The beekeeping season is fast receding into the distance as the first frosts of autumn appear and, finally, the wasp numbers start to diminish. By now colonies should be heavy with stores, either collected by the bees or provided by the beekeeper.
There is relatively little actual beekeeping to be done this late in the year.
Colonies do not need to be disturbed unnecessarily. They certainly don’t require the usual weekly inspection … they’re not going to swarm, you’ve already applied your miticide of choice and fed them with fondant or syrup 1.
Late queen mating
With temperatures during the day in the low to mid-teens (°C) it is still warm enough to open a colony if you need to.
One of the few reasons I’d open a colony in very late September/early October would be to check if a new queen that had emerged at the end of August had successfully mated. If she had, then all is good. She will continue to lay late into the autumn and should produce sufficient winter bees to get the colony through to the following Spring.
When I lived in the Midlands I would regularly get queens successfully mated in early/mid September. It was pretty dependable, and in good years I’d be actively queen rearing through much of August.
Now, back in Scotland, late queen mating is not something I would want to rely on. I’m certain it happens now and again, but only in very exceptional years.
This year, many of my colonies turfed their drones out a month ago, and queen mating is not going to happen unless there are plenty of drones about.
A quick peek
It takes just minutes to check whether the queen is mated and laying. Although you don’t need to see the queen, it’s worth using just a whiff of smoke so you have the option of searching for her if needed. If you smoke the colony heavily she’ll end up rushing about or buried under a mass of disturbed bees.
You will need to remove the feeder (if using syrup) or the queen excluder and fondant block. Place these aside gently and remember that there are likely to be large numbers of bees adhering to the underside, so balance them on the rim of an upturned roof. This is the time you realise the benefit of using framed rigid wire QE when feeding fondant … removing the block on a flexible plastic QE is a right palaver.
The hive should be busy with bees. Gently remove the dummy board and outer frame. This should be full, or in the process of being filled, with stores. There’s no need to shake the bees off. Just stand it aside out of the way.
‘Guesstimate’ the approximate centre of the brood nest, based upon the density of bees in the seams. Gently lever the frames apart a centimetre or so, then release one of the frames adjacent to the gap you’ve created from its neighbours.
Lift the frame and look for sealed brood, open brood and eggs. By knowing the development cycle of workers bees (3E,5L,13P 2) you can determine approximately when the queen started laying 3.
If she started laying …
Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat
… if there are no eggs or larvae by very late September I would assume that the queen had failed to mate.
You need to use your judgement here. If the weather was poor in the first half of September, but excellent since then, it remains a distant possibility that she has only just mated and has yet to start laying.
Look carefully for polished cells where the centre of the broodnest should be.
And cross your fingers.
Polished cells are a sign that the nurse bees are preparing the comb for egg laying. However, in my experience, they do this even if the queen remains unmated, so it is not a reliable sign that all is well.
You therefore need to use your judgement and be realistic.
Miracles do happen, but you can’t depend upon them 4.
If the weather has been consistently poor – windy, low temperatures (for queen mating, which really needs ~18-20°C) or wet – then assume the worst and ‘save’ the colony by uniting it with a nearby strong colony.
A colony without a laying queen in late autumn will not survive the winter in any state that will make it a viable colony the following year 5.
In Scotland, I routinely unite colonies that do not have a laying queen at the end of August. As described in the last couple of weeks, I do my final colony checks with feeding and miticide treatment.
I know the chances of a queen getting successfully mated after that are effectively zero.
Quick uniting – air freshener
If you need to unite two colonies quickly, without the usual week long wait while they gently mingle after stacking them separated by a sheet of newspaper, you can use a few squirts of household air freshener.
- Open the queenright recipient colony, removing the feeder and carefully placing it aside to avoid crushing bees (see above)
- Find the unmated/unlaying/uncooperative queen in the broodless box and remove her (permanently I’m afraid)
- Spray the top of the recipient colony with a a few squirts of air freshener
- Do the same with the underside of the now queenless broodless colony
- Stack the latter on top of the recipient colony
- Add the feeder back, again giving a squirt or two of air freshener at the interface to stop the bees from fighting
The air freshener masks the distinctive pheromone ‘smell’ of the two colonies, allowing the bees to mingle without fighting.
Like everything else on this site, I only write here from direct experience. I have successfully united quite a few colonies like this, though nothing like the number I’ve united using newspaper 6.
Given time and the choice I’d always use newspaper 7.
But this late in the season you might not have time.
A day after uniting with air freshener you can, if needed, revisit the hive and go through the double brood box to reduce it to a single box for the winter.
Does it matter which air freshener you use?
I have no idea.
I use Glade Citrus Sunny Beat as it was the cheapest I could find at the time I needed it 8.
