A Fall Checklist for Beekeepers – Winter is Coming!

To all my fellow Game of Thrones fans, my title, a definite double entendre, references a key phrase in George R. R. Martin’s works as we all have heard the oft-repeated phrase “Winter is coming!”  In this blog post, we are going to examine what it means to a beekeeper when we say Winter is coming.  But, before we map out late summer and fall preparations for overwintering, let’s talk about what happened in Beorn’s Acres this week.

Hive Updates – Robber Barons in the Apiary

Robbing was the theme of the week in the apiary.  One of my colonies decided that it needed to rob the nucleus hive.  Granted the nucleus colony is weaker than the other colonies, but the robbing was really pernicious.

Nucleus Hive

The nucleus hive has had a rough week.  The attacks on the colony started on August 24th.  The attack was massive involving dark chocolate brown worker honeybees (more on that observation below).  Draining half of the top hive feeder, the workers were now also uncapping and robbing the colony’s meager honey supplies,  I refilled the top hive feeder and sealed up the hive entrance.

Evidence of Robbing
Notice the frame in the upper portion of the picture. That is what a robbing event looks like after it is over.

Two queen cups, capped last Saturday or early Sunday, would emerge on Saturday, August 26th. The brood cycle for a a new queen takes 16 days from start to finish.  Exactly on time, the two queens emerged.  Apparently, they engaged in a fight to the death which moved up into the top hive feeder.  I found them there.

One of the two was already dead.  Luckily, my inspection was in time to find the other wrapped up in the melee between the robbing bees and the nucleus colony’s workers.

I broke up the ball of bees and saw her in the center and very much alive.  A very sugar water-logged queen survived the melee.  You have to admit that is pretty impressive!  And, given the challenges this colony has had, she is a pretty decent looking specimen.

I picked the new queen up by her wings and placed her on top of a frame.  Almost instantly, three workers appeared and started grooming her as she moved down into the comb of the colony.

Attacks Continue

On August 25th, I checked the hive early in the morning and found an attack well under way yet again.  Deciding to nip this attack in the bud, I repositioned the block of wood I have been using to close up the hive.    This move very effectively sealed up the entrance to the hive.

All day on Sunday, August 27th, I left the nucleus hive sealed up to give the trapped bees time to assimilate and the attacks to end.  During the day on Sunday, one mass attempt to invade the colony began again,p but this attack was smaller than earlier attacks.  Hopefully, they have exhausted their interest and will not attack any longer.

Opening the Nucleus Hive Back Up

After nightfall last night, I opened the entrance just enough to allow a couple of bees out at a time but decreasing it enough that it would be easier to defend.  Opening the hive, I found many bees dead or dying in the top hive feeder.  I think the other queen may be amongst them.  I’m not certain but I couldn’t find her anywhere on the frames.  To say I am angry with the robbers is an understatement.

My only remaining option to queen this hive may be a replacement queen.  But, when I do that, the colony that created this problem will pray the price in bees, pollen, brood, and honey to make up a good start for a nuc.

Giving Them a Fighting Chance

To give the nucleus hive a chance to restart, I gave them a frame full of both honey and pollen from Hive Olympus.  Why Hive Olympus you ask?  Because faithful reader, Hive Olympus is my robber baron colony!  Oh yes, this colony is full of brood from Hecate who are all a dark chocolate brown coloration.  So they will serve as the colony that will help jumpstart the Nucleus Hive.

Our local bee shop has said they may get queens in this week so I will be watching my e-mail.  If the queen has not survived,  it is simply too long a process to allow them to rear their own.  And, let me say that these workers raised two beauties.  True Italians in every respect of the word.

An Interesting Side Note

While I was inspecting the Nucleus Hive, not only did I find lots of sad evidence of robbing, but I also saw an actual Varroa Mite on the thorax of one of my workers.  My order that contained Apivar has arrived.  I will be placing a strip in the nucleus colony next Saturday.

Hive Acquitaine

This colony is best described by the saying it exhibits plodding growth.    Unlike a couple of my colonies, Hive Acquitaine and Eleanor just increase steadily but not spectacularly.

