Fall management of honey bees

The six weeks between Labor Day and Columbus Day are often considered the fall management window. Although southern beekeepers can wait longer, most North American beekeepers can use this rule of thumb with good results.

The objective of fall management

The purpose of fall management is to assure your colonies remain healthy throughout the winter so they can build up quickly in the spring. To remain healthy your colonies must be disease-free, well fed, and led by a robust and productive queen.

In the textbook Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (2013), Caron and Connor recommend that beekeepers make two fall inspections. The September 1 inspection is used to gather information on each hive and take corrective action. The mid-October inspection is the wrap-up when you see if your corrections worked and make any last-minute tweaks, if necessary.

Colony size and location in the hive

Colony size and location are both important for good overwintering. Although the location of the cluster is easy to fix, colony size can be more problematic. A colony of bees has its own plan for getting through the winter. To change that plan, the beekeeper has to manipulate conditions in the hive. This works for the most part, although there is always a colony that won’t comply no matter what you do.

Ideally, the cluster should be in the center of the lowest brood box. Adjacent to the cluster should be frames of pollen. Frames of honey should be against the outer walls of the lowest brood box and should fill the frames of the box overhead. To adjust the colony’s location, simply move the frames around as necessary without breaking up the nest.

Colonies can have size problems: they are either too big or too small. An overly large colony can eat through stores before the winter even begins, whereas a small colony may not have enough bee-power to keep itself warm and viable. So what is the right size? Like everything in beekeeping, it depends on where you live. Caron & Connor suggest that 30,000 bees is an average number for fall.

How to manipulate colony size

Overly large colonies (often the result of new or Italian queens) can sometimes be thwarted by feeding large quantities of heavy syrup. The bees store this in or near the brood nest, which has the effect of shrinking it. Large colonies can also be diminished by restricting the queen to the lowest brood box until cold weather sets in.

Raising the population of small colonies is more difficult. Beekeepers have reported success by feeding a light syrup of 1:1 or even 1:2 (one part sugar to two parts water) in small daily increments (so it is used and not stored). Often this feeding is combined with replacing a few honey-filled frames near the brood nest with empty drawn frames, giving the queen a place to lay. A good supply of pollen is also necessary for brood rearing. If pollen is scarce in the environment, give supplemental pollen in small doses (small so it is used up before attracting beetles).

If you are lucky enough to have both types of colonies—overly large and way too small—you can equalize. This is the technique I like best. First I evaluate all the colonies for size, and then I take frames of brood from the overly large colonies and give them to the small ones. I brush them free of adults (to avoid fighting) and then simply place the frames of brood alongside the existing small brood nest.

Now, three caveats about equalizing:

  • To avoid spreading disease, don’t equalize unless the colonies are disease free.
  • Do not add more brood than the nurse bees can cover. Brood that is not covered will be abandoned and the dead bees become a burden to the colony. You may be able to add brood in increments: give a small frame of brood, wait for it to partially hatch, and then add another. Make sure your bees have honey and pollen.
  • Equalization can be disrupting to a colony that has different plans for winter. I like to complete all equalization during the first inspection (early September) so the colony can sort itself out before winter sets in. If a situation drastically changes between the two inspections, I may equalize then, although I try to avoid it.

Combining colonies is an alternative strategy that is especially fitting when you have a tiny colony, or if you don’t have enough brood frames to equalize or enough nurses to cover. Always combine a weak colony with a strong one. Nearly always, a weak colony added to a weak colony produces a weak colony, and chances are slim it will see spring.

Other items for the first inspection

  • Check for honey stores: Feed any colony that is short on honey or pollen, or make note of those that will need supplemental frames of honey.
  • Evaluate your mite load: If you haven’t already assessed your mite numbers, do it now. If your mite count warrants intervention, use your preferred method of control. Mites are probably the number one cause of winter loss, so they can’t be ignored.
  • Look for other diseases. While you are evaluating your colony for size, be alert for signs of other disease and take corrective measures if necessary.
  • Reduce entrances. Besides helping to stop robbing bees and wasps, smaller entrances discourage mice and other furries from taking up residence in the hive. Reducers are especially important if you are feeding wet frames.

The second and final inspection

  • Check colony size: this is your last chance to correct for colony size. Any management item that didn’t work should be obvious by now.
  • Inspect honey stores: Continue to feed colonies that are light or provide frames of honey from storage.
  • Add winter insulation and ventilation systems: If you will be using hive wraps, moisture boards, quilts, hay bales, rain roofs, or whatever, now is the time to put them in place. Winter is just around the corner.


How many bees is enough? Pixabay photo by PollyDot.
How many bees is enough? Pixabay photo by PollyDot.


How much honey should I leave in my hive?

How much honey will your bees need for winter? Good question. But before I answer, here’s a question for you: How much heating fuel will my household use this winter?

