It’s that time of year! Time to start thinking of your fall hive inspection. September is already well under way, and before you can say “honey harvest,” the trees will be bare, the morning frosts will settle in, and your bees will be wrapping up their buzzings in exchange for a nice, warm, winter-long huddle. But don’t worry, you’ve still got plenty of time to prepare!
It’s our job as beekeepers to make it as easy as possible for our bees to winter. And now is the perfect time to check on the health of your bees, contemplate what went well, and what did not, over the past year and appreciate all of the moments you’ve experienced on your beekeeping journey.
Here are some signs that it’s time to inspect and begin preparing your hives for winter:
You’ll see your drones collected on the outside of the hive, dead in the grass nearby, or being dragged out of the hive by workers. “Why?!” you ask. “They never hurt anyone!” That’s true, and it’s partly why they’re getting the boot. Drones can’t sting to defend the hive, can’t collect nectar or pollen, and can’t attend to the brood. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen, and now that a mating flight before winter is highly unlikely, it’s time for them to leave the hive.
Another signal comes in the form of the fall goldenrod and aster nectar flow in southern climates. Once the nectar flow slows and your little workers begin winding down their activity levels, it’s time to inspect your hives.
What should I be doing during an inspection and in preparation for winter?
Make Sure You Have a Strong Queen and Healthy Brood Pattern
Your hive must have a healthy, fertile queen, because the bees she produces now will need to survive the winter months – which, in turn, will ensure her own survival, and thus another year of your colony!
Determine that the brood pattern still looks healthy. Remember, it most likely will be smaller than it was during the heavy spring nectar flow, since the bees are slowing down their population growth for winter. This is completely normal!
Check That There Is Food…and Lots of It
If you harvest honey this time of year, you’ll want to make sure you leave enough to help your bees survive the winter. In southern climates, the fall nectar flow is still in full swing, but gauging what you have right now and leaving a conservative amount of honey for your bees is the best way to go.
In northern geographic regions, you’ll need 80 to 90 pounds of feed to last the winter. You’ll need about 50 pounds in central regions, and 30 pounds in southern regions. These are rough estimates, and your local geographic area may differ in its needs, so please consult your local beekeepers!
Supplemental feeding is always a controversial topic, so do not feel obligated to feed your bees. However, if your hive feels light at this time and the fall nectar flow might not be enough (or if there isn’t a fall nectar flow in your region) to get your bees through the winter, you may want to consider feeding.
The most common way to supplement your bees’ diet is with a heavy syrup mixture. Stir two parts white sugar to one part hot water (measure parts by weight), and then choose your feeder type. If possible, add honey to the mixture to ensure your bees are getting their vitamins. Another option is to use BeesVita Plus supplements.
Monitor the Mite and Pest Load
Whether you believe in treatment or not, it is a good idea to check for mites when you are inspecting your hives. That way you can know the state of your hive going into the winter, and possibly combine hives or at least be prepared for any losses.
Consider removing weeds and grass from the base of your hive, and possibly even putting up mouse guards to prevent one from sneaking in and damaging the comb.
The Three R’s: Reduce, Reposition and Repair
Reduce the space in your hive as much as possible. Remove empty honey supers, preferably right after or on the same day you’ve harvested honey so as not to disturb the bees any more than necessary. If using a top bar hive, reduce the hive area with follower boards. Then your little ladies won’t have to defend and heat up a larger area than necessary!
Once the weather cools and your hive begins to form a loose cluster, reposition the cluster frame to the center of the bottom-most deep hive body. You’ll want to put frames of honey on both sides and above the cluster so that they have easy access to food. In top bar hives, put the cluster on one end of the hive and the frames of honey next to it.
You may also want to consider repositioning where your hives are located. Try to choose a spot on high ground with some shelter to avoid humidity and maximize sun exposure. Consider elevating your hives for better air circulation, and maybe even tilt them so that excess moisture can drain out the front.
Repair any equipment, including boxes, bottom boards, or covers that are in less-than-ideal condition. Double-check all of your other equipment now so that you don’t have to do it in the middle of a blizzard in January.
If you want to keep a closer eye on your bees after inspection, try BroodMinder. The BroodMinder is a small, thin strip that constantly monitors the temperature and humidity of your hive. It stores the data once per hour and sends those hourly updates to your tablet or phone using Bluetooth. The data is then anonymously sent to the BroodMinder website as part of a worldwide scientific collection. All you have to do is set up the strip on your frames, download the app on your device, and stay updated on how your hives are doing!