For the beekeeper, winter is filled with anxiety. Did I do everything I could to help them be ready for winter? Were the mites and other pests under control? Did we secure the hive well enough to protect from predators and cold? Do the bees have enough resources to make it through until the spring blooms?

Often the answer to one or more of these questions is NO…something has happened and the hive died out. We have many friends in our bee community who will mourn that loss and try fresh in the spring, undeterred. Others have (frankly) by luck made it to the end of January with some sort of bee population.

Let me recap where we left the sister hives in the fall. We had 3 STRONG hives, but one with NO queen. As a matter of fact, that hive hadn’t had a queen for a few months and we just could not get them to requeen. We made the decision to take the bees from that hive and add half to each of the other two hives as well as half of their resources to add to the winter stores for the colonies. Winter preparations entail making sure the lids are secure, screen excluders at the entrance and gauge how much food they had so we could ‘guess’ when they may need more resources. We also gave them a brick of sugar cake to get them started – hopefully preserve the ‘good stuff’ for later.

It is hard to resist opening the hive to check on them. When you are used to checking the hive every other week in the summer and now have to WAIT to see what is happening, it can be SOOOOO tempting to peak. The harm with that is the cold. Inside the hive, the bees should be clustered around the queen creating a warm environment and anytime a beekeeper opens that lid, it had better be well thought out, necessary, and preferably on a warmer day.

Some things that can be done without opening the hive is to remove the screen entrance covers and clean out the dead bees that pile up at the entrance – not everyone survives. Sometimes when you do this, you may hear the vibrating buzz of the residents inside or even a scout venturing out to see what you are doing – good signs! You may have a suspicion that you need to add sugar to the hive so you can quick pop up the top and add that – you may get lucky and see bees feeding under the outer cover or see the cluster in the center hole of the inner cover. It is like the paparazzi catching a glimpse of a movie star!

But we have some AWESOME friends in our bee community and were lucky to convince one that has a FLIR thermal imaging camera to come out to the Whiting Forest Hives and scan for signs of life! (in fairness, he came twice because the photos didn’t save the first time)

You may see these types of images online and wonder – ‘how did they do that?’  I had no idea how simple it was. First, the FLIR cameras are typically used to detect thermal leaks from buildings and construction projects – handy.

We decided to scan both hives to see if we had any bees left. Upon approaching the hives, we had one with some dead bees outside – not a bad sign, means they were recently alive and have been taking cleansing flights (we all have to pee sometime). The other hive did NOT have dead bees outside…not a terrible sign, but we decided to start by scanning that hive first.

First hive: Elly cleaned the entrance and then our friend did his magic! As you can see from the photo, the center and upper boxes show up reddish-orange, meaning it is hotter than the lower areas of the hive. That means that the cluster of bees is in that section of the hive. The thought is that they use the food in the bottom box first and work their way up so they may be about halfway through their supplies. Such great news. We then quickly opened the top to see if they needed more sugar added and take a QUICK peak. Saw lots of dead bees, but some slow movement further down inside.

Such exciting news…we prepared ourselves for disappointment at the next hive – always better to be pleasantly surprised.

Second hive: Again, Elly cleaned out the entrance (and we scanned her too for fun) – sorry no photo. 

Once she stepped away from the hive, scanning commenced and this time almost the WHOLE hive was red…can that be right?? That would mean that we have enough bees left inside to have a cluster in all 3 boxes. Seems highly unlikely. So, after scanning and rescanning, we decided to open the lid.

We were not prepared for what we found! The inner cover was ‘bubbling’ with bees. A few flew out, we quickly popped the top back on so as not to chill them, but mostly because none of us was wearing a veil. Surprise and elation! Elly quickly stuck some sugar cakes inside and we were set to let them BEE for now.

This thermal imaging was so much fun I tried one more picture. This day was really warm and the bees started flying. I took this final shot of a live bee sitting on the snow. In the image, the snow is dark blue, the red and yellow object is a rhododendron and the bee is the bright white dot (middle of the lower 1/3 of the photo).