Marked Queen
Eleanor in Hive Acquitaine

In many respects, I have to admit that this isn’t an unpleasant occurrence.  Having drawn comb on 7 out of 10 frames in the second deep box, normal procedure is to add a medium box.  I’ll give them another week or two and then place the medium box on the hive.  At this point, they simply don’t have the population to maintain another box appropriately.

Note what I just said?  Rules of thumb are only rules of thumb.  This instance is one time where I’m violating the rule of thumb on adding a medium, because I also assessed the population in the colony.  Rules of thumb require judgement and observation of your hives!

These bees certainly still need the top hive feeder.  As last week, they had drained the top hive feeder leaving it dry as a bone.  While I was examining the top hiver feeder a couple of small hive beetles scurried in the light.  They really don’t like the light!  I crushed them mercilessly for their intrusion!

Eleanor and the Brood Pattern

During the inspection, I found Eleanor busily looking for an empty cell in which to deposit an egg.  She has managed to populate a number of frames with brood.  Brood is present in all its forms:  eggs, larvae in all instages of growth, as well as capped brood in significant quantities.

In the bottom brood box, I found plenty of frames containing honey and significant pollen stores.  And, Eleanor has been checking out the bottom brood box.  I found a section of cells with eggs and larvae.  All things considered, a colony that was in crisis early on is coming together nicely late in the season.

I reassembled the hive and placed the top hive feeder refilling it with sugar syrup.  If you remember, early on in my planning stages I was only going to have one hive my first year.  Having three colonies and a nuc grant experience that a single hive just cannot give a new beekeeper.

Hive Olympus

When I opened Hive Olympus, the top hive feeder was dry as well.  As I found in Hive Acquiataine, there were some small hive beetles scurrying around in the empty feeder along with a couple of larvae.  I killed all of them.

Athena, Hive Olympus’s New Queen

A couple of weeks ago I placed a honey super on this colony.  This week the bees have started to draw a small amount of comb in the honey super and have placed the first initial amounts of honey.

The workers have filled the medium box I placed weeks ago with honey.  This box will serve as a good anchor of honey stores for the winter for this colony.  It never ceases to amaze me how quickly honeybees can fill a frame with honey!

As I began to examine the second brood box, I became very impressed with my new queen, Athena.  She is definitely a queen who has taken after her mother, Hecate.  As I examined the frames, there were frames full of eggs, larvae in all instages, and capped brood.

Athena was happily wandering one of the frames looking for an empty cell to fill with more eggs.  She is a quite an elusive queen, constantly trying to evade my efforts to watch her.  Yet, her markings are striking.   This colony did an exceptional job of raising a queen.  Like her mother, she is longer and larger.

Finding the Robbers

All week I was curious which of my colonies was raiding the nuc.  Because of the coloration of the bees, I suspected that it was Hive Olympus. Awhile ago in one of my past blogs, I noted that Hecate’s workers were chocolate brown like her.

Well, as I was examining the frames in the brood boxes, I saw the same markings of the bees I saw raiding the nuc.  Another mystery solved in the apiary!  Hopefully feeding them will reduce their proclivities to raid the other colonies that are being fed.

Hive Florence

Early on, Hive Florence was my strongest colony.  But, it suffered a setback in June when its queen led a swarm while I was away traveling.  Then, all of the colonies attempts at re-queening failed so I had to introduce a new queen.  The remaining queen cups I transferred into the nucleus hive.

New Italian Queen
Meet Beatrice II.

This newly introduced queen has made short work of catching up and vying for supremacy with Hive Olympus.  The workers have drawn comb on a number of the honey supers and filled that comb with honey.  And, like Hive Olympus, the medium box is full of honey stores for the winter.

The brood pattern in the upper brood box is an impressive series of solid walls.  The workers have a number of frames with newly drawn comb which Beatrice II filled with eggs.  It is an impressive site to see newly drawn comb filled with eggs.  It illustrates the prolific nature of a health queen bee.

