hive inspection honey bee management how to wintering

Fall management of honey bee colonies

Fall management: How many bees is enough for successful wintering?

To have successful honey bee colonies in the spring, you need a detailed fall management protocol.

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. On September 1, you gather information on each colony and take corrective action, if necessary. Then, in mid-October, you inspect again to assure the corrections worked. If not, you can make last-minute tweaks.

Remember that schedule! Do an inspection in early September and a follow-up six weeks later in mid-October. If you diligently inspect and tweak during the fall management window, you will greatly increase your chances for a successful winter.

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 a good average number for entering fall.

How to manipulate colony size

You can sometimes shrink overly populated colonies (often the result of new or Italian queens) by feeding large quantities of heavy syrup. The workers store this in or near the brood nest, which has the effect of shrinking it. Large colonies can also be reduced 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 servings are best so the pollen is used before it attracts small hive 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.

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      • I have 3 hives in E TN and I recently did a minimal inspection. All hives consist of two deeps. In two of the 3, the top box had capped brood and larvae with honey stores on one side and drawn comb with some nectar on the other side (the windward side) The 3rd hive had just tons of honey in the top box. I did not check any of the bottom boxes, but feel that I should in the 3rd hive, to look for a queen or signs of her.

        I have been feeding all 3 with 2:1 sugar mix, and they’ve been devouring it. Weather and work has made feeding erratic, but I have managed to feed once to twice a week for the past month. When should I stop feeding?

        • Jim,

          Many, or perhaps most, beekeepers feed syrup until the bees stop drinking it. That will happen when the temperature of the syrup gets down to the low 50s F. Alternatively, you could put dry sugar on the hives in the form of granulated sugar, a candy board, fondant, or sugar cakes. You can just leave those on all winter if you want.

      • How do I get in touch with beekeepers who are looking for land in the south to bring their bees to during the fall/winter season?

        • Adrienne,

          Maybe you could put an ad in the classified section of the American Bee Journal.

  • A few questions:

    1. Earlier this year, one of the hives had what “seemed” like an infestation of varroa. They went all summer without having any that I could detect, then somewhere around late June/early July, I couldn’t miss it. A few weeks later, the hives pushed the drones and now I can’t spot a varroa at all on any of them…and I’m looking hard for them and there’s not a varroa to be seen. At first, I thought well they are there, I’m just not looking hard enough, but I’ve been about 3 fairly deep inspections since then and they aren’t there. I was under the impression that bees don’t rid themselves of varroa that quickly or at all without help. So am I just missing them or is it possible for a hive to “cleanse” itself of varroa all on its own once the queen quits laying drones?

    2. What is a wet board?

    3. I’ve been holding off on putting the chips in the screened top boards just because we are still getting 90+ degree days. Today was a high of 93. And the next 10 days continue to forecast more of the same with nightly lows in the high 60s. At what nightly temp should I be looking out for to put the chips in? Or is putting them in even in these temps OK? I was thinking forecasts predicting mid 50s for nightly lows being about the trigger point for needing to put the chips in. Or is that too low?

    • Chris,

      1. Varroa mites do not advertise their presence; they are hard to see. If they are not with the capped brood, they may burrow between the segment of the bee. I would never trust myself to just look through a hive and find mites. Do a sugar roll test, and then you will know for sure. If they were there earlier, they are still there now.

      2. I assume you mean wet frames? Those are extracted frames still in the messy (sticky) state.

      3. Don’t read so much into it. Do it when it seems right to you. I’ve done it in September, October, November . . . whenever I see moisture collected on the inside of the lid. I don’t go by temperature, but by what I see.

  • I opened to maybe take one frame of honey and then treat. Last time I opened at end July they had two medium boxes of brood and one medium box solid stores. I added a fourth medium thinking they’d build stores. Nope. All three solid brood and barely any stores. I’m feeding again now and clearly taking nothing but also freaking out. This was a new package in spring and I love that they are booming but make some honey for yourselves ladies! What else should I do?

