Just as you are pulling your heavy coats out of storage and stocking up on firewood and tea bags, bees and beekeepers are spending the fall preparing for winter in their own special ways.
Here in Western North Carolina, we are busy making sure our hives are ready for winter, though our beekeeper friends in the northeast are already long past that stage. The colder your climate, the more you will need to do to prepare your hives for winter, and the earlier you will need to begin. It is late October as I write this and a beekeeper friend of mine in Rhode Island has already experienced several hard freezes.
All during the spring, summer, and early autumn, the valiant worker bees have labored long hours at the business (buzziness?) of collecting nectar and pollen to make enough food to sustain the hive. Wild bees must have lots and lots of honey stored up if they are to make it through the entirety of the coldest, darkest season.
As the seasons change from fall to winter, it is the beekeeper’s job to make sure that their bees are fed, warm, and protected from the wind and the cold, and any animals that might hurt or even destroy the colony.
Though we have our role to play, after years of caring for our own hives, we have learned that “our girls” take care of most of the early autumn prep themselves. By the end of September, beginning of October, there will be no boys (drones) left in the hive because the female worker bees have kicked them out. The drones are evicted because they have no function at this time of year, and pose a threat to the colony by eating up precious food stores.
Our Fall Feeding Regimen (and Basic Recipe for Honey Slurry)
We help make sure that the remaining bees’ bellies are full by feeding them throughout the fall. To make their food, we’ll collect all the crystallized honey we have on hand (truth be told, we are lucky enough to have access to more of that than other beekeepers since we own a honey store) in five-gallon buckets. We use that crystallized honey to make a “slurry” we’ll feed to the bees.
We fill a mason jar with about a quarter cup of crystallized honey, a feeding stimulant (we use Honey-B-Healthy), and water. We cover the mason jar with a lid that has tiny holes in it, turn the jar upside down, and put it in the hive.
In late October, we go into our hives to feed our bees about twice a week. Every time we go into the hives, we find those jars empty. They feast on the food we give them because so many flowers have died back for the season that there is less pollen and nectar to be gathered in the wild. That is why you will see bees and yellowjackets hanging around garbage cans or buzzing around your food during a picnic in the fall—they are hungry. It may be still warm enough for them to fly around, but there is no food to be found in the places where they usually go to forage.
There are a few fall flowers blooming, (chrysanthemums, rosemary, sedum, and others) and the colors of fall are reflected in the color of the honey the bees produce at this time of year. Some frames are just gorgeous. They look like those northeastern hills and forests of autumn leaves, with oranges and yellows and reds.
A Beekeeper’s Fall Chore Checklist
- Feed hives honey slurry or sugar water at least twice a week in early autumn.
- Check the health of the queen.
- Remove empty supers.
- Combine colonies that are too small into one large hive.
- Close all hive entrances but one.
- Create windbreaks around each hive with hay bales.
- Remove weeds and other hiding places for mice.
- Secure hive covers with ratchet straps.
- Place a shallow pan of water with rocks in it inside each hive.
- Finally, pack each hive with enough honey to feed the colony all winter long (amount varies by region, we leave 70 lbs in Western North Carolina).
Full Description of Fall Chores
When we check our hives in fall, we make sure that our queen is in there and that she is still healthy and laying. We want to see a little bit of brood, but we know we are not going to see anything like we do in summer. The queen produces less and less brood as fall progresses.
Another autumn chore is to remove any supers (large hive boxes) that are empty of brood. Empty boxes cause the bees to expend more energy to warm the hive, a difficult task especially because there aren’t as many bees in there. So we make sure that the number of supers in the hive matches the size of the colony–no more and no less.
We often combine small or struggling colonies, especially if there is no queen, into a larger stronger hive. I would rather have one healthy hive than two dead hives. So even if we have two small hives, we might combine them to make a larger hive.
We reduce the numbers of entrances into the hive. In summer our hives have three open entrances. We close two in fall and make sure that only the smallest entrance stays open to keep mice out of the hive. Mice will steal honey and damage honeycomb. We also remove weeds around the hives because those can be hiding places for mice and other little creatures that can hurt your colony.
We bring in bales of hay and create windbreaks around each hive. That way sunlight will still be able to warm the hive and the bees can fly up and over the bales, but the hives won’t take full gust of wind. A long gust of sustained wind might be strong enough to topple over a hive.
We make sure to secure the covers on our hives with ratchet straps in case of strong winds. Some beekeepers use heavy rocks, but we prefer ratchet straps to keep the covers from blowing off. Some beekeepers wrap their hives. We do not. The bales of hay we set between each of our hives allows for ventilation. We don’t want moisture to build up inside.
We place a shallow pan of water with big rocks in it inside each hive. This way, the bees have a safe place to land to drink water so that they don’t drown or get stuck on half melted ice. We check on that periodically to make sure that they have water.
Even in wintertime, on a nice warm day bees will fly out of the hive to drink. We are fortunate that there is a creek and a spring fed pond near our hives, so they don’t have a long flight to get to the water. The bees also leave the hive on warmer days to take a cleansing flight to eliminate waste. Bees do not produce waste inside the hive, so they must go outside for that.
The Final (and Biggest) Feeding of the Season
At the very end of autumn, when winter weather has arrived, we take out the glass jars of honey water and replace them with frames of honey. In our part of the country, depending on the size of the hive and local weather conditions, a bee colony will eat an average of 70 lbs of honey over the winter. Some beekeepers feed their hives sugar water, but we try to give our bees 100% honey.
Perhaps our most important fall beekeeping task is to make sure that each hive is packed with enough honey to feed the colony throughout the winter season. We try and build up two deep walls of honey, at least, on either side of the hive. Sometimes we take a deep frame and put a piece of cardboard in there to help keep them warm. We try to put at least ten medium frames of honey across the top, and if possible one or two deep frames of honey right next to the cluster.
In winter, the bees cluster up in a ball in the hive, with the queen at the center. Imagine the queen as the nucleus of a cell. The bees keep rotating so that all of the bees stay warm, working their way from closest to the queen to the outside. We will build a wall of honey around the cluster, so that they can turn and eat without wasting the energy that they need to stay warm.
Our fall chore list may seem long, but really these tasks are small payments for the sweet riches that the bees give to us throughout the rest of the year. The least we beekeepers can do is to make sure our bees are fed, warm, and protected all winter long.