Checking for Signs of Life

Winter is the nervous season for beekeepers.  December is the month that I prepare to celebrate Christmas and the month that I begin to obsess about whether our bees are alive or dead.  My anxieties were further fueled this month when another Kentucky beekeeper posted on Facebook that she found one of her colonies had died.  What was happening to our bees?  The bees’ unknown condition continuously stoked my anxiety. 

Click here if you want to read about my bee related anxiety last December.  That post has a great photograph I took of a dead bee.

The big frustration for me is you can’t check your hives in the winter.  Bees cluster around the queen and keep her warm all winter long.  Opening the hive on a cold winter day chills the bees.  Managing bees in the winter is like trying to bake the perfect cake.  You may be tempted to open up the hive (or the oven) to check on their progress, but that can potentially cause harm.  Curious beekeepers need some other way to check on their bees.

Some beekeepers try to build observation windows into their winter hive configurations.  You can purchase infrared cameras and sensors to get a thermal image of your hives.  I would love to have those items, but the purchase of IR equipment doesn’t really fit with my minimalist approach to life or my resistance to the rampant consumerism of Western culture.  I decided to use a stethoscope and was fortunate enough to have a friend that didn’t need one anymore.  (I rarely purchase anything new anymore.  I either look to buy used or see if my friends have “stuff” they no longer need.)

I had to move the stethoscope around the side of the hives for a while before I could hear the bees.  If you are still, you can hear them buzz inside the hive.  The buzzing is faint but definitely audible.  I am happy to report that all five hives I checked were buzzing and showed signs of life.   We still need to check the two hives we maintain at another location, but I am now more encouraged that those results will be good.

People encouraged me to study medicine when I was young because of my love of science.  The fact that I found bodily fluids and bodily functions to be gross is the reason I didn’t follow their advice.  I became a chemist instead.  Maybe they were right all along.  I just needed to be a medical doctor for bees instead of for humans.


Listening for signs of life inside the hive during December.

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