    • Joanna,

      It’s a bummer that they ate a whole super of winter stores in order to raise brood. It sounds like you’ve been in a nectar dearth and maybe you have an Italian queen? I can’t remember where you live—north or south—but it sounds like you will have to feed like crazy to get them through the winter. Sometimes I take the full supers off and save them, just to prevent this kind of occurrence, especially when the dearth is severe. Too late now, of course.

      You can try getting the queen into one of the two lower boxes, putting an excluder between the second and third, and feeding heavy syrup. That will keep the queen from laying in the upper boxes and the bees should backfill the third brood box with syrup. It’s probably the best you can do at this point. Crazy bees.

  • You are right on the Italian queen. I wouldn’t have thought there was a severe dearth. It’s wet and lots blooming still. Japanese knotweed goldenrod and aster. I’m in coastal maine. Zone 5 to 6. Sounds like I need to check feed daily and dig out the excluder. Man that honey was gorgeous. Foundation less and pure white.

  • Hi,

    I’ve had a problems with moisture & light mold on my inner and outer cover much of the summer, which seems unusual for my exceptionally dry climate (8500 ft in Rocky Mts). This summer was a whopper for rain…and it, too, is somewhat unusual. Nevertheless, I’m torn between preparing for a harsh, cold winter with a screened bottom board vs. using a solid bottom board. My gut tells me to stick with the screened and add a slatted rack. I am also building a quilt box.

    My colony seems pretty large and I worry about condensation thru the winter & the freezing of the bees when that condensation freezes, then melts. Do you think I should keep my screened board in, and insulate with tar paper, bales of hay, and a skirt ? Or switch to solid with slatted rack & insulation. Thanks for your time & consideration.

    • Sharon,

      It is so difficult to answer this type of question because I don’t know anything about your microclimate. I get that it is cold, but the lay of the land makes a difference, the wind, the colony strength, etc.

      In general, I believe whether you wrap or not, condensation has to be a priority consideration. A big healthy colony can deal with a lot of cold as long as the bees stay dry. Get them wet and they can die in the +40s.

      If you are nervous about a fully-open screened bottom, go with an upper and lower entrance so air can move through from bottom to top. The slatted rack will help as well. Also read To wrap or not to wrap and also How to wrap a hive.

  • Hey Rusty,
    You mention a way to shrink colony size is to feed large quantities of syrup. Is there such a thing as feeding too much?

    I have a first year colony that in spite of my management seems to be doing pretty well. Last I checked each frame in the two deeps was packed with bees, there was pollen stored and many larvae. I did remove some honey this year from a super, but there was still some in the upper most deep. As soon as I removed the super I began feeding. At this point I would estimate that I am a couple gallons of ~2:1 sugar water in. I’m going to inspect again this weekend to see what all is going on, but I wanted to see if in your experience I could feed too much and crowd the queen out of valuable winter egg space.

    • Neil,

      I don’t know where you live, but you can stop feeding syrup once your bees have the 80 or 90 pounds of stored honey/syrup they will need for the winter. If you think the colony is expanding too much, add a queen excluder to keep the queen in the lowest brood box. If you think the colony is not expanding enough, open up the brood nest by replacing a frame of honey with an empty drawn frame. A couple gallons of syrup is nothing, so I wouldn’t worry about overfeeding. They will stop taking it as soon as the syrup gets too cold, which may be soon depending on where you live.

    • Joanna,

      Try putting a drop or two of essential oil in the syrup, something like peppermint, anise, lemongrass, or similar. Plain syrup doesn’t smell very inviting.

  • Like Joanna, I finally got around to opening up the hive and though it is full of brood and bees, there is essentially no capped honey at all. I’m in Rhode Island, which is in something of a drought, so I think the dearth has been pretty severe. That is, even the flowers in bloom may not have much in the way of nectar. They colonies have looked busy, but obviously they’ve been eating what they forage. I mixed up a batch of 2:1 syrup and hopefully they will load up from that.

  • I use a couple drops of HBH in each quart jar. Two quarts on a week ago and only 1/3 taken. Gah. I’m opening up again this weekend to treat round 3 and am going to go through frame by frame and try to figure out what they are doing.

    • Joanna,

      How cold is it at night? Maybe the syrup is too chilly. My smallest hives are taking down a half gallon per night.

