Preparing for winter

The beekeeping season is fast receding into the distance as the first frosts of autumn appear and, finally, the wasp numbers start to diminish. By now colonies should be heavy with stores, either collected by the bees or provided by the beekeeper.

Winter is coming … be prepared

There is relatively little actual beekeeping to be done this late in the year.

Colonies do not need to be disturbed unnecessarily. They certainly don’t require the usual weekly inspection … they’re not going to swarm, you’ve already applied your miticide of choice and fed them with fondant or syrup 1.

Late queen mating

With temperatures during the day in the low to mid-teens (°C) it is still warm enough to open a colony if you need to.

One of the few reasons I’d open a colony in very late September/early October would be to check if a new queen that had emerged at the end of August had successfully mated. If she had, then all is good. She will continue to lay late into the autumn and should produce sufficient winter bees to get the colony through to the following Spring.

When I lived in the Midlands I would regularly get queens successfully mated in early/mid September. It was pretty dependable, and in good years I’d be actively queen rearing through much of August.

Now, back in Scotland, late queen mating is not something I would want to rely on. I’m certain it happens now and again, but only in very exceptional years.

It’s a tough life being a drone in late August … but not for much longer

This year, many of my colonies turfed their drones out a month ago, and queen mating is not going to happen unless there are plenty of drones about.

A quick peek

It takes just minutes to check whether the queen is mated and laying. Although you don’t need to see the queen, it’s worth using just a whiff of smoke so you have the option of searching for her if needed. If you smoke the colony heavily she’ll end up rushing about or buried under a mass of disturbed bees.

Just a whiff …

You will need to remove the feeder (if using syrup) or the queen excluder and fondant block. Place these aside gently and remember that there are likely to be large numbers of bees adhering to the underside, so balance them on the rim of an upturned roof. This is the time you realise the benefit of using framed rigid wire QE when feeding fondant … removing the block on a flexible plastic QE is a right palaver.

The hive should be busy with bees. Gently remove the dummy board and outer frame. This should be full, or in the process of being filled, with stores. There’s no need to shake the bees off. Just stand it aside out of the way.

‘Guesstimate’ the approximate centre of the brood nest, based upon the density of bees in the seams. Gently lever the frames apart a centimetre or so, then release one of the frames adjacent to the gap you’ve created from its neighbours.

Lift the frame and look for sealed brood, open brood and eggs. By knowing the development cycle of workers bees (3E,5L,13P 2) you can determine approximately when the queen started laying 3.

If she started laying …

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

… if there are no eggs or larvae by very late September I would assume that the queen had failed to mate.

You need to use your judgement here. If the weather was poor in the first half of September, but excellent since then, it remains a distant possibility that she has only just mated and has yet to start laying.

Look carefully for polished cells where the centre of the broodnest should be.

And cross your fingers.

Polished cells are a sign that the nurse bees are preparing the comb for egg laying. However, in my experience, they do this even if the queen remains unmated, so it is not a reliable sign that all is well.

You therefore need to use your judgement and be realistic.

Miracles do happen, but you can’t depend upon them 4.

If the weather has been consistently poor – windy, low temperatures (for queen mating, which really needs ~18-20°C) or wet – then assume the worst and ‘save’ the colony by uniting it with a nearby strong colony.

A colony without a laying queen in late autumn will not survive the winter in any state that will make it a viable colony the following year 5.

In Scotland, I routinely unite colonies that do not have a laying queen at the end of August. As described in the last couple of weeks, I do my final colony checks with feeding and miticide treatment.

I know the chances of a queen getting successfully mated after that are effectively zero.

Quick uniting – air freshener

If you need to unite two colonies quickly, without the usual week long wait while they gently mingle after stacking them separated by a sheet of newspaper, you can use a few squirts of household air freshener.

  • Open the queenright recipient colony, removing the feeder and carefully placing it aside to avoid crushing bees (see above)
  • Find the unmated/unlaying/uncooperative queen in the broodless box and remove her (permanently I’m afraid)
  • Spray the top of the recipient colony with a a few squirts of air freshener
  • Do the same with the underside of the now queenless broodless colony
  • Stack the latter on top of the recipient colony
  • Add the feeder back, again giving a squirt or two of air freshener at the interface to stop the bees from fighting

The air freshener masks the distinctive pheromone ‘smell’ of the two colonies, allowing the bees to mingle without fighting.

