Tucking Them In For Winter

The weather has been warm enough this week for some of the foragers to come out and try to find food, even though there is not much left in the way of flowering plants out there. I was watching some of my girls bring back a little bit of white or orange pollen. Aconite? Goldenrod? A few flowers that are not quite dead yet? They certainly were not full pollen baskets, but some is coming in.

Preparing for Winter

I “tucked in” all my girls for the winter in all ten of my hives last week. Mike helped. We know that our girls do not hibernate, they just stay in the hive complaining about the cold, but here are my final winterization steps:
  • Remove any Formic Pro or Apivar strips from the hives
  • Remove the bucket feeders with 2:1 syrup
  • Remove any extra boxes above the inner cover for bucket feeders
  • Placed one or two 3/4″ shims above the top box. The inner cover will go on top of the shim. I have made some shims, but I do best with the Imrie shims that you can buy. I cover up the notched entrance with blue painter’s tape. I will use the notch in the inner cover for ventilation.
  • Cover the top bars of the frames of the top box with as much fondant as I could fit inside the shims under the inner cover
  • Replace the inner cover, checking that the rear hole is covered with #8 hardware fabric (provides ventilation)
  • Taped up all the box seams with blue tape to reduce any drafts
  • Added a layer of 2 popsicle sticks on the front edge of the inner cover to lift the telescoping (provides ventilation)
  • Replaced the telescoping cover, pulling it towards the back to allow the rear inner cover hole to ventilate

Is Open Feeding a Bad Thing?

I have been pondering whether letting our colonies at home “open feed” is a bad thing, I have been letting my bees (and some of the neighboring bees) clean my syrup buckets and empty feeders of sugar. I am not the only beekeeper who does this. Many beekeepers let their bees (and some of the neighboring bees) clean all the equipment after extracting honey.

There are two concerns to consider with open feeding : encouraging robbing behavior, and spreading disease between colonies of bees by letting them feed together. In the cooler / cold days, I am less worried about encouraging robbing behavior, although that is something to keep in mind. I am more concerned that I have been increasing the spread of varroa between hives by letting all those bees feed together. Usually they all feed quite nicely together, though sometimes there is a “bully” bee who fights with other bees at communal feeding areas. I don’t have all my bees marked with hive numbers, so I don’t know whether they are half-sisters squabbling over position. Perhaps the bees become territorial about open food sources.

I think that I mentioned that I made way too much 2:1 syrup a couple of weeks ago, right about the time that some of the hives stopped taking it altogether, and others slowed way down. The bees seem to know when they won’t be able to dehydrate syrup into honey any more. They can still take some in for day-to-day food consumption, but they are not curing and capping any more. However, they are digging in to the fondant on top of their hives. They are also happy to dig into and forage some hard sugar that I left out for them that is slightly moistened. So I made up some cakes of sugar by mixing up dry sugar with my leftover 2:1 syrup.

Some beekeepers don’t make or buy fondant. They leave “emergency winter feed” on top of the bars of the top box in the hive in the form of “mountain camp sugar” … basically, a pile of white cane sugar on top of a piece of newspaper or Kraft paper. You can spritz it with a little bit of water to get the bees interested in it, or their breath will condense onto the sugar to moisten it.

It is very important during the winter that your bees have a nearby supply of water when the weather is warm enough for them to forage for it. The “common wisdom” is above 45 degrees, although I have seen bees flying in the high 30’s. If their flight muscles get chilled they might not come back though.  You want the water supply to be as close to the bee hives as possible and make it as bee “drown proof” as you can. I like to set out shallow pans filled with 3/4″ gravel or small rocks, about 1″ in diameter. You want the rocks to poke out above the lip of the pan. Some people put a Boardman feeder right inside the front entrance of the hive. I worry about the water freezing the jar and shattering it. If you do use a Boardman feeder for water, fill it less than 1/2 full of water … water to ice is usually a 50% expansion.

Wintertime Beekeeper Activities

Winter is a good time for beekeepers to:

  • Reading bee books and increasing your knowledge for next year! If you are a member of MCBA, they have an excellent lending library of many titles. To borrow a volume, come to a meeting and you can borrow a book for one month. If you can’t make the meeting to return the book, let me know (if you are local) and I can return it for you. I can probably check something out for you too, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from attending the meetings!