  • I just opened up my bees for a final winter check. I have about 9 frames of honey in my top deep box. But when I checked the bottom box there was 1/2 frame of brood and no eggs and I could not find my queen. I live in the inland northwest and we already had our first frost this week. This is my first year beekeeping and I have always had trouble finding my queen, so I do not count not seeing my queen as she is gone.

  • Oh, and my question is am I supposed to have eggs and larva right now and do I need to add sugar water for them to make it through the winter? My mite count came back 0 from WSU so I a not planning on treating them for mites this year. I also just put a super with woodchips in it on top. I live in a fog bank all fall and winter. Should I also wrap the hive in insulation as well?. If so what kind?

    • Jennifer,

      1. You may not see much brood this time of year because the bees decrease the colony size for winter. That fact that you have some brood is a good sign.

      2. If you have only nine frames of honey, you may need to feed during the winter. If you are having nighttime freezes, it is too late to give them syrup (unless it is getting really warm during the day). Give them hard candy or granulated sugar instead.

      3. Whether you wrap depends on how cold it gets. See: To wrap or not to wrap.

  • Down in the 50s at night but upper 60s in daytime. Hive is south and west facing protected to N by 8′ fence. Hive is painted dark blue. I wondered the same thing. The hive is freaking HUGE- three solid mediums of ladies who are getting REALLY feisty but also warm through the wood. They come busting up into the feeder when I pop the lid but are otherwise not paying much attention to feed at ALL. There was an empty medium between the active hive mediums and the feeder that I finally took off thinking that might reduce insulation between hive and feed thereby letting them warm it more. Should I go to Mountain Camp already?? Or nuke it for them and jury rig some insulating sleeves? Seriously…. They had backfilled half of one side of each of the outermost frames in two of the mediums and are starting on the edges of the top medium (which is above the excluder but still pretty full (80%?) of brood).

  • I just opened 4 of my six hives (all 4 new this summer from trapouts or removals). They have been growing strong and storing honey and pollen like crazy all summer. now all 4 have real good stores but little or no brood. I often cannot spot the queen and this time was no exception. Is the lack of brood at this point normal and nothing to be concerned with. I am in zone 8 and the cool weather is just beginning to get here (H60s-70s L40s-50s). The winters are generally not severe and my other 2 hives often had activity on warm days throughout last winter.

    • Bob,

      Brood production becomes very low or even stops altogether in November and December in the cool climates. It should pick up after the winter solstice and continue to increase until late spring.

  • I have a question about wintering in single deeps. The winters here can be pretty brutal. 15 days at a rip staying below zero is common. Temps get to 30 below F. The wind can hit 60 mph on occasion. 4 feet of snow has fallen in 24 hours. Usually the snow comes in horizontally and plasters everything. Once winter hits, the bees rarely get a break and most springs I am amazed that they are able to endure such brutal conditions and come out to fly a little when it finally warms up- usually when I am tapping the maple trees. I have a new colony from a swarm which I hived July 8 and they have covered 8 frames now nearly a month later. I was thinking of putting a medium on them (not drawn is all I have) to give them more room for a bigger cluster for the winter but am thinking that this might not be the way to go. Just seems like there is no way that they would populate another deep with bees and stores before winter. Maybe I should see that they have good stores for winter, get them quilted etc and leave them alone. There is a flow on now and I can smell the honey when I am at the hives so I am thankful that they are bringing it in. The dearth ended about 3 days ago. I hope it keeps up for a while. I put my hives where they will get sun in the winter and I shelter them from the prevailing west wind. I usually winter in a 3-deep configuration. I have a split that was made May 10 and they in 2 deeps and doing fine so they will winter that way- but the one-deep hive has me a bit worried and I know I need to do something. Just not sure what to do. Also wondering what temperatures to look for when deciding to remove the top screens and put the quilts on. This is the first year for the top screens and I like them and the bees most likely do as well. Was 94 F in July. I will use solid bottom boards, wide open lower entrances with 1/2″ hardware cloth, slatted racks, and quilts, and gabled, vented tops if I have time to make them. This year’s July honey was nothing short of amazing, but only took 13 shallow frames of it. I leave most of the honey for the girls- they made it.

