A series of beekeepers’ “best guesses”
It’s a fact
Yes, it’s a fact. Honey bees are perfectly capable of managing themselves. Yet here I am — offering advice to both new and experienced beekeepers on typical colony fall management protocols. Left to their decisions, honey bees would swarm more often, select much smaller nest domiciles and maintain smaller populations. Natural bee nests would produce much less honey and not be malleable to pollinate designated crops that we deem important. Colonies would also die more often. “Oh, my heavens!” We don’t want that … so we “manage” bee colonies. I don’t think we manage our colonies so much as we cajole them. Yes, we persuade, wheedle, entice, sweet-talk — we do whatever possible to direct bees’ behavior our way.
Management recommendations are historical “best guesses” that have generally been successful in our managerial past. Beekeepers, for your colony to survive the upcoming winter, it must: (1) have a functional queen, (2) have sufficient food reserves, (3) be protected from the elements, and (4) have a reasonably healthy worker bee population. Everything else is guesses and details. I offer comments on the most common guesses and details below.
The autumn food flow (pollen and nectar)
The fall nectar flow is the last chance the bees have to get the resources they need for the winter. Most beekeepers want to keep the spring crop separated from the fall crop. Though nothing is wrong with it nutritionally and honey bees readily consume it, fall honey is darker and stronger flavored. Spring honey is usually typically preferred by honey customers.
Managing bees for a fall crop is much like the management recommendation for a spring crop. Get the supers on before the flow and keep them coming as long as the bees need the storage space. One change that should be considered is to remove most, if not all, the supers just before the fall flow is over. You want the bees to really pack out the brood body (or bodies) with ripened honey. That will be your bees’ rations for the upcoming winter. Supplemental feeding may be necessary to get the colonies up to the desired gross weight.
Your honey vs. the bees’ honey
The fading days of summer are the last times to “rob” your bees. Removing surplus honey is the procedure beekeepers go through each year when they estimate how much honey to take and how much to leave. Only experience can tell you how to deal with this situation. Take too much and your bees starve during the winter. Leave too much, and you’ve lost part of your crop. Always err on the side of leaving too much.
So, what are the best average numbers we have? In most areas a colony probably needs about 60-70 pounds of honey during most winters — no guarantees. An average two-story colony should weigh about 165-200 pounds. Some years this is too much while other years, the colonies may be left scant by spring.1
Harass varroa mites
After removing the crop and while the colony is open, it’s a good time to treat for varroa mite infestations (if you are practicing fall varroa mite control). Varroa mite populations need to be managed just as much as honey bee populations. It is important to do something either in the early spring or during late summer/early fall to control varroa. Over time, with some successes and failures, you will acquire a feel for how well your specific suppression program is working.
An Apicultural Aside …
Controlling varroa mites in my personal bee colonies is one of the most frustrating and indecisive tasks that I undertake each season. Each of you — and your bees — are different. Offering global management advice in an article is difficult and subjective. Even so, at some point in this ABJ series, I will offer my stab at varroa control suggestions, but at this point, I will stay safely vague in my comments. If you need help now, one of the premier sources of varroa information is presented in “Tools for Varroa Management — A Guide to effective varroa sampling and control.”2 Sometime next year, I will discuss this topic, varroa control, in more detail.
Upcoming winter preparations
Once the fall flow is over, timely beekeeping practices become important. But what is timely? When is the actual critical time to begin preparing colonies for winter? Surprisingly, there are no absolute deadlines. Many hard-core wintering procedures can be done in August or September anywhere in the United States without ill consequences. Many times, bee colonies can survive quite well with no help at all from beekeepers, but that’s simply leaving too much to good luck. In warm climates, you can implement winter preparations in October or even early November. In cool climates, begin winter preparations in September or early October.
Late summer/early autumn is a good time to standardize and organize a yard. Get your colonies off the ground, and fix gates or fences that surround the colonies. Cut back over-hanging limbs, and straighten up colonies that are out of plumb, making sure the back is just a bit higher than the front. It’s so much easier to do these maintenance-type things before the weather gets cold.
So long as you are tidying things up in the yard, how’s the paint on the hives? Use latex paint and don’t put it on when it’s below 40°F outside. Painting does not just keep colonies neat, but it also protects the wood from water penetration. The labor and expense of painting hive equipment is generally worth the effort. (But still, I rarely do this task. I should.)
Insulate colonies — if you do that kind of thing …
If hives are to be packed (insulated), you can get on with that at this time, too. Most beekeepers don’t pack their colonies, but much like using queen excluders, it’s still an accepted — but contested — practice. In years past, hives in cool or cold climates were packed and wintered outside, or they were put into cellars (cellaring) built for that purpose. Then and today, the cellars had to stay around 40-50°F and have provisions for significant air movement.
It seems that cellaring bees was too much work with erratic results, so it is uncommon now. However, there are always those who want to try “winter packing” hives. Winter wrapping devices can be purchased from bee supply companies, or you can wrap your hives in black roofing felt. The black felt absorbs heat and keeps cold air out of cracks and crevices in the hive walls. Don’t use spun insulation — it absorbs water and becomes soggy. I’ll bet you (with no supporting science — so yes, I’m guessing) that a piece of Styrofoam beneath the bottom board and beneath the outer cover would help the bees a bit, too. But then I would need to watch for moisture accumulation at the top. Ventilation becomes important. There’s always something.
Even if no insulation is used, warm air rising off the cluster has more water vapor than can be held as the air cools. It condenses within the hive. Though I have previously recommended the reduction of the bottom entrance, now I am suggesting an alternate top entrance — probably about a quarter to three-eighths of an inch beneath the inner cover. Two winter-season things happen at this point: (1) air can circulate (and escape) thereby stopping condensation from forming within the hive; and (2) the bees are given an upper entrance if snow or ice should block the bottom one.
An Apicultural Aside …
It’s just me, but year-round, when my colonies get taller than two deeps and a super, I provide an upper entrance — somewhere. I conjecture that the bees use the high entrance (opening) more for ventilation than for exiting and returning with pollen and nectar. I began using this technique when I was beekeeping in the hot south. It was — and is — a general recommendation there. I have just continued the procedure here in northeast Ohio. In general, the bees seem to select a lower main entrance, but they will use other openings for ventilation and cooling.
The inner cover — flip and flop
The inner cover should be turned over so that the deep side is down, but don’t do this until the fall flow is over. The deep side of the inner cover gives the bees more space to cluster over the frame top bars and thereby …