Stayin’ Alive by The Bee Genes

160207 TBH AliveMuch to my darling wife’s dismay, there is always something to worry about for a first year beekeeper. The latest fear is whether my top bar hive still had live bees inside. It’s been rather cold lately and there has not been a lot of activity in the apiary. My top bar hive has an observation window, and while I try not to peek inside too often, I have not seen any bees in the window since our snowstorm a couple weeks ago.

I was less worried about my two Langstroth hives, as there is a temperature sensor inside these boxes. Despite morning temps well below freezing, the top of these hives have been hovering in the mid-40’s F (around 7 C). I assume the cluster is below this and the bees are staying nice and warm.

The top bar hive, or TBH, had no such sensor. So, I worried. Like all good worries, there was some rationale behind by fear:

  • The hive stores going into winter were a little light, I estimated around 40 pounds of honey.
  • These are Italian bees, known for raising bees throughout the winter. Indeed, when the Russian bees in my two Langs had no brood last October, this hive had a few frames with larva and capped brood. Raising bees requires higher temperatures and more energy. More energy means the bees use up honey stores more quickly.
  • During our recent snowstorm we had some very high winds. I managed to insulate my two Langs, but the TBH is only insulated on top. Wind causes cold, especially through uninsulated 3/4 inch plywood. Then there are the cracks and crevices associated with an observation window. So again, the bees would have to use more energy to keep warm.
  • After our very cold snowstorm, hundreds of dead bees appeared in the snow outside this hive. Much more, to my eye, than the number that showed up outside our  two Langstroth hives. Couple this with the lack of bees in the window….
  • I never sealed up this hive as well as I could have. The bees propolized two of the entrances, then opened up small holes during our warm December weather. The follower board only fits in the middle of the hive. I could have taped over the extra entrance holes or removed some of the empty combs to insert the follower board and reduced the amount of space for the bees.

See, I had plenty to worry about!

Today saw a high around 45 F, and this looks to be our warmest day over the next two weeks. If the hive was dead, I wanted to know about it; and if they were still alive, perhaps there was something I could do to help them along until spring arrives in the next month or so.

Fearing the worst, I started with our two Langstroth hives, Mars and Jupiter. I peeked under the inner cover, and both have plenty of stores available. I could hear the bees buzzing below. So these hives, at least, look like they will carry through the end of the month and into spring.

With that good news in hand, I opened up the TBH, which we call Venus. One drawback of top bar hives is that you cannot simply peek into the top of the hive. I had to remove top bars from the back until I hopefully encountered some bees.

After a couple empty combs, I encountered two full bars of honey. So if they were gone, it was not from lack of stores.

Continuing on, I found a couple bees buzzing on a frame. After that frame, joy of joys, the beginning of the cluster against the side of the hive. Venus is still alive, just waiting for the warm weather, and has plenty of honey available. The bees are huddled away from the observation window, as I suspect this side may be colder and more susceptible to the wind.

If you look again at the image for this post, you can see where I slapped some duct tape over the two lesser-used entrance holes (and yes, I put tape on the back so the bees won’t stick). The cluster is beneath the frame shown here, on the left side of the hive in the picture (but inside, of course).

I also taped over the sides of the top bars, and inserted the follower board. The top bars have a 3/8 inch kerf (center cut) down the middle where a wooden guide is placed. I assume the bees plugged up these holes, but technically these could create additional drafts inside the hive.

For the follower board I removed the comb shown in the image to allow the board to fit in the hive. It’s just a piece of wood and not insulated, but it does reduce the area the bees must keep warm a little bit. Hopefully it will help me worry less as well.


For today’s title, I searched the internet for “the bees are alive” and the most interesting entry was the youtube video of the 1977 Bee Gees song Stayin’ Alive. This song was the second single released for the movie Saturday Night Live.

The bees are singing this song in their own way while they wait for spring to arrive, so it seems appropriate.

10 thoughts on “Stayin’ Alive by The Bee Genes

  1. Jan Brown says:

    Hey there……glad to hear they’re  stayin’ alive !!     Good goin’, son !!   Here’s to Spring comin’ soon . Cheers,    ma and pa


  2. I worry about the cold too, but reassure myself that cold is rarely the cause of a colony dying. You should find Rusty’s recent Honey Bee Suite comforting: – “In chapter 21 of The Hive and the Honey Bee, Currie, Spivak, and Reuter report that a cluster of 16,000 bees can survive -112°F (-80°C) for 12 hours. That is an amazing feat, but to succeed at those temperatures, the cluster must be dry and free of drafts.”

    We have a storm passing over here at the moment, so are surrounded by howling wind and rain. Really hope our poor bees can escape the wind!


    • Yes, I saw Rusty’s post, thank you. I was careful to worry about running out of food and a drafty hive rather than the cold. That way my concern was well founded in scientific principles. I was surprised to find so much honey left in the top bar hive, and to find them huddled against one side of the hive (presumably the warmer side). Unless something else happens I think all three hives will make it into spring at this point. Yay!

      I saw the news on Storm Imogen, and hope you and the bees are dry and draft-free. Hopefully you aren’t in one of the areas that has lost power.


      • Fingers crossed, all that honey will help your top bar hive bees make it through.

        We have been lucky here in London and avoided the flooding and power losses that have happened during the storms further north.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The understated opening line of this post cracked me up — “Much to my darling wife’s dismay, there is always something to worry about for a first year beekeeper.” LOL! I drove my family bonkers my first year. Next year will be much, much better. 😉

    Congrats on your 3 live colonies!

    I wouldn’t worry too much about your TBHs not being insulated on the sides, etc. This year, as an experiment, I left one hive with no insulation along the sides (just top insulation and straw behind the divider board). It wasn’t even a particularly strong hive going into winter, but it’s doing beautifully.

    My personal observation has been that bees are extremely good at staying warm. My first year, I had bees clustered on the underside of a 1/2″ sheet of styrofoam with no other protection in freezing temps for about 10-12 hours two successive nights (long story). After housing them in a nuc, they did eventually die. However, that was 3 months later — and cold was not the killer. They succumbed to a mixture of condensation and starvation, which might have been avoided if I’d kept the tops of the bars really warm and figured out a better way to feed them.

    Hang on! Spring is nearly here!


    • My darling wife enjoyed that line as well. She said perhaps I should just start referring to her as DW…. Laughed out loud at your line about next year being much better. We’ll have to see.

      I know all the theory, its the practice that gets me down. My real worry was that the TBH might have run out of food raising brood and dealing with drafts. After a few months of spring-like winter, I found the actual winter much more disconcerting. Didn’t realize how much I relied on seeing the bees in 50 and 60 degree weather every few days, so that when winter finally set in I wasn’t mentally ready for it. Now I know better and might never worry again. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment.


  4. We do not know quite how to break the news gently but the worry does not stop with the first year. Each year brings novel potential for trouble requiring intervention except that intervention has the potential of making things worse. All we can do is monitor the bees closely except that too frequent inspection upsets them. Perhaps it is best to leave them alone except then we are blindsided by serious problems that could have been avoided with earlier warning. With beekeeping lore so full of contradictory dicta what can beekeepers do for certain except worry?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, you know that, and I know that, but the darling wife may not yet…. Hopefully the worry changes somewhat at least. As my first winter I really wasn’t sure what qualified as “enough” stores. So next winter I hope to find new and better things to worry about. Lots of rain and cold, but i know spring is coming.

      As a friend of mine used to say: Don’t tell me not to worry, the things I worry about never happen. So perhaps we worry to ensure they won’t happen?

      Thanks for the fun comment.


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