This colony is quite ready for winter with the outer frames in the brood box filled with honey as expected.  I will likely remove the honey super before I place the Apivar treatment later this week, as they don’t look to be able to fill it this season. I would rather they focus on winter preparations.  I found Beatrice wandering in the second deep actively attempting to find an empty cell in which to lay another egg.

After finding Beatrice and verifying that everything was well in the hive, I reassembled the hive and refilled the top hive feeder.

Preparing for Winter –  A Checklist

For this blog post, I spent a significant amount of time researching and compiling a list of what a beekeeper should do to prepare their bees for winter.  As I examined multiple resources, I found that there is a remarkable consistency among beekeepers with a few differences.  So, I’ve created a fusion of items that I will be completing as I prepare my colonies for their first winter.

Harvest Honey Supers

In order to really start the process of preparing for winter, you need to harvest your honey supers.  You should be harvesting your honey supers in August, as a precursor for critical elements that will help your bees move into the fall and winter seasons healthy and ready to enter the winter cluster.

In all likelihood, by August, most of the significant honey flows are over in many regions of the country and you need to allow your bees to focus on their own winter preparations and not on producing excess honey for you.

After you harvest the honey supers, you may want to place them back on the hive for a couple of days to allow the bees to extract any remaining bits of honey that you didn’t collect when you extracted the honey.  Once they have completed this task, remove your supers and store them.  Remember to take steps to ensure that you don’t have issues with wax moths while you are overwintering them for next year.

Treat for Varroa Mites

So, I’m sure at this point you are tired of me harping about Varroa Mites but I am not finished yet.

Scientists believe that many of the problems with beekeepers losing colonies during the winter may be attributable to poor integrated pest management.  In fact, many believe that poor management of the threat of Varroa Mites leads to colonies that enter winter weakened and then die during the winter months due to disease caused by this pest.

Varroa on larva

Colonies that enter winter with diseased bees are far less likely to survive the winter months.

In fact, the problem actually begins in late summer if Varroa Mites have been allowed to grow exponentially in a colony.  Sick and severely diseased bees during late summer are not capable of caring for the winter bees that they will start raising.

They also are much more likely to pass these viruses and diseases to the brood as they are caring for them.  In August, you should finalizing which treatment you will use to assist your bees in knocking back a late season spike in Varroa Mite populations in your hives.

As mentioned in my earlier posts dealing with Varroa Mites, your choice of treatment will likely vary based on your region.  For instance, in the southern states, it will be too hot at this time of year to use certain treatment modalities as they are specifically listed as not to be used at extremely high temperatures.

Regardless, choose your treatment method and treat your hives to knock back the pests.  It is likely that you may have to perform another treatment prior to finally ceasing your activities for the season.  Treatment and post-treatment monitoring are key elements to success as you prepare for winter.

Check for Other Diseases

You should also be examining your colonies during inspections at this time of year to ensure that you have no instances of American Foul Brood, European Foul Brood, nosema, and other maladies that are dangers to your bees.

American Foul Brood is extremely rare but if present it probably means your colony is already lost.  However, there are some other pests that you likely want to be aware of and take care of before winter.

Tracheal Mites can weaken your bees as you move into winter.  These mites live in the trachea of your bees and pierce the tracheal passages to feed on the hemolymph of your bees.  Tracheal Mites have been documented to contribute to the loss of colonies during the winter.  There are a number of treatments for these mites including menthol treatments, Apiguard, Formic Pro and ApiVar.

In addition to Tracheal Mites, you should monitor your bees for any signs of Nosema infection.  Nosema most often will present as dysentery and will be clearly evident in signs of the dysentery on the exterior of the hives or even in the hive comb.

The normal treatment for Nosema infections is Fumagillin-B, an antibiotic.  Nosema only seems to affect weak colonies.  Colonies with proper nutrition including significant amounts of pollen appear not to be as affected by this pest.

Check Your Queen

As we move into the fall, we want to check our colony for our queen.  First off, we want to ensure that our colony has a queen.

