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Preparing our hives for winter has long been a challenge for us beekeepers.
It was August 1955. I had gotten my first hive setup and package of bees from Sears & Roebuck Company that April and built that colony up to 60,000 bees at that point. My father, my mentor, said to me, “Son, we need to start preparing our hives for the winter months ahead.”
Those words ring out to me loud and clear every year when August rolls around. Of course, after nearly 70 years of keeping 100+ beehives, 45 years as a state bee inspector and mentor to new beekeepers, and running dozens of beehives for scientific studies for the USDA and Harvard University, I can say my skills have improved.
So, what should a beekeeper do starting in August to prepare to help their bees through those cold winter months?
Evaluate Your Queen
Like my dad used to say, when preparing our hives for winter, we need to make sure we have a dynamic queen. She must be capable of building up the colony when brood rearing begins again; she usually starts laying again in early January. Evaluate her laying pattern in August to decide if she needs replacement. You want to see a nice full pattern of brood, not a patchy pattern that indicates she might be failing. If she needs replacement, it is best to do so in August. She needs to build a nice cluster of bees through September and October. It is these bees that will carry over to the start of spring brood rearing.
If you see supersedure cells in September or October due to a poor queen, you cannot allow them to produce their own queen. It is too late for her to mate well. You also cannot afford to lose brood laying time this late in the season. In this case, buy a queen from a reputable dealer that can start laying immediately.
You must also watch for late season swarming. New package hives started in April or May are particularly susceptible. These colonies build up throughout the summer and reach full strength by August or September, then prepare to swarm. Overwintered colonies typically swarm in May or June. A swarm in September or October is devastating to a colony trying to build up for the winter. In most cases, they will not build up again for a nice winter cluster of bees unless you catch the swarm and then combine. I have received four calls thus far from first year beekeepers with late-season swarms. I recommend a weekly check of colonies looking for signs of swarm preparations, and call me or your mentor for advice should you find your colony preparing to swarm. It is so sad to lose a swarm 40 feet up in a tree this late in the season knowing this threatens your colony survival.
Test and Treat for Mites
Varroa mite checks and treatment are key tasks that we cannot neglect when preparing our hives for winter. Keep in mind that just as the bees are building up their winter cluster, so are the mites. Most of them are under the cappings thriving on the larva where you do not see them. I highly recommend a MAQS or Formic Pro (formic acid treatment) by the last week of September to get at those mites under the cappings. These treatments work best in temperatures at or above 70 degrees so fumes penetrate the cappings to kill the mites.
October formic acid treatments do little to kill the mites under the cappings due to the cold nights and mornings. At that point, use non-temperature dependent treatments such as oxalic acid or Apivar that will kill the mites on the adult bees in the cluster. Keep in mind that some treatments cannot be used with honey supers on. Read the directions before using any treatment.
Ensure Enough Brood Space
There is a delicate balance between having enough brood space and being honeybound going into September and October. You need somewhere between 6 and 8 frames of brood space available for the queen to lay in September and October so you have a nice cluster of young bees going into the winter months. Dr. Callahan and I worked on a study finding the average winter cluster in November weighs 7 pounds, an achievable weight from 7-8 frames of brood that are two-thirds full. A rapid fall flow of honey as we’re experiencing in 2023 can easily fill your brood chambers with honey leaving little space for brood rearing.
It seems self defeating for the bees, and I often wonder why they do it, but they do! If you find your colonies honeybound, you must intercede by spinning out the honey and replacing the frames, or removing the frames and replacing them with empty drawn comb. Spun honey can be fed back, or honey frames replaced, at the end of October when brood rearing is finished.
If you have uncapped honey supers, you can feed them back to the bees by placing them above the inner cover. I recommend using Fumudil-B in your honey/sugar syrup to prevent the nosema that often increases during winter. You should not feed too early unless they have nothing stored. The bees need 80+ pounds for winter survival. Keep in mind that honey has nutrients that the bees need for health, whereas sugar syrup does not. Do not be greedy, share the wealth with the bees! You can continue to feed honey/sugar syrup until Thanksgiving time.
Outside of the Hive
I put my entrance reducers in set to the 5 inch opening at the end of September to keep out heavy fall winds. At this time, those with screened bottom boards should close them with the inserts. Do not put in a mouse guard over the entrance reducer as it prevents proper ventilation. Check the ventilation in your hive by checking the underside of your inner cover for excess moisture. If you see moisture, prop up your inner cover by placing popsicle sticks on the rim of your top brood chamber to increase ventliation. At the end of October, I flip the inner cover so the notch is facing down to increase ventilation. Be sure that your colony is tipped slightly forward to prevent melting snow from pooling inside the hive through those winter months.
Finally, there are many opinions on whether to wrap hives for the winter. I do not wrap and have success overwintering, while others have success with wrapping. This is one of those things that you must try for yourself. I will say that if you are in a windy area, it’s helpful to shield your hives. Just take care not to over-wrap and prevent proper ventilation.
Combining Weak Hives
Let me add one more bit of advice on how to handle weak colonies in the fall. When you have a weak hive in October, there is likely a reason. You should check closely for diseases, mites, and viruses that may be weakening the colony. When you make a decision to combine a weak hive with a strong hive, be sure it is healthy and not diseased, mite-ridden, or virus riddled with viruses. This will take your strong hive down over the course of the winter, and by spring it too will be very weak or dead. I have been there on occasion! If you have a strong, booming hive, it does not need more bees. Why take the risk? By late February you will know if the weak hive has progressed and survived. If it is still weak, there is a reason. I, sadly, kill these colonies to stop the spread of viruses and disease to my booming hives through spring robbing.
I wish you the best in preparing your hives for winter. It gives me such joy on that first warm day in early March when I look at my colonies and see bees flying in and out with pollen in their baskets knowing that I was partly responsible for their success!
I do look back to the 1950s and compare it to today. I think of how much simpler it was to keep my bees alive, and packages of bees cost $10.00! Now, when it is much more difficult to keep my bees alive, that same package is $150. Can we reverse the prices??
Feel free to call me for advice on your bee matters at 508 680 3440. I do not text, as I only type with 1 finger. Ladies–no social calls, only bee advice. My wife gets jealous about her good-looking husband!!!!!!!