Last week, we talked about the preparations we should be taking as we move towards winter. As fall approaches, we start to see changes in our apiaries. As we approach the Fall Equinox, interesting changes start showing up in our apiaries.
This week, I want to continue our discussion of winter preparations with a few more items, as well as talk about a phenomenon that shows up in late summer/early fall, robbing. But before we do that, let’s check out what happened in Beorn’s Acres this week.
My colonies are all showing signs of winter preparations along with behavioral changes that correspond with fall. Due to rain, I had to delay my inspections until Sunday when I not only performed my inspections but also installed Apivar to treat for Varroa Mites.
Hive Acquitaine – An Elusive Eleanor
My summer has been a very hectic and crazy one. I decided that I needed to inspect all three hives in one day. That was just a bit exhausting and I left Hive Acquitaine to last.
By the time I got to this hive, it was later than I would normally like to be inspecting my hives. So, after looking through both brood boxes, I somehow managed to miss Eleanor entirely. You would think finding a marked queen would be easy. But fatigue, I have learned, makes you much less observant.
Normally, I would be fretting quite a bit. But, I’ve learned that I don’t always have to find my queens if I look for other important signs that all is likely well. As I searched the frames in the two brood boxes, I quickly found eggs. As you know, eggs mean the queen has been present within the last three days. And, if you learn to judge the eggs by their positioning, you can tell how recently she has been there.
When a queen deposits an egg in a cell, she will deposit it in a near vertical orientation. The egg begins to tip to the side over the course of the three days prior to the egg wall dissolving and forming a first instage larvae. Eleanor had been present within the last day because there were a number of eggs at near vertical.
Preparing for Winter Stores
The colony has drawn comb on all of the frames in the two brood boxes. The bees were definitely showing signs of crowding with empty queen cups appearing for the first time in supersedure and swarm position.
Since the bees have exceeded the requirements for adding a box, I decided it was time to go ahead an add the medium box I ordered for this colony. Although it is late, I’m hoping that they will draw comb and fill this box with honey as I feed them sugar water.
During the inspection, I placed two Apivar strips in the bottom brood box and one Apivar strip in the top brood box. The bees had also drained the top hive feeder of the 1:1 sugar water I added last week. So, I refilled the top hive feeder with my first 2:1 sugar syrup of the season.
That should encourage the bees to make winter stores. Everything looks good in this colony even though it started as a split early in the season.
I inspected Hive Acquitaine on Saturday because I was curious about a few items:
- Did I need to make more sugar water to refill the top hive feeder?
- Was the colony drawing comb on the frames in the new medium brood box?
- Was Eleanor alive and well and continuing her production of bees?
I found that one of the two reservoirs in the top hive feeder was completely drained and the other reservoir has only a thin layer of sugar water left. So, the colony needed a refill of its sugar water.
I also found that the workers had been busy starting to draw significant comb on three of the frames in the medium box and small starts of comb on a couple more frames. So, this week I am feeding them 1:1 sugar water to encourage more comb drawing.
In the upper deep box I had done some rebalancing, moving a frame with little comb to the middle of the brood region. The workers obliged my efforts by drawing comb on it. Eleanor obliged the workers by laying eggs throughout that comb.
The good news is that I found her on the next frame looking for open cells in which to lay more eggs. With that relieving observation, I repositioned the Apivar strip on the frame containing the newly drawn comb with new eggs, to encourage more touching of the bees with the treatment strip.
I completed my inspection and closed up the hive.
What a healthy colony!! This colony started the season as my weaker colony. But, the addition of a replacement Carniolan queen created a population explosion that settled this colony as very definitely the strongest colony in my apiary.
Even with its new queen, Hecate’s daughter, Athena, its growth has solidified and continued. The honey super that I had placed weeks ago provided a surprise.
During the last week, they had drawn new comb and started storing sugar syrup based honey. But, all of this wasn’t honey from sugar syrup. In fact, much of the honey added to the super came from my nucleus hive that this colony has been robbing, off and on, for the past two weeks.
Since I knew I was going to treat, and I definitely don’t want sugar syrup honey, I decided to take the super off and put it up in my driveway with a cover and allow all the colonies to rob it, which they did very effectively! The medium super remains filled with honey and just a few of the cells contain drone brood.