Verifying the presence of the queen may be done by finding evidence of her presence.  The evidence we are looking for of course is eggs.  If we see eggs in the comb, we know that a queen was present at least in the last three days.  But, for me, I am not going to stop until I actually find my queen as I prepare to complete the summer and move towards winter.

Second, if I find a queen, then I want to check the brood pattern to see what condition it is in.  Is the brood pattern spotty?  Or is it solid?  A good brood pattern will be contiguous and radiate out of the center of the frame with honey and pollen stores surrounding it on the outer edges of the frame.

If you see a spotty brood pattern, you may very well have a failing queen.  Colonies tend to not overwinter without a queen so if you see evidence of a failing queen you will want to take steps to replace your queen.

With that said, late in the season, it can be more challenging to find a replacement queen.  So check your queen early and be prepared to take corrective action quickly.

Check Your Colonies Honey Stores

It is really important in the lead up to winter to check the honey stores of the colony.  By rule of thumb, the average colony of bees will need between 60 and 75 pounds of honey to successfully overwinter.

The amount varies based on the severity of the weather in your area.  In extremely cold regions, you will want to be on the heavier side of 75 pounds.  In areas more southerly where there may be opportunities for foraging during warms spells during the winter you will likely be able to be towards the lower side of the equation with 60 pounds of honey.

Capped and uncapped cells

As part of monitoring the amount of honey stores, you also will want to examine its positioning in the hive.  Stored honey should be at the sides of the brood nest as well as above the brood nest, very similar to what you see during the summer months when the brood nest is quite large.

The brood nest should be mostly in the bottom two boxes if you have two deeps and a medium box.  You will also want heavier concentrations of honey stores in the outer two frames as well as the frames contiguously next to these frames.  So think mostly honey in four frames and then progressively smaller stores as you move inwards to the center of the box.  The top box in this configuration should be almost all stored honey.

I intend to go into winter with two deeps and one medium and my medium boxes are filled entirely with honey stores already.  I will need to rebalance my lower boxes to make sure full deep frames of honey are on the outer edges.  The winter cluster will migrate from bottom to top over the course of the winter.

If you use a two deep configuration for winter, you will want to make sure that almost the entire upper deep box is filled with honey.

Feed Your Colonies

It is likely that as you begin the run-up to winter, that your bees will not have all of the necessary honey stores.  During the Spring, we feed our bees a 1:1 sugar water recipe.  In other words, one cup of sugar to one cup of water.  But, as we move into August and September, we will want to feed our bees a 2:1 sugar water recipe.

The 2:1 recipe encourages the bees to create honey stores and store it in cells for winter feeding, as it is heavier and more nutritious than the weaker solution in the spring months.  The weaker solution actually does a great job of encouraging and supporting comb production while the heavier syrup encourages storage for food.

When preparing for winter, you may feed the bees until they have entered the winter cluster or until freezing temperatures start to freeze your sugar syrup.  When the syrup is freezing, you should definitely discontinue feeding as you are at that point where this is not going to assist your bees.

If the bees stop accepting the 2:1 sugar syrup preparation stop feeding them!  There are recipes for 2:1 sugar water on the web.  The bottom line is that to get the sugar to dissolve you will need water that is heated on your stove.  Do not boil the sugar in water as it will caramelize and will actually make your bees sick (think dysentery).  Rather, heat the water to around 140 degrees and the two cups of sugar will dissolve in one cup of water.

Replace the IPM Board

You should likely replace your IPM Board if you use a screened bottom board.  That will increase the efficiency of your bees in staying warm in the winter cluster.  But, you may not want to completely close the IPM board because the bees are quite efficient at keeping the hive warm during the winter.  But you don’t want to allow the hive to get too warm.

Provide Adequate Ventilation

Replacing the IPM Board and increasing the efficiency of the warmth in the hive is important, but the bees are quite capable of keeping the hive super warm.

During the winter, the temperature at the center of the cluster, where your queen will be located, is maintained at a temperature between 90 to 93° F (34 to 35° C).  Which means, that without adequate ventilation, the warm air from the cluster rises and hits the cold inner cover, and condensation will ddrip down onto the bees as ice-cold water.  That will potentially cool and kill the bees in the cluster.