That’s it.

Job done.

Caveat emptor

Like everything else on this site, I only write here from direct experience. I have successfully united quite a few colonies like this, though nothing like the number I’ve united using newspaper 6.

Given time and the choice I’d always use newspaper 7.

But this late in the season you might not have time.

A day after uniting with air freshener you can, if needed, revisit the hive and go through the double brood box to reduce it to a single box for the winter.

Does it matter which air freshener you use?

I have no idea.

I use Glade Citrus Sunny Beat as it was the cheapest I could find at the time I needed it 8.

Securing the queenright overwintering colony

If you consult the COLOSS records for overwintering colony losses they include a small percentage that are lost to ‘natural disasters’. COLOSS record queen failures and things like that separately, and – in an earlier paper – they define natural disasters as:

… rather loosely defined, as the causes can be very different in participating countries, including fire, storm, flooding, vandalism, bears, martens, woodpeckers, falling trees, suffocation from snow and many more.

The small percentage (0.1 – ~5%) lost to natural disasters vary from country to country, and from year to year.

What is notable about several of these natural disasters is that they should be avoidable.

If your colonies are strong and queenright, and if you’ve fed and treated them to give them the best chance of surviving the winter, it makes sense to do what you can to avoid these natural disasters.

The hive

I use a combination of polystyrene and cedar hives. Sometimes I even combine the two together in a single hive. The majority of my poly hives are from Abelo or Swienty which, for reasons explained elsewhere, are compatible with all the woodenware I own.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

I see no difference in the overwintering colony success between poly and cedar hives.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

I’ve only run about 20 colonies for the last decade. That’s ~200 overwintered colonies. If there were wildly different survival rates I would have noticed. Since I haven’t noticed it either means there is no difference or there is a subtle difference but my sample size is too low 9.

All my colonies overwinter on open mesh floors, usually with the Varroa tray removed. The hives in the photo above are being monitored for mite drop in early December following oxalic acid treatment.

DIY insulation over a perspex crownboard

In addition, all of my hives have a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan under the roof, integrated into the roof, or integrated into the crownboard. In the bee shed my hives have no roof, and are just capped with a block of Kingspan over the crownboard.

Look, no roof … but insulation present all year round

Make sure the stack of boxes in the hive are stable and secure. If the apiary is exposed, strap everything together securely. A colony might survive a week or two of summer showers with no roof, but will surely perish if exposed for any length of time to cold, wet winter weather.

Apiary security

It is unlikely that you will visit the apiary much in the winter. Once a fortnight is more than enough.

It might therefore be worth considering whether it is sufficiently secure from the attention of unwanted human visitors. Unfortunately, incidents of vandalism occur throughout the season, but a hive kicked over in midwinter has less chance of being detected quickly.

Or of surviving.

Although it should probably be included within the ‘Varmints’ section below, large animals – cows, deer, elk, bear, rhino, kangaroo 10 – might also inadvertently, or deliberately, overturn a hive.

Apiary gate

Safe and secure

Fences, either a couple of strands of barbed wire, an electric fence or a full-blown razor-wire topped security barrier, are usually sufficient to keep large two and four-legged visitors at bay.

COLOSS mention both falling trees and flooding as natural disasters.

Winter storms can and do wreak havoc in some years, though I always associate the summer with storm-toppled trees because they’re in full leaf and therefore offer more resistance. It’s certainly worth looking to see if trees adjacent to your apiary might threaten the hives.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Flooding appears to be on the increase. I have experienced minor flooding in one of my apiaries. None of the hives were threatened, but it made access inconvenient for weeks at a time. Again, it’s worth imagining the worst and preparing for it.

Hives often float, but not necessarily the right way up 🙁

Varmints

Having dealt with the threat of large animals 11 it’s also worth considering the damage some small animals can do to hives.

The two main culprits are woodpeckers and mice. Both can be a menace once the frosts set in, but rarely before that.