Well, you say, that is complex. It depends on where you live, your local climate, and the size and geometry of your house. It depends on what type of furnace you have, how warm you like it, and how many people live there. It depends on how much insulation you have, and whether you have wind breaks, and what color it is. It depends on air leaks and ventilation and the materials it is made from. It depends on whether the seasons are early or late. And on and on.

Your bee colony has different issues, of course, but just as many. The climate and weather, the amount of ventilation, the structure of the hive, the number of bees, the kind of bees, the number of warmish days and the number of abnormally cold ones are some obvious examples. The fact is, you can’t predict exactly how much honey a colony will need, so it is better to estimate on the high side.

I checked dozens of sources this morning and found an amazing amount of agreement on general guidelines. Bees in the southern U.S. may thrive on as little as 40 pounds, bees in the middle states need about 60, and northern bees may require 80 or 90. Those are average numbers for average years and average hives. What’s average? Another good question.

In all but the warmest areas, I recommend that a beekeeper leave 80 to 90 pounds. In nearly all cases, this will assure a good supply of natural food for your bees, and it will save you messing around with syrups and sugars and supplements. In short, it is good for them and good for you.

The Mann Lake catalog used to have estimates for the weight of full boxes. According to them, a full ten-frame deep weighs 80-90 pounds, and a full ten-frame medium weighs 65-75 pounds. Discounting the weight of the structure and dividing by 10, a full deep frame holds about 8 pounds of honey and full medium holds about 6 pounds. (If you evenly space nine frames in a ten-frame box, a full frame will weigh a bit more.)

According to Caron and Conner (2013), the ideal fall colony will have brood in the center of the lowest box. This will be flanked with frames of honey and pollen, and the two outermost frames will be filled with just honey. The second deep will be filled to the brim with honey—all ten frames.

Applying the math to their ideal colony, you will have 12 deep frames completely full of honey which gives you (8 x 12) or 96 pounds, plus any additional that is stored on the pollen frames.

This setup should get you through any winter, but in the more temperate states, you could easily replace the second deep with a medium, which would give you (6 x 12) or 72 pounds of honey plus any additional on the pollen frames.

A common error that new beekeepers make is harvesting the honey supers without checking the brood boxes for honey. You cannot assume the deeps are full just because the honey supers are full. Often the bees use one or both brood boxes for brood and pollen during most of the season. Not until late in the year do they start moving the honey closer to the brood nest. If you take the supers without checking, you could be leaving your bees with almost nothing for the winter. So above all, remember to look before you take.


A full frame of honey. © Nancy McClure.

When the feed is too close

A beekeeper near San Francisco complained that her bees wouldn’t leave her hummingbird feeder alone, so she set up an open feeder containing sugar syrup directly in front of her hives to divert the bees from the hummingbirds. Much to her dismay, the bees continued to dine at the bird feeder and ignore the syrup she provided in her apiary.

She decided that her bees must prefer hummingbird nectar over plain sugar syrup, so she replaced the syrup in the bee feeder with hummingbird food mixed with water. Still the bees ignored their feeder and returned to join the hummingbirds. What is going on?

As we know, honey bees are brilliant at pointing their sisters to distant food sources. The waggle dance is used for food sources that are far from the hive, and the round dance—which contains less information—is used for sources that are less than about 50-70 meters from the hive.

But according to some observers, honey bees have a problem when the source is very close. Why is this?

Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz about Bees says this about the round dance:

A round dance contains only some information about the quality feeding site. An indication is merely given about what to look for, and that this source can be found close to the nest. A bee that returns from visiting a cherry flower will smell like cherries, and a cherry tree can be found easily enough after a few flight around the hive.

But a bee coming home with a sample of sugar syrup isn’t going to smell like a flower. So even though the sugar tastes sweet, it will be difficult for a bee to explain the location to her nest mates if the syrup is less than 50-70 meters away. If it doesn’t look like a flower, and it doesn’t smell like a flower, the bees really have no reason to check it out. Some will probably find it—more or less by accident—but when they return home to report their finding, they have the same problem: how to explain the location.

In this case, it was probably much easier for the bees to locate the hummingbird feeder (which was much further away and brightly colored) than the open bee feeder that was in tripping distance of the hives. It seems that the bees will eventually find these sources, but the process is more random and takes longer than you might expect.

I have found that a drop of flavoring oil—something like tea tree, spearmint, lemon grass, anise, or peppermint—solves the problem in no time. When the bee returns to the hive smelling delicious, and she explains that the source is nearby by using the round dance, her nest mates will search in the vicinity of the hive for the scent she has delivered and immediately find the source, even if it doesn’t look like a flower.


Let the hummingbirds eat in peace. © Rusty Burlew.
Let the hummingbirds eat in peace. © Rusty Burlew.

The value of a post mortem

One of the worst mistakes we can make—in any endeavor—is failing to learn from our mistakes. But we can’t learn until we know what went wrong, and that is the job of the post mortem. But beekeepers frequently assume they know what killed a colony without actually doing the leg work to prove it. I’ve done it, and many others have done it as well.

