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.