After presenting to a group over the weekend about getting their colonies ready for winter, I realized how far behind I was. So, on Sunday I rolled off the couch and went through our four power hives. I started with them because we knew we had many hives with insufficient stores for the winter. If the booming hives had excess honey, I could reallocate it.
Unfortunately, because of my health in July and August, I was too tired to dig down. I just kept adding boxes instead of checking what was really going on down below. Turns out that in those four power hives of two deep boxes and a couple of honey supers, the bottom two deeps are essentially empty. (They’re now removed—no sense giving the bees something more to patrol as their colony size winds down.)
So folks, I’ll give you my advice for what I feel you should be doing this time of year, and I’ll try to take my advice as well!
First, some background on bees wintering in Michigan:
30% overwintering survival is about the national average.
Last year we had much higher failures in this area—the winter wouldn’t stop.
Generally bees can handle cold (just not that relentless sub-zero stuff we had in March that didn’t allow them to break their cluster and move to where the food was.) What typically kills bees is being wet and cold, or not having a big enough cluster to stay warm and move to where the stores area. Bees will frequently starve to death within inches of honey.
What’s a cluster? It is how bees form about the queen to keep her at about 90 degrees, and themselves warm as well. A cluster grows colder toward the edge of it. I’ve read it takes about two weeks for a bee on the outside to wriggle its way to the center in the bees’ semi-hibernating state, and they’re always rotating. If you’re the bee on the outside of the cluster when it is two degrees, you’re probably going to drop off and die, or when an icy cold drop of water knocks you off and it is too chilly to climb back on.
Icy cold drops of water? Yep. Bees shiver to generate warmth, which releases moisture. That warm moist air rises, softening the capped honey above the cluster so bees can move to and consume it. This is called “chimney eating”, and that’s why it makes sense to ensure there is honey above the brood nest.
That moist heat also rises to the lid of the hive. If that lid is cold, the moisture condenses and drops on the bees. Bees can generally survive being cold, but not being wet and cold.
Assuming fall isn’t going to be super chilly, you have some time to try and help your bees prepare for wintering. Here are the essentials that you can do in one long, probably final session when you can get into the hive, weather permitting.
- Verify that the hive is queenright. If not, and they’re not in process of making a new queen, you won’t have bees come next spring. No queen or queen-in-process? There are options, contact me to discuss if need be.
- Check the mite levels as you should’ve been doing all along, and treat if that’s what you do. (See previous blogs for reference to University of Minnesota’s great aid in mite level checking.)You don’t need to check if you’re not going to do anything about it. Some people will not treat in any form (treatments range from some fairly nasty chemicals to more natural substances.) There’s certainly some merit to that stance, but know that you may lose a lot of colonies until you find some that can combat Varroa. Google Michael Bush among others; I respect his stance on letting them die if they can’t handle mites.If you are going to treat, depending upon what you’re treating with, this generally is the time of year to do so. Read and follow the directions. We don’t want to breed resistant mites by misapplying treatments.
- Look for other critters? While you’re in the hive, look around for other predators. We found on Sunday an extensive mouse condo between the ground and the bottom board. While not a direct threat to the hive, come winter that mouse probably would’ve tried to move in.Look out for wax moths, small hive beetles, etc. If you find them, it indicates that you don’t have enough bees to keep those pests under control. Reduce the hive to a more manageable size.
- Evaluate the available resources. In SW MI, the recommendation I generally hear is 70-80# of honey. (A deep frame weighs 5-6 pounds; google to find the weight of full, capped medium and shallow frames.) If you don’t have that much, or you want to be sure, provide 2:1 sugar syrup. That’s a thicker syrup than spring, but allegedly it is more easily converted to honey. See my notes below on making that syrup.If you’re seriously light, options include:- Reallocating from other hives that may have excess
– Combining with a stronger hive (See my notes in the Publications section of this website on combining.
– Keep feeding
- Distribute those resources and rearrange the hive. I admit that historically I’ve been lousy at doing this. I generally feel the bees know what they’re doing. But, we’re working a couple dozen hives and they’re doing some very different things, like the 10 hives who don’t know it is September and have built up minimal stores. I suspect they don’t know what they’re doing; probably the toxic world we live in has impacted their little brains. So, I’m “playing God” and rearranging their hives like the human bee experts have said they should be:- Brood frames in the bottom in the middle of the box, with honey frames on either side- A full box of honey above that (if you got it), with the fullest honey frames above the brood nest-Another full box of honey above that, if you have itYou will probably find, come next Spring, frames in the outer edges of the boxes that were untouched. That’s likely because the cluster never got big enough to get to the edges when the cold set in. Cluster size gets smaller as time goes by–the queen slows down laying now, practically ceases in December, and begins laying slowly again come January.We use 10-frame Lang equipment. For a few colonies that don’t have 20 full or fairly full frames, we’re making essentially 8-frame equipment, inserting 1-inch Styrofoam on either side for insulation (taking the place of the outer frame on either side). Hopefully this’ll work.
- Sugar ceiling: If the bees eat through everything they made and it is still not Spring, anything is better than starving to death. Thus, we put on a sugar ceiling with the Mountain Camp Method (MCM), described in the Publications section of this website. You’ll find others recommending adding a candy fondant or winter patties. I’ve never done winter patties, and making a candy board or a fondant board is more cooking than I’m qualified to do. Plus, the MCM has always worked for me. And, if you use winter patties, they can be added on it.Another advantage to the MCM is that IF they don’t need it, come Spring, you can always reconstitute that sugar into a spring feed.But, do something so they have emergency stores if they get to the top in February. It typically isn’t warm enough for them to turn around and go back down to find any honey they missed.
- Absorbent layer: Remember, it usually isn’t the cold that kills them, but rather being wet and cold. Thus, you want to provide something to absorb the moisture and / or prevent it.There’s lots of options for this—a masonite board, a layer of newspapers under the lid, an absorbent blanket across the top bars. My first year of beekeeping I put the sports section under the top cover. I checked on it on a sunny day in February and it was soaked. And I was too naïve to pull it out and put something dry in. All my hives died that year. (They may have already been dead. I overwrapped them and covered their vent holes so it was really, really moist in there.)Part of addressing the moisture issue is to make it so the top cover isn’t cold. Many beekeepers add a half-inch (or more) piece of Styrofoam inside the top cover to insulate it.We do that, and we also have the absorbent layer. (I’ve killed a lot of bees, I don’t want to do that anymore.) Our absorbent layer is a shallow box with window screen in the bottom, and filled it with commercially available cedar chips, or dried leaves … about two inches of anything absorbent.So, my optimal winter Lang hive looks like this:Top cover
Make sure you put a brick or something on it to hold it down. We had one brick on this hive originally. The hive got blown over in late Nov’s high winds. Putting it back together the next day wasn’t fun for them or me, so I really pile on the bricks as it is out in a meadow.
We have popsicle sticks glued inside the top cover to allow for even more ventilation on the hives where we don’t have a Styrofoam liner. Yes, we’re inconsistent.
Not visible in picture.
Shallow super / absorbent layer
I typically use an empty honey super or a vent box with the vent holes duct-taped over. This is the uppermost navy box. We cut a half inch off the two top, long sides so that air can flow across it, drying out the chips. That’s not visible in the photo because it is covered by the orange top cover.
Shallow super or something to allow for the MCM sugar and patties.
There’s too much sugar to place the absorbent layer box on top of it). This is the gold box in the photo; it is actually just the box part that a top feeder would set into.
If you have one (navy in the picture).
Deep box (or medium box)
Pinkish-tan in the picture. Notice the hole drilled under the hand hold: 5/8” hole for ventilation AND an upper entrance, which they ended up needing as the snow was so deep last year!
Deep box (or medium box)
The big orange box in the picture. It has an upper entrance drilled in the back. Most of our boxes have the whole drilled somewhere in it. Some of our hives propolize it over.
Deep box (or medium box)
The light blue box in the picture, with a roofing paper skirt that blocks prevailing winds. What you don’t see is the critter guard across the front entrance, and the reduced front entrance.
We go with screened all winter, but skirt around the hive so wind can’t gust up into it.
Yes, I said there were only seven. But you might want to do these while you’re working the hive:
- Reduce the entrance for warmth and to protect against raiding. I probably wouldn’t go to the smallest opening yet, but reduce it down (a brick works great.)
- Remove any queen separators! If you had one on, make sure you aren’t keeping the queen from getting to the honey you’re leaving on.
- Install the critter guards. This can be done later, you don’t want to impede too many bees if the weather is nice, so this doesn’t usually happen for me until mid-end of October. The key thing is to do it BEFORE the critters move in for the winter. If it is cold, the bees will cluster and not get them out, and the field mouse will wreak havoc on honey and honeycomb. I know too many people who have put them on AFTER the mouse moved in, and I’ve got great pictures to prove it.Reality check: So, do you really have to do all of that? (I’ve got another list of seven things to do outside the hive coming soon.)
I have a commercial beekeeper friend who would laugh at that list. He doesn’t do anything other than give them an upper entrance and extra bricks. His philosophy is if they’re not strong enough to survive, he doesn’t want them in his apiary.
If you have the time, ponder what I’ve presented, look at what others suggest, and make your own decision.
And write it down, so that next season you’ll readily recall what worked and did not.