Here’s an example: It was a cold and blustery winter in the mid-Atlantic when Fred’s two hives died. When he looked inside, he saw lots of honey and two small clusters that looked like they froze to death. His conclusion: the bees weren’t warm enough. Next year he will add more insulation, moisture boards, tar paper, and whatever he can think of to prevent his colonies from freezing to death. He might even add a terrarium warmer and put them in the garage.

Now if this fictitious beekeeper had actually done a thorough post mortem, he would have known that although his remaining bees ultimately froze, that’s not what doomed the colony. A bumper crop of parasitic Varroa mites had been living among the bees as evidenced by copious bundles of guanine left in the brood cells. The mites killed many bees by sapping their strength and delivering viral disease until the colony was no longer large enough to keep itself warm, so the remaining small cluster did, indeed, freeze.

But by naming the wrong cause, the cold, Fred is destined to make the same mistake again—ignoring the mites. All the insulation, heaters, moisture control, and babysitting in the world won’t help if mites are taking over the colony.

No matter when your colony dies, it is fitting to do a post mortem. Even if you don’t know what the signs mean, make a note of them, take photos, or both. Later, you can get someone to help you analyze what went wrong so you can do something different next time—the right something instead of the wrong one.

Look for honey stores, pollen stores, brood. If brood cells look abnormal, note that. If they look normal, open a few. Do the pupae look normal? Do you see mites? Look at bottom board debris: What is it made of? Is anything living in it? Are dead things in it? Look at the top bars: Is bee feces evident? What about beetles?  Wax moths? Yellowjackets? Mice? Are frames moldy? Is the interior wet? Was the hive robbed? Is there a cluster of dead bees? Where is the cluster in relation to the nearest food? Look for signs of disease. Look for guanine deposits. Look for deformed wings. Record it all, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

I used the example of cold bees for a specific reason. I believe that most colonies belonging to hobby beekeepers die from two things: starvation or Varroa mites. I also believe that few colonies that are well fed and mite free actually die from cold. To a robust colony, the cold is almost a non-issue, especially if the bees are dry. But even a little moisture shouldn’t be life threatening to a strong colony.

That’s not to say there aren’t other reasons for colony demise—there are many—which is why a good set of observations can make you a better beekeeper the next time around. Don’t let first impressions fool you: always dig deeper.


What does it all mean?
What does it all mean?

Winter is coming and your bees know it

I missed the summer solstice this year; I wasn’t paying attention and it slipped right on by. The summer solstice is important because it signals the end of bee season, just as the winter solstice signals the beginning. “The end of bee season?” you say. “But it’s just getting started!”

Here’s the thing: In temperate North America, the bee colony is at its smallest in late November and December. After the winter solstice, it gradually starts to build. The queen lays more eggs, there is more activity in the nursery, slowly the population increases. By the end of June most colonies are as strong as they are likely to get. Basically, the six months from January through June are months of increase, followed by the months of July through December which are months of decrease.

Sure there are variations and fluctuations depending on local climate, weather patterns, and individual colonies, but the trend is six months of increase and six months of decrease. I read recently that the response to photoperiod (increase or decrease of daylight) is much less in honey bees than in other insects. But regardless of how it works, you can see the yearly pattern in your colonies.

Up through June, beekeeping is as easy as breathing. In most cases, the rate of growth in your hive is greater than the growth of most predators and parasites. You wonder, “What’s all the fuss about mites?” You don’t see them anywhere. Are beetles and moths really a problem? You wonder what’s so hard about raising queens, catching swarms, or making honey. Like a rising market, everything looks rosy. The whole beekeeping thing is a piece of cake.

By the beginning of July things start to change. Much of the continent is headed toward a nectar dearth. Almost imperceptibly the ratio of problems to bees shifts. Swarms virtually cease. The swarms that are cast are usually small or weak. Just as the poem says, “A swarm in July is not worth a fly.” Splits take longer to build up. It’s a little harder to raise good queens. Honey production slows to a crawl. Even flowers that are in bloom may have less nectar because rainfall has dropped and temperatures climbed.

New problems arise. Your bees spend all their energy fanning. Robbing honey bees appear out of nowhere. Marauding yellowjackets and hornets case your hives looking for a meal. Your sweet little honey bees suddenly become skittish and would rather you stay away. Your neighbors complain about bees in their pool and hummingbird feeders.

Like yellowjackets and wasps, mite populations continue to grow, even while your honey bee populations are dropping. Suddenly, it seems like there is a handful of mites for every bee. Weaker hives may be overcome with beetles. By August workers are throwing out the drones in a last ditch effort to prepare for the coming winter. Foraging continues as long as there is something to collect, but it is harder, consumes more energy, and takes more time.

The solstice is not like a switch. Bees are not one way on the 21st and a different way on the 22nd, but the change is sure to come. The seasoned beekeeper knows this intuitively, but a new beekeeper needs to be aware that change is in the wind. The key is to be ready and to handle each situation as it arises. Remember: beekeeping doesn’t take much time, but timing is everything.


They know things we don’t. © Rusty Burlew.