Athena’s brood pattern is just as incredibly solid as her mother. But in addition to solid brood patterns, there are quite significant honey stores in the brood boxes. I will need to rebalance in the next week or two.
I found Athena wondering around in the lower brood box with newly laid eggs. Eggs, larvae, and capped brood are present in significant quantities still (winter bees anyone!?!). The amount of brood present required me to place three Apivar strips in this colony as well to treat for Varroa Mites. Once I had everything in place, I placed the top hive feeder and filled it with 2:1 sugar water.
Hive Florence – Winter Stores Galore
Hive Florence is as strong as Hive Olympus and has slightly more honey than Olympus in the medium and brood boxes. The honey super didn’t have much comb or honey so I removed it to join the other super for robbing.
Like Athena, Beatrice II has moved in to the lower brood box and started laying eggs. Does anyone see a pattern developing? I hope you do because it is an important sign.
Beatrice II has outstripped her rival Athena and actually has more brood in place than Athena. In fact, there is so much brood that I had to place four Apivar strips in this colony to cover all the potential areas where Varroa Mites will emerge.
The top hive feeder contained a rather nasty surprise. It was still about 1/3 filled with the sugar syrup and was filled with small hive beetle larvae. There were so many present that I decided to dump the remaining sugar water and clean out the larvae.
Once I had finished that, I refilled the top hive feeder with the 2:1 sugar water. The amount of honey stores in this colony suggest that they may not take much of the sugar water going forward. I’ll be monitoring it to see how they are doing.
Hive Florence might be the first colony to stop taking food again. This colony is super healthy and more than ready for winter.
Nucleus Hive – Dead Queens
During the week, I found out that my local bee shop decided not to order new queens. That was bad news as the robbing attack managed to kill both of the newly emerged queens in this colony. Both of the queens that had emerged were robust and would have made solid additions to the colony.
As I was upset about this nasty surprise, I contacted my bee mentor, who happens to rear queens. He indicated that he would be able to check on Monday of this week and might just have a queen for me.
The good news was that he did indeed have a queen. So I picked her up late Tuesday afternoon and installed her in the nuc. The bees I transferred in with the honey stores and brood frame had assimilated.
Additionally, much of the larvae that were uncapped last week have now been capped, providing a significant boost to the population in the near future. And, the bees, as of this afternoon, have managed to eat about 1/3 of the sugar in the queen’s cage. I noted that they are feeding her.
My mentor said to monitor tomorrow and if they are indeed feeding her it indicates that they have accepted her and I could go ahead and release her.
As Hive Olympus continues to send workers to rob this colony, my bee mentor suggested closing up the lower entrance and opening the upper entrance which is narrower and easier to defend. So, I tried it last night and found that the robbers were indeed massing around the lower entrance this afternoon. But, much to their consternation, they couldn’t get in and seemed oblivious to the upper entrance.
Hopefully a couple of days of this and robbing attempts will be over. I have read that colonies with queens don’t seem to be robbed as much. I’ll be testing that hypothesis over the next few days.
With a queen in place, I have to get the new hive components ready and placed for when this nuc is ready to transition to a deep box. A new hive stand will need to be ordered soon. And, I need to stain the new hive components and get everything ready for the transfer.
I’m hoping I’ll have enough population for when we get to the time to stop intervening to move them into a regular deep box.
Time will tell.
I completed a very quick inspection to check on the newly released queen. She was wandering around on the third frame of the nuc happily looking for a cell in which to lay eggs. I placed an Apivar strip in the colony to treat it for Varroa Mites as well and then quickly closed the colony up.
Since a robbing event was happening again, I completely closed up the colony for the rest of the day and intend on opening it back up on Sunday afternoon. I will be moving the nuc to my front yard garden to see if that will relieve the robbing attempts.
Isn’t the new queen a beauty?
Some Additional Thoughts on Preparing for Winter
On Tuesday evening, our local beekeepers club had its monthly meeting at the agricultural extension office. Sarah McKinney, the owner of one of our local bee shops, was the featured speaker talking about overwintering your bees.
Generally, I was pretty pleased that most everything she suggested I had covered in my blog post. But, there were some other thoughts that she shared that I feel are good things to share with all of you.
Robbing and Hive Behavior Changes
Sarah pointed out that late summer is a period when most honey flows have ended, meaning their is less foraging. Coupled with that, the risk of robbing is at its highest level during. That means we need to be observant when we are working the hives this time of year so we don’t start a robbing attack.