Woodpeckers, and specifically green woodpeckers (yaffles 12), can learn that beehives contain a wonderful bounty of pupae and larvae. It is learned behaviour. Some green woodpeckers never go near hives, others routinely target them.

In Warwickshire, hives needed to be protected from yaffles. Here in Fife the bird is very much less common and I’ve never had any hives targeted.

Wrapped for winter

Wrapped for winter …

Protection is straightforward. If needed, I simply wrap the hives in a single sheet of DPM (damp proof membrane), pinned in place with drawing pins. The bird need to cling onto the vertical side of the hive to easily burrow through to the brood. The DPM stops them doing this. Leaving bits of the roof or sides of the floor exposed is therefore not a problem 13.

Pixie or Dixie?

Pixie or Dixie?

Mice access hives through overly large entrances. I only have problems with the stupidly cavernous maw of my preferred Everynuc. Mice eat pollen and stores, destroy the brood and wee everywhere 🙁  Thoroughly unpleasant.

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

A standard mouseguard pinned in place throughout the coldest months of the winter prevents them accessing the hive. Alternatively, on a full-sized colony, the kewl-style underfloor entrances are very effective at excluding rodents.

Kewl open mesh floor showing L-shaped entrance slot

Kewl floor entrance …

That’s not the end of winter-related tasks, but it’s just about all you need to do for your colonies before winter proper starts.

There are some midwinter checks that are needed, but we’ll deal with them nearer the time.


Note

We also have pine martens at one of my apiaries. They are reported to vandalise hives and steal honey (and presumably brood) in late winter. Pine martens are incredibly agile and no fence exists that could keep them out. Time will tell whether they are a problem.

In the meantime, here’s one living up to its name, stealing a pine offcut used to slow down the rate at which they empty the squirrel feeder of peanuts 🙂

Footnotes

  1. And if you haven’t you should have … get on with it.

     

    Do not pass Go, do not collect £200.

  2. Three days as eggs, five days as larvae (uncapped) and the remainder as capped pupae, emerging on the thirteenth day i.e. 21 days after the egg was laid.
  3. And, if she is laying, gently reassemble the hive and walk away … don’t bother clipping or marking her, or even finding her. Leave them to it.
  4. Hope for the best, expect the worst. If you’re wrong and the queen is unmated the colony will perish. If you’re wrong and the colony is mated, you’ll just be down one colony next season … assuming she’s mated well enough to get the colony through the winter.
  5. It can be surprising how long the bees survive, but that’s all they’re doing … the colony is doomed.
  6. I know some commercial beekeepers routinely use air freshener, which is where I first heard of it.
  7. If there were supers on the hive I’d always use newspaper … I do not want to produce weirdly smelly honey!
  8. It smells awful.
  9. I’m unlikely to increase my colony numbers, so ask me again in 50 years when I have a statistically-relevant sample size.
  10. There is a global readership of these pages … I don’t want anyone to feel left out.
  11. Other than bears … you’re on your own with bears.
  12. A dialectic name for the green woodpecker (Pica viridis) that echoes the laughing call of the bird.
  13. And, before you ask, I’ve not had any issues with condensation or damp on the inside of the DPM. The top edge is usually tucked under the roof and there’s a good overlap.

6 thoughts on “Preparing for winter

  1. Jeremy Quinlan

    Hi David
    I see you overwinter your colonies on open mesh floors. 3 questions, if I may:
    1. It has been folk-lore locally here in Suffolk to ‘top & tail’, i.e. put a super (with stores if it has any) under the brood chamber to get the cluster above the draughts. A good idea or not – what do you think?
    2. On the subject of open mesh floors, do you know of any research into their efficacy in reducing mite numbers?
    3. Recently, I saw on the Central Association of Bee Keepers’ website reference to a French & Portuguese research paper: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200048 which came to the conclusion that Apis mellifera is keener to maintain humidity rather than temperature and wondered how this squares with OMF. It was not stated whether the hives used had OMF.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Jeremy