    I also am building my own personal library of beekeeping books. My protegés are welcome to borrow one of my titles (if I am not currently reading it myself, of course). You should be able to see what I have here, on LibraryThing: https://www.librarything.com/catalog/ferthalangur&deepsearch=beekeeping. Just let me know and we can work out the logistics.

  • Cleaning and repairing your woodenware. If you have frames that have been in a hive, I recommend putting them into plastic bags, freezing them for three days, then letting them reach room temperature in an air-conditioned room. Leave them in the plastic bags, unopened until you plan to use them. This will reduce any risk of mold growth or attracting other pests. If the frames are very wet before freezing, you might get some mold inside the bag on the frame. Usually this happens if there is a pinhole leak in your bag. Rodents are very good at smelling tiny bits of honey and they will gnaw their way through plastic bags. I store my frames in the plastic bags in plastic bins that have been filled with  PDB moth balls (not Naptha … only PDB) and sealed, in my garage. Leaving them in the plastic bags without a solid outer bin has led to mouse damage, and mouse excrement all over everything.

  • Your boxes can be “dressed” (scraping off the excess wax and propolis) and stored some place relatively safe from the elements if they are not painted. I think that they will be OK outside if they are painted with a couple of coats of exterior paint. I stack everything up under a telescoping cover to reduce exposure to rain and snow. Probably a plastic tarp or similar cover would be good to help protect from moisture. Of course, if you have space indoors in a garage, a shed, an attic, etc, this will preserve the woodenware longer, but I know that space is at a premium for everyone.

  • Cleaning up and reviewing your hive logs from 2019. What can you learn from your logs about what seemed to go well and what could have been done differently in 2019? Did you keep hive logs at all? I believe that I have shared my hive logs with most of you. I am switching from Dropbox to Sync this year, so you will be receiving an invitation from me to join Sync and share my hive logs. I can tell you why Sync and not Dropbox or Google Drive if anyone is interested.

  • Making your plans for 2020. It is never too soon to start thinking about next year.  If your hive(s) survive the winter, what are you going to do for swarm management? Are you going to try to split any hives? Remember that in any given year, for each hive that you have that has successfully overwintered, you have to choose between “making honey” or “making bees.” You can’t do both very well. Split colonies (parent and daughter) need to be fed as if they were newly installed nucs or packages. You can split a parent hive several times, but each time weakens the parent colony somewhat. You probably will want to be feeding that parent colony, which means that you’re not extracting honey for “others” because it will have sugar water mixed in.If your hive(s) do not survive (or have not even made it this far), how do you plan to replenish your bees? Buy packages? Buy nucs? If you are thinking nuc, you want to be thinking about whether to order one now (there will be some deals offered in December to pre-order early), or wait until Spring. [Hint … if you know that you will need bees in the Spring, consider ordering your nuc before the end of the year. If you think that you will need bees in the Spring, order a nuc anyway. In most cases, if you don’t need them, you can transfer your order to someone else, either directly or indirectly.] I generally do not recommend buying packages, FWIW. Nucs made from locally-bred locally adapted queens from local survivor stock, local, local, local are the way to go, in my opinion. Research is starting to show that many packages are not surviving well as new colonies. You really don’t know what you’re getting, but it is most likely that you’re getting a Southern-adapted queen and scoops of bees bred in Florida / Georgia / Texas. You might even be getting some AHB genetics in the mix.

    What is going to be your IPM (pest management) strategy for 2020? I think that we have all learned, painfully, what happens if you do not treat Varroa destructor as a serious threat to the survival of every colony in your care. If you are going to test and treat when needed, how often will you test? If you are going to treat prophylactically, when will you treat and with what? When will you test to be sure that the treatments are having the desired effect? Mite loads increase exponentially if you let them.

    If things are going really really well for you in the Spring … how many hives do you want to have in total? Remember that it is not being a good neighbor to let your bees swarm, which is one way to keep your hive population at a fixed number. If you have to split to avoid swarming, and you don’t want more hives, what is your plan? Offer a hive to a new beekeeper? Sell a nuc (you will need to have your apiary inspected by one of Cybil or Natasha’s minions)? Recombine hives in the late summer (squish the weaker queen)? Having a plan is always a good idea. Just remember to be flexible … the bees have their own plans.

Warning : This pages are part of my ‘Bee Babble’ series. The content is intended for a specific audience and is subject to my disclaimer

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