  • I lost one of my colonies to wasps this last week. I still have one strong hive. There is a small cluster of bees left in the weak hive. I have reduced them to just the one deep, down from 3. We have a major problem with wasps in our neighborhood. There must be some kind of huge nest because I kill 100s of wasps every week, but I’m not sure where their nest is, not in my yard. I have fed them and can probably take a couple of frames of honey from the other hive. I’m wondering if I should combine them or try to winter them over as a small hive? The wasps which were only picking on the weak hive are now beginning to pick on my strong hive. Although they seem to be able to take care of business. I have watched them kill a wasp and often find dead wasps on their porch. Is there anything I can do to prevent them from meeting the same fate as the other hive? What advice can you give me? Thank you, Maizie

  • Can you please provide a breakdown of what I need to do for my 6 month old hive for fall and winter? Do I need to supplement their feed? If so, with what?

    They are 4.9 small cell bees living in mid-TN and are only 1 medium super large. Their hive has two boxes on it, but they never expanded to fill it. Thoughts?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Denise,

      Reading between the lines here, it sounds like your bees are in one medium brood box. They have two brood boxes available (no supers, I presume) but never expanded into the second brood box. If a six-month colony never expanded beyond one medium brood box and have no honey stores above (if I’m reading this right), I would say they’re in trouble. Do they have any honey in that bottom box? Is the queen laying? What does her laying pattern look like? How much brood is in there? Did you test for mites? Any sign of other diseases? I think I would have re-queened a while back, but for now you will have to feed like crazy, but I’d look for problems first. Sounds like there’s a problem.

  • Rusty,

    Once again, you are the answer to my questions! I recently did a treatment with MAQS, then thought that I may have had a failing queen (which I’m still unsure of ).. the other day my hopes were buoyed a bit, when I read that brood rearing can slow to 2-2.5 frames during the decrease in colony size – this fits with what I’m seeing… for the most part, though, my brood is in the upper box – can I just swap supers, or is it better to manipulate frame by frame? Thanks so much for being such a valuable resource!! (From Delta, BC)

  • Hi Rusty,

    Been beekeeping for a few years now, and even managed to start my fall checkup and corrections on time for once. With that said, I’m going into winter with 3 hives, one that doing wonderfully and the other two look healthy, but lacking food stores for the winter. Their populations are surprisingly well, as well as pollen stores. Unfortunately, with the dearth/drought the two hives really did not have much honey stored, in preparations for the winter I went ahead and started feeding, I’ve been feeding each hive roughly a gallon every other day, and they seems to be eating it up fairly aggressively (which I am happy with), what I would like to know and have yet to find the answer (which I’m sure has many variables to consider) is how long does it take for the “nectar” (sugar water formula) to cure and get capped?

    • Amanda,

      Like you say, there are lots of variables. For example, how heavy the syrup is, the temperature, relative humidity, number of bees, and the amount they are storing every day. With lots of bees in the hive, it shouldn’t take too long. I’ve been feeding some of my hives and they are capping it very quickly (just a few days), but we are still having very warm afternoons.

  • Hi Rusty

    I went to do a check and to start feed and when I last checked about 10 I had plenty of capped brood. Now I have minimal. There is plenty of stores and pollen stored. I usually have a hard time finding my queen I thought I saw her today but am very worried. What should I do?


    • Nicole,

      What I think you should do is get a good book on honey bee biology and a calendar. In the Northern hemisphere, honey bee colonies go through a one- to three-month broodless period in October, November, and/or December. This being October, I would assume your colony is doing what it is supposed to do.

  • Hi Rusty
    I am trying to start my fall/autumn management here in Ireland, except the brood box is stuffed with brace comb.
    What do I do? do I go in with the knife and have honey and brood and bees oozing everywhere or is there an easier way?
    The brood box is deep with one medium super.

    • Mary,

      If the brace comb is interfering with good management, then you should remove it regardless of the mess.

  • Hi Rusty, one of our hives has had very heavy bearding for past 3 days; yesterday was the heaviest. I’m hoping that they are just outside cooling off. I’m in Peterborough Ontario. It’s been about 25-28 degrees C for the past few days. Not planning any intervention at this time but looking for suggestions/advice?