There are techniques you may use to keep the colony dry.  These techniques might include:

  1. Gluing (permanently) four postage stamp-sized pieces of wood (the thin end of a wood shingle or piece of a popsicle stick will work) to the four corners of the inner cover’s flat underside.  When you position the inner cover atop the hive, this will create an air space of roughly 1/16 inch or less between the top edge of the upper medium or deep box and the inner cover and provide ventilation for the warm air to escape the hive without creating condensation, OR
  2. If you are using a Langstroth hive, place the inner cover on the top deep body, flat side down.  The oval hole on the inner cover and its notched cut is left open.  Make sure you push the outer cover forward so the notch in the ledge of the inner cover remains open.  You will also want to make sure that the outer cover is equidistant from side to side.  The result will be a gentle flow of air that carries off moisture from the underside of the inner cover and thus keeps the colony dry.

There are also Wintering Inner Covers that you may purchase.

Place Mouse Guards

Mice are masters of squeezing into tight spaces.  The average entrance reducer has a large enough opening that mice can squeeze through. Mice are obviously not dumb in this sense, a warm hive with food.  But they will make a mess in your hive deep gnawing on frames, making a nest, and generally being a nuisance.

So, you will definitely want to place mouse guards during the winter months that have openings only large enough for bees to enter and exit but are absolutely too small for even the most contortionist of a mouse to squeeze into the hive.

Complete All Treatments by Late Fall

At least a full month before winter arrives, you should complete all treatments for Varroa Mites and other disease agents.  If you haven’t taken proper precautions until too late, continuing treatments at this point will do you little good.  As many treatments for Varroa Mites are temperature dependent, it will be too cold for them to be effective.

By late fall as you near winter, you need to cease all assistance activities.  Unless you are in an extremely warm climate, opening the colony for any reason releases precious warmth and makes the bees work harder to warm the hive back up.  It is time to rest from your labors and let the bees take over.

They have overwintered for thousands of years.  Let them do what nature has taught them to do.

Other Considerations

In extremely cold climates, you may want to consider wrapping your hive in black tar paper, or in hive wraps that you may purchase.  Be sure that when you are wrapping a hive, that you do not seal off the hive entrance and the upper ventilation holes.  The bees will take cleansing flights on warm days during the winter and sealing them up is not conducive to colony health.

It may also be important to provide a wind break if your winter weather is particularly harsh.  This could be in the form of shrubs to break the wind from hitting the hives directly or even bales of hay.

Also, you want to attempt to ensure that your bees cluster relatively low in the brood nest as the winter cluster moves up during the winter and rarely down.  This positioning allows them to work from the less densely stored honey stores in the lower box to the much more dense storage in the upper boxes.

Also don’t forget, as mentioned above, to rebalance your frames before your bees enter the winter cluster.  They need empty cells in the center of the brood nest so that they can form a contiguous cluster when they are conserving heat as well as raising any winter or early spring brood.

As you move into November, you should have a near absence of any brood in the brood nest as the queen is naturally decreasing her egg laying activities.

It is also a good idea to crowd your bees toward the end of the season.  Having fewer boxes on your hives, each densely filled with both bees and honey, is better than having too many boxes sparsely populated.

Coming Next Week

Next week, I want to share some thoughts on dealing with robbing in our colonies.  Watching my little nucleus colony be raided a couple of times was quite frustrating.  But, I did learn a few things from the experience that I want to share with you.

And, of course, I’ll have to update you on the status of a queen in that colony and what is going on in the apiary!

Until next time, happy beekeeping!

Resources Used For This Post

  1. The Backyard Beekeeper:  An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden.  3rd Edition.  Kim Flottum.
  2. Beekeeping for dummies.  4th Edition.  Howland Blackiston.
  3. The Beekeeper’s Handbook.  4th Edition.  Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile.
  4. First Lessons in Beekeeping.  Keith S. Delaplane.
  5. An Introduction to Overwintering.