

Two beehives in dark shed during winter

As a note, either take your phone or a partner with you when checking on the bees. You will want to quickly go inside and close the door behind you. Keeping it open while you observe the bees will let in too much cold air. Having someone with you to hold the door closed while you check and then reopen it for you when you’re ready to come out is very helpful.

We also have a rope on the inside of our bee’s shed that can be pulled to undo the latch that’s on the outside. However, it has failed in the past and my husband was thankful to have his phone to call me so I could open the door for him while he sat inside with the bees for a while!

We have a small space heater in the bee’s shed. It is connected to a thermostat and only turns on when the temperature goes below 40 degrees. This is rare as the bees actually keep it quite warm in their hives and the shed. It usually sits in the low 40’s.

Small portable heater with beehives

The digital thermometer hangs on the wall so we can easily read it if we just want to pop in for a quick check. It tells us that the temperature isn’t too hot or too cold and that everything’s working. A quick look around will show us that the cords are still plugged in and everything is still set the way we had it.

We have intake and exhaust fans (details here) that cool down the shed if it gets too warm and circulates the air for the bees.

Digital temperature gauge  in shed

As for checking on the bees, this is not the time to do a typical hive check. The best thing to do is just let them be! Spending a few minutes in there with them and making sure everything is working properly is good enough.

Every two weeks or so, we will carefully lift a corner of each lid just to peek inside and see if there’s any activity with the bees. We don’t want to disturb them so resist the urge to lift the lid off to get a better look!

A beehive in the dark during winter

Overwintering bees in Alaska, or any cold climate, has its challenges. It’s hard to go so many months anxiously waiting to see if the bees will survive until spring. Although we wish we could do more, checking on bees during the winter takes very little time but at least allows us to make sure they’re doing alright.

More Information About Overwintering Bees

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  1. Hello, I use to live in and still own property in Delta Junction and also Salcha. I was there for thirty year farming the last twenty years in Delta. As a disabled Army veteran I immediately thought about your husband who I would like to say “thanks for his service and your support to him as a military spouse”. Have you and your husband taken or heard of the the free Hero’s to Hive online course developed by Michigan State University. Not knowing anything about honey bees I took the course about a year ago and what a great opportunity it was to learn how to keep and manage honey bees. I am currently enrolled in the Apprentice Beekeeping online course presented by the University of Montana in order to expand my knowledge and training about honey bees and how I came to learn about your post after it was mentioned in a post recently. If you have not I would highly recommend you folks consider taking the Hero’s to Hives course which is currently open for enrollment until the end of February and is only available to military veterans and their family members.
    I will readily admit (from knowing numerous beekeeper there) you are the exception and not the “norm” concerning raising and over wintering honey bees in Alaska. I’m sure the Hero’s to Hive online course will help you in your future endeavors managing and keeping honey bee if you decide to take the course in the future. Best of luck to you and your family there in Alaska and thanks for sharing your experience of keeping and over wintering honey bees in Alaska in your blog.

  2. Hello! Thank you so much for letting me know! I have heard of that program but we haven’t looked into it yet so I appreciate the link and information. I think we should definitely take it to expand our knowledge as well, there’s always something new to learn! Thank you again, I really appreciate your comment!

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