Fretting over fall inspections

Nothing makes me more tense and equivocal than a fall hive inspection. I am a firm believer in minimum hive disruption, yet there are compelling reasons to make a pre-winter check. But when I crack open the propolis seals and disturb the cozy nest, a pang of guilt interferes with my own judgment. Am I doing the best thing?

I usually end up doing some amount of inspection, even if abbreviated. The things I want to see at this time of the year are:

  • A small amount of brood and/or the queen herself
  • A brood nest that is in the lower or middle box with honey frames on both sides and above
  • An absence of diseased bees
  • A clean screened bottom board
  • An unobstructed entrance

Basically, these are the same things your bees want, and they do their best to get there. In most cases, they will be fine if you do nothing, but sometimes a little help can go a long way toward a successful winter.

For example, if you find no brood, you may have lost your queen or have a failing queen. If so, you can re-queen or combine the hive with another. But it is easy to make a mistake because there may be very little brood at this time of year. You have to make a judgment call.

Usually the brood nest is right where you want it, but sometimes you need to move things around a bit. But again, it is easy to err. It doesn’t take much to damage the queen, chill the brood, and upset the cozy quarters the bees prepared for themselves. Again, you must do the minimum without doing too much, and you must remember that your compulsions may not be shared with the colony—so don’t do more than necessary.

And if you find diseased bees? Well, not good. The presence of lots of deformed wings, for example, may mean your mites are not under control, or it may mean that deformed bees hatched since your mite control measures began. Once again, you have to decide which it is. If mites are running rampant, you can take further control measures which may or may not get you through until spring. It is always best to complete mite treatments before the winter bees are born, but at this point, it is better to do something than nothing. On the other hand, if you think you are seeing a few deformed bees that hatched after mite control began, you may be okay.

Dead bees collect on the bottom screen during winter when the undertaker bees cannot keep up or cannot get outside. As dead bees pile up, they block the airflow through the screen and they may completely obstruct the entrance. Always turn the entrance reducer so the opening is at the top so the bees do not have to dig through bodies to get outside. But you don’t want to tear the hive to bits to get every last body. As always, judgment.

I never do a fall inspection without second-guessing myself. And the truth is I’ve erred in both directions. I’ve killed queens by doing too much and have gone queenless into winter because I didn’t do enough. I’ve weakened hives by disturbing the nest and breaking winter seals (too much) and lost hives because I misread the mite load (not enough). All of which makes me loath the whole idea of fall inspection.

So every fall as I trudge to my hives with dread and trepidation, I think of all those books they sell—books with names like Beekeeping in Six Easy Lessons, Beekeeping for Everyone, Easy Beekeeping, or Beekeeping Made Simple. Then I remind myself that if I ever write a book, it will be called, “If You Thought Advanced Differential Equations were Confusing, Wait Till You try Beekeeping.”

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Winter accumulation of dead bees covering a screened bottom board. This colony thrived in spite of the mess.
Winter accumulation of dead bees covering a screened bottom board. This colony thrived in spite of the mess.

Comments

Aram
Reply

Rusty,

Do you think your queens are laying up winter bees now, or do you think they winter bees have already hatched? Mine queens are still laying up pretty strongly, but these are July/August queens and they got syrup dripping on them non-stop.

Aram

Rusty
Reply

I think they are now in the process of producing winter bees. It is cold here at night, just above freezing.

Christina Hollis
Reply

Great post, Rusty. I feel exactly the same – at this time of year the less disturbance they get, the better. I don’t like breaking too many propolis seals at this time of year as they’re there for a reason. OTOH, come spring the stuff might have built up so much I need a crowbar to open the hives ;)

Cindi
Reply

IKR! Advanced Differentials… If I ever give up on beekeeping, maybe I’ll try THAT! HA!

John
Reply

Wondering what to do about green plastic drone frames. I hesitate to replace with undrawn foundation. Your thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

John,

After I cut out the last batch of drones, I just leave the frames there all winter.

Susan
Reply

how late is too late to do a last fall inspection as far as temperature?

Rusty
Reply

Susan,

The brood nest maintains a temperature in the 90s F. So the lower the ambient temperature, the less time you can have the brood exposed. If you were really quick, you could inspect in the high 60s F, I think, but I prefer temperatures in the 70s, if possible. The longer the brood is exposed to low temperature, the greater the damage that may result.

Susan
Reply

Thanks! I’ve been so busy that it’s been about a month since I’ve been in it and figured I need to get in there at least once more. The temps here are about 73 the next couple of days. They are smelling a little odd, I read that it could be the goldenrod…

Barbara ivany
Reply

Hi Rusty, I’m feeding my bees with hive top feeders. When should I stop feeding syrup and go on to dry sugar or pollen patties? It still gets quite warm here during the day, high sixties. Both my hives have lots of honey stored in eight of the frames and I’m hoping they’ll continue to store until the cold sets in?? If there are empty frames at the onset of real cold should I remove the empty ones and move the follower boards further in or leave them?

Rusty
Reply

Barbara,

The bees will continue to eat the syrup until the syrup temperature gets into the low 50s. It’s not the daytime highs that are important, it is the feed temperature that is important. When it gets cold at night, it is hard to get the syrup temperature up high enough for them to take it. As it gets colder you will notice the level in the feeder stays the same and it may start to get moldy. You might want to read “Heat transfer in sugar syrup.”

I usually don’t add pollen patties or dry sugar until late winter—January or February. Your bees should have plenty of stores to get them at least that far. Check on them periodically. If they start congregating on the top bars, you may have to move honey frames closer to the cluster or you may have to feed dry sugar or fondant.

I would leave the follower boards and empty frames where they are. You want an insulating air layer between the follower and the sidewall. If that space gets too wide, you may get too much air movement through it.

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