      1. I’ve done it, but only when I’ve left them with a partially capped super. I’ve read others do it for the reason you state (to avoid drafts) but have no evidence whether it’s beneficial. I suspect this was one of those ideas that someone (or many, independently) dreamt up and implemented. Since the bees presumably survived it becomes the ‘right’ way to do it. I bet no-one has measured the drafts below the clustered colony. I should add that my hives are well insulated above the crownboard. The cluster often is spread out, flattened, under the warm underside of the crownboard, so therefore should be well above the drafts from the OMF.
      2. Phoretic mites fall off bees, even when there’s no treatment being used. Any mite that falls outside the colony is one less mite to parasitise the bees. However, this very small number is unlikely to have a significant impact on mite numbers overall. Shortly after emergence from the cell a larger numbers of mites (~20% if I remember) drop off the bees over a 2-3 day period. Again, these are better off out of the hive and the OMF prevents them from climbing back up from the floor and reattaching.
      3. I’ve not read that paper and, looking at my diary am unlikely to before Christmas 🙁 I’d presume that they used solid floors to provide a closed environment.

      You’re clearly thinking about OMF’s. I have very little experience of anything but OMF’s, so have nothing to compare things with. I don’t actually think I own a single solid floor. The closest thing would be a split board used in a vertical split.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Fred

    Hi David, I’ve been dreading this particular blog entry since you sign-posted it earlier in the season and I had hoped you might forget. It is , of course, the feared , by me at least, Aerosol Unite Technique, I know you’ve done it and that it’s the preferred method for commercial outfits ( who also know what works) but I am happy to admit I just don’t have the nerve….likewise don’t have the nerve for a method an old hand told me which he calls The Heart Transplant Requeen… in May -June , midday on a good flying day remove 4 frames inc poor queen from the strong colony and simply replace with frames from nuc including replacement queen…. and close eyes/hold breath/try to calm heartbeat

    Always melancholy when practical part of season wraps up but in no time we’ll be looking at daytime temps of 11-12 in early March and trying to kid ourselves it’s ok to open up just for a quick peek…

    Thanks so much for the weekly blog, simply love it (even more so now since no need to mention aerosols again for a long long long time)

    Fred

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Fred

      No need to dread it … just ignore it completely. One of the great things about beekeeping is that there are usually several ways to achieve the same goal. All equally correct. There are of course, several ways to get things totally wrong as well! I united about a dozen colonies one morning earlier this year using air freshener. I was very time-restricted and it worked well. However, it’s certainly not my preferred way of doing things. My bee bag usually contains a few sheets of newspaper, but does not usually contain air freshener 😉

      I’ve not tried that method of requeening, though I have read about it. There’s a similar one in which you put the queen and the frame she’s on into a large paper bag and lower it into the hive. I’m very conventional. I use a JzBz cage, initially sealed until I know the recipient colony isn’t aggressive to her, and then plugged with queen candy. It’s not foolproof, but it’s not far off.

      March feels a long way off, but up here I sometimes don’t look at the colonies until late April … more than 6 months away. That’s almost enough time to deal with all the things that I never finished last winter!

      Delighted you enjoy the posts.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Mike S.

    David,
    I really enjoy your blog; thanks for all the effort you put into it.
    I inspected my hives yesterday, and one of them has a low brood count, i.e. not much. I have temperature probes in that hive. Instead of checking in on additional laying, I’m thinking of simply monitoring the temperature. As long as it’s 35C or so, I assume there’s brood, as I assume the colony won’t keep it that warm if there’s no brood. Thoughts?
    – Mike

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Mike

      Cluster temperature is a good indication of brood rearing as long as the probe(s) are located in the cluster. I’ve had hives with temperature monitoring and have previously posted traces as a colony shifts from brood rearing to not rearing:

      Temperature and brood rearing

      I can’t remember whether I checked this colony for brood in late November or not, but the drop in temperature certainly suggests that’s the case. However, care is needed … the cluster moves about the colony during the winter. If it moves away from your probe it will look as though brood rearing has stopped.

      I’ve not given up on brood temperature monitoring … I’ve got a half-built DIY temperature monitoring system. All I need is a long dark winter to allow me to finish it. It can accommodate multiple temperature probes enabling a single computer to monitor multiple hives, or have multiple probes within a single hive.

      My colonies – at least those I looked into on Saturday – also have very limited amounts of brood at the moment.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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