Early Autumn in the Beeyard – Preparing for Winter!

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Ford
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The bees are bringing in loads of bright orange pollen, and are filling the hives up with nectar from fall plants. Winter may seem a long way off, but now is the time we start planning to successfully overwinter our 18 beehives. Here are some key things that we begin focusing on in the fall. 

Varroa mites are a common parasite of honeybees. They can spread disease and seriously weaken the bees that will overwinter in the hive. We want the overwintering bees to be as healthy as possible! While we monitor the mite populations throughout the spring and summer, it is important to do an early fall mite count. Our procedure is relatively simple. We put a mite board under the screened bottom board of the hive for three days. We then count the number of mites on the board and divide by 3 to get a three day average to determine if that hive needs to be treated for mites or not. If we do need to treat the hive for mites, we prefer to use Apigaurd. This is a non-chemical thymol based treatment that is pretty easy to apply. Honey supers that will be used for human consumption need to be removed ahead of time as the thymol can affect the taste of the honey. It takes 4 weeks to complete an Apigaurd treatment, which means that any hives that need to be treated will be completed before it gets too cold. At the latest, we start our mite treatments by the middle of September.  

A honeybee colony needs a large population of bees to make it through winter. As we inspect each hive, we look for signs that they have a healthy laying queen. Finding the queen herself is nice, but we also check the frames to see if there are solid areas of eggs, larvae, and capped brood without any “spottiness”. We also make note of the overall population of bees. When we open the top of the hive, bees should be filling most of the spaces between the frames. I have read that in the north, bees need at least a basketball size cluster to generate enough heat to survive. If it seems like the population of a hive is too low, or the queen is not doing well, one option is to combine that hive with another hive. We would rather use a weak hive to make a good hive even stronger, than to just have the weaker hive perish over the winter. We can always split the hive to create two hives again in the spring if the population seems very strong. 

The third important factor we start looking for is honey stores. Even though they are still bringing in nectar, we can start to get an idea if the bees will need more honey to make it through the long winter here in the northeast. For our area, we like to have our hives winter with at least 1 deep and 2 medium supers of honey, or about 100 pounds. Right now some of our hives have much more than that (one hive currently has 1 deep and 6 mediums), and some of our hives have much less than that (one hive has 1 deep and 1 medium). If a hive has more honey than it will need, we can take some of that honey for ourselves, or move some frames of honey to a hive that may need it to get through winter. If we think a hive does not have enough honey to make it through winter we can now begin feeding it a sugar solution. We bring 2 ½ quarts of water to a boil, take it off of the heat, and stir in 10 pounds of white granulated sugar. Once it cools we like to add “Honey B Healthy” to the syrup. It is a mixture of essential oils that we find helps prevent mold growth in the sugar syrup. We also like to use a hive top feeder, as it helps discourage robbing situations. As I mentioned above, we can also move frames of extra honey to those hives if needed. It is important to feed them early in the fall, as it gives them enough time to concentrate the syrup to the right moisture levels before winter sets in. 

We won’t begin our final winter preparations until October. However, taking these steps now helps gives our bees a head start on successfully overwintering. 

Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith.

Photo by Thomas Ford