In addition to robbing, Sarah mentioned that our bees can be more challenging to work with during late summer and early fall. She reminded us that, unlike early in the season, they have more to protect. They have hives filled with honey and they are eager to defend it!
This made me think about the behavior of my bees during Sunday’s inspections. They were more aggressive than normal even though they are queenright. They weren’t quite as irritable as they were when they lacked queens but they were a bit more ornery than usual.
Thinking about what Sarah told us, it made sense. Here was the white-clothed human working through their colony and picking up their frames filled with honey. No wonder they were irritable!
I don’t want anyone handling my food either!
Slowing Brood Production
Sarah also noted a few other things we should be looking for during the fall. As we approach the fall equinox, we should start seeing our queens reduce the amount of brood in the colony. They will begin slowing the production of eggs as they prepare to enter the winter cluster.
The colony does not want to enter the winter cluster with large amounts of brood to care for, because they will stay with that brood rather than leave it. There have been reported cases where the bees starve with honey stores just inches away because they stayed with the queen and the brood.
When you see the amount of brood reducing, you’ll know the queens are giving a clear indication to the colony to ready for the winter cluster.
Checking Food Stores
I mentioned the need to check food stores in my blog post last week. But, during her talk, Sarah indicated that she likes to take her colonies into winter with the hives weighing 125 pounds which include the weight of brood, bees, equipment, and winter stores.
She also said that if you do a heft test of your colony and it is light you should start intensive feeding immediately to help them store food for the winter. When we arrive at the fall equinox, the bees will stop raising brood.
Preparing to Feed During the Winter
In our area, we have been used to true winters with cold temperatures and snow. But with the advent of global warming, our winters have become quite a bit milder. So much so, that last year, the bees were out foraging in December.
If you are in an area where your climate patterns are changing and you are no longer getting normal winters, you may want to be prepared to periodically check your hive’s food stores on warm days when the temperature is greater than 60° F. Winter foods can include raw pollen, fondant, raw sugar, pollen patties, or a combination of all of the above.
Fondant is quite useful as a form of condensation protection as you place it in the deep side of the inner cover which you place facing down. It soaks up any condensation making it easily eatable by the bees.
What Does the Beekeeper Do During Winter?
I know that I’m going to miss my ladies during the winter. I’ve gotten used to watching them busily working, hearing their buzzing, and just watching the development of the colony.
So during winter, beekeepers must do other things as they wait for spring. During the winter, beekeepers can be:
- Painting boxes,
- Building equipment for spring,
- Reading books and increasing knowledge about honeybees,
- Reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and
- Determining what you want to learn more about.
Since I joined our local beekeepers club, I have been interested in becoming a certified beekeeper. I have spent a lot of time reading, learning, gaining practical experience, and examining the requirements for certification in North Carolina. So Tuesday night, I took my certification exam to become a certified beekeeper in North Carolina.
In North Carolina, there are multiple levels of certification for beekeepers. In fact, the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association administers the Master Beekeeper Program. Becoming certified requires the beekeeper to join the state organization.
The Master Beekeeper Program of the NCSBA consists of 4 levels:
- Certified Beekeeper Level,
- Journeyman Beekeeper Level,
- Master Beekeeper Level, and
- Master Craftsman Beekeeper Level.
Having passed both the written exam and the practical exam, I have fulfilled the requirements for becoming a certified beekeeper (the program requires at least four months managing hives which I have now fulfilled as well).
I can’t progress to Journeyman until I have two years of beekeeping experience, pass another written and practical exam, and complete five service credits.
Let the work begin!
A Note about Treating for Varroa Mites
A comment came through this week about treating for Varroa Mites to which I feel compelled to respond. I know that there are beekeepers who feel strongly about natural beekeeping. If that is a beekeeper’s choice, I am fine with that beekeeper making that choice. However, that is not my choice, because I agree with our regional bee inspector that we have a responsibility to our fellow beekeepers to keep our mite loads in check.
Again, that is my choice and my belief on the matter. I respect one’s right to believe totally in natural beekeeping but until we truly get solid lines of Varroa resistant bees in all races of bees I believe we owe it to our little charges to give them assist in fighting these scourges of our bees.
