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Recently updated: English for beekeepers

If you have pictures of your bees or hives you want to see on the Reader Hives page, please send them along. You can e-mail them to: rusty[at]honeybeesuite[dot]com. Please include a caption for the photos.

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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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

 

Strung out on pollen

Now here is something you don’t see every day. This amazing photo taken by beekeeper Morris Ostrofsky of southern Oregon shows a honey bee carrying a thread of evening primrose pollen.

The genus Oenothera contains about 145 species of flowering plants, many of which have pollen grains that are strung together by viscin threads. Viscin is a clear, tasteless, sticky substance made from sap. The grains of pollen are loosely joined in wispy, cobweb-like strands which stick to visiting pollinators.

Some botanists theorize that plants evolved this complex structure so the pollen would stick onto insects that aren’t necessarily designed to carry pollen—nearly hairless creatures such as beetles and moths.

Other plants in the family Onagraceae also have viscin threads, although some—like those from fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium—are too small to see without magnification.

Thanks, Morris. I don’t see how you did it.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Update: Morris sent us some more information.

The variety of primrose is Hooker’s primrose.  Perennial and self seeds readily.  I found it while on a bike ride some years ago. One of the really amazing things about this plant can be seen around sunset.  Just as the sun goes down the ripe flower buds open at an astonishing speed.  They go from being completely closed to fully open in a mater of two to three minutes!   They have entertained many garden visitors.  That’s not all.

This grand opening is often followed quickly by the occasional Sphinx moth getting a snack and pollinating also.  The following morning when it gets warm and light enough for the bees to fly the flowers are then visited by honey bees some of which carry long threads of pollen back to the hives.  When they arrive  on the landing board it is quite obvious which plants those bees have been pollinating.  As it warms up further the flowers collapse never to repeat this choreographed dance again.   Although the flowers live for less than a day there are many more to take center stage every day until the first frosts.

Bee-on-primrose-Morris-Ostrofsky-1
A honey bee about to pollinate an evening primrose flower. Photo © Morris Ostrofsky.
Bee-on-primrose-Morris-Ostrofsky-2
The same bee, up close. Photo © Morris Ostrofsky.

Nectar dearth and summer stress

Many of us are in a summer nectar dearth or are fast approaching one. Several things happen to your bees when days are hot and forage is scarce. Here is a list of management ideas that will make the summer less stressful for you and for them.

  • Honey bees short on water may decide to try the neighbor’s swimming pool or bird bath. Since this can put a strain on the relationship, put out some water for your bees. A bird bath with rocks, a bucket with a wet rag, or a drip irrigation line can all be used to slack the bees’ thirst.
  • Your bees may seem testy or even aggressive when you go near. Even though your colony was docile as a newborn babe up till now, it may suddenly seem hostile. This is natural when supplies of food and water start running low. Don’t go routing around inside your hive looking for what’s wrong. The way they see it, you are what’s wrong. Give them some space during this time, and they will resume their sweet dispositions when the days cool.
  • Beware of robbing bees. Bees from robust colonies may decide that the easiest way to stock the pantry is to steal supplies from a weaker hive. If you see evidence of robbing—bees wrestling on the landing board or fighting in the air—reduce the entrances of weak hives. This may seem counter-intuitive during a hot spell, but it could save your colony.
  • Provide lots of ventilation. Bees cool the interior of the hive by fanning, but for fanning to work, the air needs a place to come in and a place to go out. Since you may be reducing your entrance to prevent robbing, it is extra important to use a screened bottom, a screened inner cover, a slatted rack, or a small upper entrance.
  • Robbing bees are not the only critters on the prowl this time of year. Hornet and wasp populations peak in the autumn just when the honey bees are having a tough time finding forage. These predators love a weak honey bee colony because the adults can get honey for themselves and nice juicy bees for their offspring. Be careful not to spill honey near a hive and do not use entrance feeders. Small drips can bring hoards of predators to feed on your bees—another reason to keep those entrances small.
  • Beware of the Varroa mite population. With diminishing forage and shorter days, your colony will raise less brood and evict the drones. Overall, the colony size will decrease. The Varroa mites, however, remain strong. Without drone cells available they will use worker cells, and since the colony has fewer brood cells than before, the mites will cram themselves into the remaining cells. Varroa can easily overwhelm a colony this time of year, so it’s a great time for a sugar roll and mite count.
  • Bearding is common on hot summer days. Although new beekeepers often confuse bearding with swarming, they are not at all related. Bearding bees are merely gathering outside the hive to keep themselves cool and to lessen the heat load on the inside of the hive. The best you can do for them is make sure the hive has good ventilation. Other than that, don’t worry.
  • Experienced beekeepers have been through summer dearth before, but many newbee colonies are lost during the first nectar dearth that comes along. Why? Because the colony seems so robust and busy, it is hard to imagine things could change that fast . . . but they do. So be on the lookout for signs of summer stress and take steps to help your colony through it. A little bit of prevention goes a long way.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite