For Northern beekeepers, it is way past the time to prepare for winter, but in the southeast, we still have 90° F days and the goldenrod is finally in full bloom! The weather this year has been a complete downer with it raining almost every day from 03 June until 09 September and then Hurricane Irma hit us. We have recovered from that and thankfully the goldenrod caught up and is taking off: I look at my hives at home now and see a stream of bees flying in with their corbiculae (the scientific term for the pollen baskets) loaded with bright yellow pollen.
However, as it is getting to the end of the year, and thus “winter” is soon to be here (days where it might reach 50° F) we must, as responsible beekeepers, ensure that our bees are ready to go into winter as strong and as healthy as they can bee.
With that said, what ARE the to-do lists?
1.) First and foremost – ensure that varroa mite population is negligent going into winter through mite counts and appropriate treatment applications.
2.) Treat for any diseases (can be greatly curbed by strictly adhering to #1).
3.) Make sure that there is a strong population of healthy nurse bees to raise the winter bees free from varroa mites and disease. Winter bees live longer than summer bees since all they do is carry the hive through winter and do not work hard everyday foraging.
4.) Make sure that the hives have sufficient stores or supplemental feeding with sugar water, corn syrup, fondant, etc.
5.) Provide windbreaks if needed to break up cold winter winds
6.) If you live in an area that may receive snow then your hives need a top entrance so they can exit the hive for cleansing flights. Bees do not defecate in the hive unless they are sick, but they do not fly below 50° F, if a day clears up they need to be able to exit as they can hold it in for a very long time!
7.) Thank you to Minniear Menagerie for reminding me of this very important aspect of winter prep: reduce the entrances to the hive! The bees are going to be too concerned with clustering up and heating each other to be able to fend off pests from getting inside. A big risk to hives in the winter is mice: they love the warmth and humidity and the protection offered by the hive. You can use metal mouseguards to prevent mice from eating through the wood reducers. Also by reducing the entrance size you reduce the amount of cold winter winds that enter the hive.
Of all these, I cannot stress enough the importance of number 1! The dreaded varroa mite, Varroa destructor, can and will wipe out your hives during winter.
When I was at the Beekeeping Institute in Young Harris, GA earlier this year, commercial beekeeper Slade Jarrett, of Jarrett Apiaries, said that he commonly hears stories from new beekeepers that said their bees are doing so well that they swarmed in November! This is impossible because bees don’t swarm that late in the year: there’s practically nothing blooming and it’s too cold. He said the bees all died or left because there was such a high mite load that the hive was decimated. Slade would ask them what their mite counts were and they always said their hives never had mites.
Well, here’s the thing: all honey bee hives in the world except Australia and a few islands have varroa mites. It’s not a maybe it is a certainty. Varroa mites follow the growth rate of the honey bees that they infect meaning that after winter, there is a small amount of varroa present in a hive because there is hardly any brood. Once the spring flows hit and thus the brood production increases, the mite load increases, and increases. Unless treated, it eventually hits a point where there are so many mites in the colony that most new bees emerging have one or more mites on them. First-year hives generally have a low mite count since they have to start from scratch and there are not a lot of mites present. Beekeepers generally start losing hives to varroa in the second year.
Chart from Randy Oliver at Scientific Beekeeping.
It is widely believed that varroa mites are a vector for many of the diseases and viruses found in hives, especially Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) which causes honey bees to be born with twisted, curled up wings and unable to forage for the hive. Mite infested bees are also less healthy and live shorter lives than noninfected bees.
Enough about what the varroa mite does to a hive. How can we stop them?
First, you need to determine your mite load in the hive and you do this by performing a mite count. There are two ways to do a mite count: the less effective way is a sugar shake but the most accurate method is to perform an alcohol wash. A sugar shake kills no bees which is why a lot of people prefer it but it also does not knock off all the mites and leads to an inaccurate mite count which may falsely trick the beekeeper into postponing treatments or using a treatment at less strength than needed. Alcohol washes will knock off almost every single mite on a bee, but it kills bees as well as mites. Many people are against this but the best way that I have heard that explains the practicality of the practice is from New Jersey Apiarist Tim Schuler. He explains it as akin to the hive donating blood: the hive sacrifices 300 bees to save 30,000-50,000 bees and those bees can be sent off to check for Nosema.
There are many treatment options available, however not all are practical depending on what time of year it is, where you live (as it may be illegal to use a certain treatment), and what treatment you last used as you cannot simply use pesticide treatments again and again or you will raise treatment-resistant mites. The treatment I like the most is oxalic acid vaporization: it kills up to 90% of phoretic mites (the ones crawling around the hive looking for brood to infect) and is perfectly harmless to the bees. In the past, I have used Mite-a-way Quick Strips, MAQS, and lost some queens so I do not like that treatment but each individual will have different reasons for why they like or dislike a treatment. If you use pesticides (MAQS, Apivar, Hopguar, Apistan, Checkmite+, etc) then you must rotate the treatments! This is so that mites resistant to one treatment get killed by the next treatment.
This article is not intended to go in depth with anyone treatment option so I will not be covering them in detail here, but there are many amazing guides that can be found. In any case, always adhere to the instructions provided with whatever treatment method you use.
End of Year Reminders
With the end of the year approaching here are some things to keep in mind: it’s always cheaper to buy your equipment in the offseason, so stock up for next year! Speaking of stocking up, you need to make sure that you have all you need for your treatments BEFORE you find out that your mite counts are too high. If you have to put in your order, wait for it to be filled, then shipped out to you that is a least a week, if not more, and that is not including any unforeseen shipping delays.
Also, if any of your hives do not have enough bees to keep a good size cluster you need to make the decision to combine them with a stronger hive or combine two weaker hives into one. In my opinion, the worst thing a beehive can have is not enough bees: they can’t forage, raise brood, or defend the hive adequately. A small cluster will not be able to keep warm enough to survive cold days, move up to reach stores, and will not make it to spring. This is 100% the beekeeper’s fault if they let a small cluster go into winter. A basketball sized cluster is great but a softball sized one won’t make it. The minimum that I suggest for winter is 5 frames of bees, which is exactly the size of a nuc. Lots of beekeepers overwinter bees in nucs because they can be kept close together and share the heat from nearby clusters. Admittedly, overwintering in nucs and double-stacked nucs is not something I have researched a lot but I do know that it works from the limited reading on it I have done. Look into it and see if it is for you.
Looking forward to next year, make sure you have the things needed to get your bees ready to go before the spring flow hits: pollen, honey, and bees. You can buy pollen and/or pollen substitute, but if you buy real pollen it needs to be irradiated to kill off any spores that could spread diseases to your hive.
The only honey you should ever use to feed back to your bees is honey that you have collected from your own bees. Doctor Paul Arnold at Young Harris College stated during the Beekeeping Institute this year that in samples of honey from backyard beekeepers, American Foul Brood (AFB) spores were found in 30% of the samples compared to 100% of samples from commercial beekeepers having AFB spores. Never, ever buy honey from somewhere to feed to your bees! If you have excess honey in the brood chamber but do not want to harvest it you can freeze that frame and store it until winter. Your bees will have real honey and you do not have to give them sugar water for the winter. However, if you have no honey stored and your bees have no honey stores then you need to feed them sugar water during the winter at a ratio of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. I have heard that a 5:3 ratio prevents the sugar water from spoiling too quickly but have not tried it myself. If you feed your bees during winter try to do it on days over 50° F so you do not chill the cluster too much. If that is not feasible then try to have the hive opened for as little as you can as it is entirely possible to chill your bees so much that they lose all their heat and die.
Lastly, before the spring flow starts if your bees do not have enough pollen then you should start feeding it to them so they can begin to raise brood. Getting an early jump on brood production will ensure that your hives have enough bees to take full advantage of the spring flow and collect as much nectar as they can. Keep an eye out for the weather since you can trick the bees into thinking that there are resources available and suddenly you have a booming hive but no flowers for the bees to work.
As always, please feel free to comment or ask any questions down below!