Speaking of which, while I was examining my pictures of my new queen, I discovered a bee in the picture with a Varroa Mite hitchhiker on its thorax. Seeing that maroon devil on one of my bees makes my blood boil. But, never fear, I place an Apivar strip in the nuc this weekend and hopefully by now this little hitchhiker has had a good taste of miticide and died.
Also notice on the worker next to that bee that there are uncappings from the robbing on its thorax. Pictures sometimes reveal amazing things in our hives at the most opportune or inopportune of times.
Robbing in the Apiary during the Fall
One of the pernicious problems that a beekeeper may experience is robbing in the apiary. Robbing is a situation in which a hive it attacked by invading bees from other hives. A robbing event is serious for many reasons including:
- A hive defending itself against robbing will fight to the death,
- If the hive is unable to defend itself in a robbing event, the invading bees can strip the colony of all of its food
- Being robbed changes the disposition of a colony where the bees may become aggressive and difficult to deal with on an ongoing basis.
A colony’s queen may very well be killed during a robbing event. A dead queen is especially difficult to deal with during late summer going into fall.
Understanding the Signs of Robbing
There are key activities you can observe that will alert you to a robbing event in one of your colonies.
First, robbing bees approach the hive without being weighted down with nectar or pollen. These lurking robbers will not act like a normal returning worker form a foraging run.
Returning foragers return straight into the landing board and the hive entrance with their bounty. But a robbing workers will illustrate a much different flight pattern. Some folks describe it as flying from side to side. Others say that you can locate robbers by looking for workers flying in a nervous zig-zag pattern with lack of pollen loads.
In The Hive And Honey Bee Revisited, Hoopingarner describes the flight pattern as swaying to-and-fro in front of the hive to be robbed in a manner somewhat similar to a figure eight.
Second, you will see workers investigating every crack in the hive. They smell the honey through the cracks and are attempting to find an entrance to the hive easier than the front entrance.
Third, a normally docile hive will become frenzied with action and alarm pheromone will fill the air around the hive. If you have a particularly keen sense of smell and it is a really intense robbing event, you may even smell the tell-tale banana-like odor of alarm pheromone.
Fourth, you will likely see bees wrestling near the entrance or on the ground immediately in front of the entrance as they battle to the death.
Leg Pulling Anyone? Balls of Bees?
Fifth, you will likely see workers pulling the legs of robbing workers. They will very literally chase the robbing bee all over the hive body pulling at their back legs.
Sixth, look for a ball of bees around a marauding robber. The bees will form a ball around the offending robber and overheat the robber until it suffocates and dies.
Seventh, look for lots of wax cappings scattered on the hive floor, or bottom board. It will look similar to grains of sand and you will even see it on some of the workers exiting the hive.
Last, you will see lots of dead worker bees on the hive floor itself and also outside the hive.
Flying with Pillaged Goods
Also, remember that robbing workers are leaving the hive heavily laden with honey. This baggage makes flying much more difficult for robbing workers departing the hive.
Foraging bees leave the hive straight off the landing board. But, robbing bees tend to climb up the front of the hive before taking off with their ill-gotten gains. Once these robbers go airbone, you will see a characteristic dip in their flight pattern.
When Is Robbing Most Likely?
All resources I have read as well as fellow beekeepers have told me that the most likely time for robbing to occur is during a dearth of nectar. This happens most often during late August going into September.
Weak or small colonies during this time period become very easy targets for stronger colonies. Even though the most likely time for robbing to occur is late summer heading towards fall you may see robbing anytime there is a dearth of nectar so always keep your eyes out on your hives.
Putting a Stop to a Robbing Event
When you see a robbing event, you need to act immediately to stop the attack. You should at the very least reduce the size of the entrance to the width of a single bee. You may use your entrance reducer combined with clumps of grass stuffed along the entrance. A smaller entrance makes it much easier for the attacked colony to defend itself.
Delaplane in First Lessons in Beekeeping says that the beekeeper should seal any upper entrances, keep the lower entrance reduced in size, and only use internal feeders.
Lockdown the Hive
If a robbing frenzy has started on a very weak or small colony, you should close up all entrances immediately. You will naturally lock some of the robbers inside the colony but you will also keep more from entering the colony.
You might also dust the robbing bees with powdered sugar or flour and then follow them to see which colony is your robbing culprit.
Another method to stop a robbing event is to cover the colony in a wet sheet. The workers in the colony seem to be able to find their way in and out but the robbing bees are totally confused by this and cannot continue their robbing activities.