    • Quentin,

      I would just let them beard if that’s what makes them comfortable. It’s not a bad thing, they are keeping the brood nest from overheating.

  • Today is 9/25 and I checked on a hive that got an MAQs treatment, ending 9/10. I could not find the queen, but did see young larvae, older larvae, and much capped brood (I can never see eggs, for some reason, even when I see the queen). My concern is that I did see some capped drone brood. There were no supersedure cells and I looked for those. Since I didn’t see the queen, do I need to be concerned about that drone brood? They wouldn’t raise drones for their own queen, correct? I’ll look again for the queen in a few days. I have been feeding them 2:1. The hive is big and aggressive and has a lot of capped “honey.” My other hive is killing drones, so I am confused. Thank you!

  • Hi. I’m a 2nd year beekeeper in Philadelphia (zone 6) and we’ve had mostly warm weather thus far this fall. I have 2 hives, and I checked them 2 weeks ago with the intent of condensing the hives to minimize extra space, but what I saw confused me about how to best approach management. One hive has 4 boxes: 3 medium supers of honey (the top 2 are full and capped, and the lowest of the three is half capped, half uncapped honey. The bottom box has frames of uncapped honey, pollen and some brood. They hive is well populated. The second hive is the same, but it has 5 boxes, even more bees that Hive 1, and the same kind of arrangement of capped/uncapped honey and pollen.

    I understand the need to minimize the space, but what do I remove? I intentionally left a lot of honey for them so they can have the most nutritious food over the winter. I was surprised that they’d begun filling the bottom box. I don’t have a place to freeze the honey over winter. I could keep it in a bin in the basement but I wonder if there might be a risk of bringing in wax moths that would ruin it. Can you kindly advise me on how to proceed? Thank you!

    • Anastasia,

      I don’t see any problem with just leaving them they way they are. The thing you most want to avoid is empty space, that is, frames with nothing in them. If the frames above the bees are full of honey, that is not a problem. Honey has a high heat capacity, meaning the temperature in those boxes will not not fluctuate nearly as fast as boxes with no honey.

      The one thing you might do is put the full frames closer to the cluster of bees because bees often won’t cross empty space to get to the food supply. You can reduce that probability by putting the emptiest box on top of the stack.

      By the way, if the honey frames never contained brood, they are unlikely to attract wax moths. However, if you keep honey frames in a plastic bin or other sealed container, they are likely to mold.

  • Hello!

    Although I’ve been keeping bees for several years now, I still consider myself a rookie. As fall approaches I have several management questions. I harvested honey from a single super about a month ago and left two other supers in place. I am finishing a 10-day Formic Pro treatment tomorrow and I plan to do an inspection, remove the queen excluder, do a mite count (I’m also going to compare the alcohol wash results with a mite analysis using the smartphone App called “BeeScanning”), reduce the entrance and, depending on the mite count, add Apivar strips. I have plenty of honey harvested for our family’s needs and so it’s my intention to leave the two remaining supers in place for the fall/winter (I haven’t looked in these supers for a while and it’s possible that I may reduce to one super by combining the fullest frames. My question is: since I will be applying Apivar with these supers on the hive will I ever be able to use them again for honey that I want to harvest (ie next spring/summer), or should I label them and only use them for honey that I intend to leave for the bees? If I find that there is a fair amount of honey currently in the super(s) do I leave these on all winter or remove them at some point? BTW, I keep bees in Olympia, WA

    • John,

      You should not leave honey on a hive during an Apivar treatment if you might someday want to eat it. Rather than try to keep all the frames labeled or sequestered, you could just take them off during the treatment and return them later. Or, if you think the bees need the honey for autumn feeding, take off just one super, as you mentioned.

      I’m not completely certain if you are asking about the honey or the supers or the combs when you say, “will I ever be able to use them again?” According to this document on the Dadant website, “The active ingredient (amitraz) is quickly hydrolyzed and disappears from the hive without leaving significant pesticide residues.” Based on that, I think you could safely use the equipment and combs in subsequent years.

      Also read section 26 on residues.