Don't let them die, friend. That hive is a survivor!
Can you only imagine what hardship and terrible cold they went through, just to make it this far?
It would be barbaric and inhumane to let them go!
They deserve a little TLC and they will repay you in the coming year a thousand fold - if not with honey, but perhaps with pride and a feeling of "done good!?"
I had exactly the same thing happen to me, last year and in many a year long past. That hive did not even once come out for a cleansing flight. (Judging by clear snow in front of it)
When it got a bit warmer, I opened them up and was about to sweep them in the snow, (an old habit still in me, that I forget, from the times when I run a commercial autfit and there time was money) when I noticed a small queen that was only slightly moving. She was not bigger than an average bee and a "younger" beek would surely missed her?
(here I almost forgot my golden rule, learned over the 55 years with bees, that bees are never dead until it is warm in the seventies, sun is shining and every other hive is flying well.)
Only then is the time when dead outs are examined and if bees are paper dry and crumbling, or mildewy and smelly, that is the time to sweep them off.
So, I stuck the two frames with few dozen, a meagre handful of bees and small queen to the sunny side of the box. I opened a strong colony and took from there one frame of bees, with some honey, polen and luckily, some covered brood. (they just started to lay in our cold parts)
I scratched the caped honey with a twig and made sure that the queen was absent from that robed frame. I put everything back together, covered the inner-cover with a piece of homasote, put on 2" thick Styrofoam and on top of this, the telescopic cover with a 2'X4' piece of 1/4" ply, over telescopic cover, to keep snow and rain away from the hive.
(Hive was of course wrapped with black roofing paper to give them that all important "heat gain" on sunny days!) That helps them immensely in towards spring, when brood is present and expanding, but temperatures still fall sharply in the wintry nights. . .
Two weeks after I opened them again and to my delight, the queen was now of normal size, cause it started laying and they had a small patch of own brood. I gave them one more frame of covered brood from another hive and that was all the help that they needed. Except when it was plenty warm, I moved honey stores from the sides of the box and moved them close to the frames with bees.
When brooding starts, one has to be vigilant, cause stores dry up amazingly fast and often one has to help with emergency feed or colony will starve to death!
Last year, that was my best hive!
They seem to know that they were down and out, but they refused to die, for some unknown reason? I firmly believe that our sweet bees are much like we are. Some easily give up, regardless how well they are to do and the slightest variation in personal comfort shuts off that invisible switch and the end thus comes . . . Strongest hives far too often give up and die die!
Others, weak and sickly, to no fault of their own, they tread on. They battle the insurmountable odds. They endure the unspeakable hardship of hunger and intestinal discomfort, cause small numbers don't allow the luxury of heat generation on demand and a short trip to the outside to take a dump. They suffer for almost 8 months (here in my neck of the woods) they freeze almost to death, coming out of suspended animation just long enough to take a feeble load of food and off they go again, till next time when some bursts of warm sunshine warm their surroundings, just enough to take another sip at the life sawing honey and with perseverance, cooperation from nature, they inch, day by day, closer to spring and warm days. . .
But, perhaps by command from the Higher power, they refuse or are commanded NOT to give up!
But, because we are beekeepers - it is our duty, as keepers, that we realize the fortitude and genetic potential of such a hive and we must give them a hand at their time of greatest need. Such small colony is often at the crossroads, where they are too few in numbers to gather polen and nectar, plus at the same time raise their numbers to attain so much needed strength.
And don't give up men because it is cold? Your cold is not the same cold that we get here? In your kind of cold we wear shorts... (just kidding, but it is closer to truth that one might think!)
Help them we must!
I just checked mine last Saturday, they are all in the wilderness of Northern Ontario, miles from anybody. They all survived our terrible cold in January. (56 C below - twice!) But we are not out of the woods yet? Although I feel that Spring will arrive early this year?
It was one degree on the sun and the bees from that survivor hive, came out through the top entrance, to greet me... As I shoveled around my summer house and inspected for winter damage, the bees followed me around and even took a brake on my hands, a few times, to warm up. But too many ended up in the snow and I had to hurry to get out of there and leave them alone in peace.
Bees need absolute peace in time of winter. That is absolutely essential for successful overwintering. They are supper sensitive to vibrations and they will brake the cluster to investigate. Only those in deeper sleep, suspended animation, may be oblivious to such disturbances. But, such colony far too often ends up in the snow, when beeks mistakenly take them for dead and clean them out.
I will repeat again: The colony is not dead until it is at least 70 degrees out there and bees are flying in force.
Only last week I got a bunch of mail when people from diferent parts of our world told me that the hives look dead when it was in the sixties and all others were flying?! Next day, the temperature went into the seventies and the hives came to life and were going gang busters. . .
Some do sleep deeper and it takes longer for them to warm up and get around - so be patient, friends. . .
So, give them a chance and if they make it - that will be the hive from which to expand, cause they are locally attuned bees and survivors to boot. That would be a hive from whic a prudent beek would do well to raise a queen or two to propagate the important survivor genes. . ?
(I will this year divide that colony and raise some queens. Such bees are irreplaceable. . .