Some beekeepers suggest immediately closing all entrances to all hives in the bee yard and applying smoke to every colony to disorient the inhabitants and disrupt their rush to rob.
Typically, once an entrance is closed on the robbed colony, the robbing bees will give up anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours later. But, when they return home, they will find the entrance to their hive closed and will have to wait outside until the door opens. When all colonies appear calm, slightly open one entrance so that only one bee can exit or enter at a time.
Robbing Screens and Non-Italian Races of Bees
Other beekeepers make use of a robbing screen, a device that forces bees exiting their colony to fly upward instead of straight out. There are robbing screens available for 8 or 10-frame hives or for nucs. Robbing bees tend to land on the landing board at the front entrance and won’t be able to figure out how to get into the colony if that possibility is removed.
Finally, if you want to reduce the prevalence of robbing in your apiary, you may choose to maintain bees with low robbing tendencies. Italian and Africanized bees are particularly prone to robbing. Alternatively, both Carniolans and Caucasians are much less prone to robbing other colonies.
Of course, with that said, Carniolans are particularly prone to spring swarms due to their proclivities for ramping up production of brood in impressive quantities. So you may resolve one problem only to introduce another one.
Preventing Robbing Events
There are a number of things you can do to prevent robbing events from starting in the first place. Possible preventative steps include:
- Never leaving honey out in the open where foraging bees can find it – particularly during periods of dearth
- When harvesting honey supers during this time of year, make sure you keep your supers covered after you remove them from the colony
- If you are feeding your bees, try your level best to not spill even a drop of the sugar syrup
- Make use of entrance reducers on your weaker hives until they are strong enough to defend themselves
- Avoid using a Boardman entrance feeder at all costs, as the scent of the sugar syrup at the entrance of the hive can set off a robbing event
- Reduce the number of inspections during a nectar dearth because you don’t want foraging bees to smell all of the honey stores of a colony
It is interesting to note that queenright colonies tend to be more successful at defending their colony from a robbing event. I suspect that the cohesiveness of the colony due to the queen pheromone may have something to do with this.
In particular, nucleus hives, queen-mating boxes and colonies with low population tend to be more likely to experience a robbing attempt. Additionally, hives that are in disrepair may also trigger a robbing event.
Moving a Colony
If all of your attempts to prevent a robbing event or stop a robbing event fail, your best method to protect the colony will be to move it away from the marauding colony. Then once the colony has strengthened you may move it back to your apiary.
For my fellow beekeepers here in the Southeast, typically speaking, it is suggested that an apiary contain no more than 25 colonies. With larger apiaries in the Southeast, robbing events seem to increase.
Dealing with Robbing on My Nuc
I have been fighting an ongoing robbing event on my weaker nuc. With the introduction of a queen, I have seen the cohesiveness of the colony increase. Additionally, locking down the hive by closing all entrances caused a good number of the robbers to assimilate with the nuc and are now part of a significantly increased population of bees.
The bottom line is that nothing I have attempted to date has stopped the robbing. But, after Irma passes through our region here in North Carolina, I will be moving the nuc. I also picked up a nuc robbing screen today to place on the hive once our Irma rains pass.
I have experienced nothing in my apiary in this first year more frustrating than this robbing event. Hopefully, my research and personal experience may help some of you avoid your own robbing events.
Coming Next Week
Next week, I will update you on the progress of the nuc and the robbing events. I also want to take a little time to review the beekeeping books in my personal library. I have a good number accumulated now and want to share my thoughts on the best references for new beekeepers. And, by next week, I’ll have a name for my new queen and her hive.
Until next time, Happy Beekeeping!
Resources Used For This Post
- Beekeeping for dummies. 4th Edition. Howland Blackiston.
- First Lessons in Beekeeping. Keith S. Delaplane.
- Homegrown Honey Bees: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Beekeeping Your First Year, from Hiving to Honey Harvest. Alethea Morrison.
- The Hive And Honey Bee Revisited: An annotated update of L. L Langstroth’s beekeeping classic. Roger Hoopingarner, Ph.D.
- The Beekeeper’s Handbook. 4th Edition. Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile.
- Beginning Beekeeping: Everything You Need to Make Your Hive Thrive! Tanya Phillips.
- The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden. 3rd Edition. Kim Flottum.
- The Threat of Robbing