Securing the queenright overwintering colony
If you consult the COLOSS records for overwintering colony losses they include a small percentage that are lost to ‘natural disasters’. COLOSS record queen failures and things like that separately, and – in an earlier paper – they define natural disasters as:
… rather loosely defined, as the causes can be very different in participating countries, including fire, storm, flooding, vandalism, bears, martens, woodpeckers, falling trees, suffocation from snow and many more.
The small percentage (0.1 – ~5%) lost to natural disasters vary from country to country, and from year to year.
What is notable about several of these natural disasters is that they should be avoidable.
If your colonies are strong and queenright, and if you’ve fed and treated them to give them the best chance of surviving the winter, it makes sense to do what you can to avoid these natural disasters.
I use a combination of polystyrene and cedar hives. Sometimes I even combine the two together in a single hive. The majority of my poly hives are from Abelo or Swienty which, for reasons explained elsewhere, are compatible with all the woodenware I own.
I see no difference in the overwintering colony success between poly and cedar hives.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
I’ve only run about 20 colonies for the last decade. That’s ~200 overwintered colonies. If there were wildly different survival rates I would have noticed. Since I haven’t noticed it either means there is no difference or there is a subtle difference but my sample size is too low 9.
All my colonies overwinter on open mesh floors, usually with the Varroa tray removed. The hives in the photo above are being monitored for mite drop in early December following oxalic acid treatment.
In addition, all of my hives have a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan under the roof, integrated into the roof, or integrated into the crownboard. In the bee shed my hives have no roof, and are just capped with a block of Kingspan over the crownboard.
Make sure the stack of boxes in the hive are stable and secure. If the apiary is exposed, strap everything together securely. A colony might survive a week or two of summer showers with no roof, but will surely perish if exposed for any length of time to cold, wet winter weather.
It is unlikely that you will visit the apiary much in the winter. Once a fortnight is more than enough.
It might therefore be worth considering whether it is sufficiently secure from the attention of unwanted human visitors. Unfortunately, incidents of vandalism occur throughout the season, but a hive kicked over in midwinter has less chance of being detected quickly.
Or of surviving.
Although it should probably be included within the ‘Varmints’ section below, large animals – cows, deer, elk, bear, rhino, kangaroo 10 – might also inadvertently, or deliberately, overturn a hive.
Fences, either a couple of strands of barbed wire, an electric fence or a full-blown razor-wire topped security barrier, are usually sufficient to keep large two and four-legged visitors at bay.
COLOSS mention both falling trees and flooding as natural disasters.
Winter storms can and do wreak havoc in some years, though I always associate the summer with storm-toppled trees because they’re in full leaf and therefore offer more resistance. It’s certainly worth looking to see if trees adjacent to your apiary might threaten the hives.
Flooding appears to be on the increase. I have experienced minor flooding in one of my apiaries. None of the hives were threatened, but it made access inconvenient for weeks at a time. Again, it’s worth imagining the worst and preparing for it.
Hives often float, but not necessarily the right way up 🙁
Having dealt with the threat of large animals 11 it’s also worth considering the damage some small animals can do to hives.
The two main culprits are woodpeckers and mice. Both can be a menace once the frosts set in, but rarely before that.
Woodpeckers, and specifically green woodpeckers (yaffles 12), can learn that beehives contain a wonderful bounty of pupae and larvae. It is learned behaviour. Some green woodpeckers never go near hives, others routinely target them.
In Warwickshire, hives needed to be protected from yaffles. Here in Fife the bird is very much less common and I’ve never had any hives targeted.
Protection is straightforward. If needed, I simply wrap the hives in a single sheet of DPM (damp proof membrane), pinned in place with drawing pins. The bird need to cling onto the vertical side of the hive to easily burrow through to the brood. The DPM stops them doing this. Leaving bits of the roof or sides of the floor exposed is therefore not a problem 13.
Mice access hives through overly large entrances. I only have problems with the stupidly cavernous maw of my preferred Everynuc. Mice eat pollen and stores, destroy the brood and wee everywhere 🙁 Thoroughly unpleasant.
A standard mouseguard pinned in place throughout the coldest months of the winter prevents them accessing the hive. Alternatively, on a full-sized colony, the kewl-style underfloor entrances are very effective at excluding rodents.
That’s not the end of winter-related tasks, but it’s just about all you need to do for your colonies before winter proper starts.
There are some midwinter checks that are needed, but we’ll deal with them nearer the time.
We also have pine martens at one of my apiaries. They are reported to vandalise hives and steal honey (and presumably brood) in late winter. Pine martens are incredibly agile and no fence exists that could keep them out. Time will tell whether they are a problem.
In the meantime, here’s one living up to its name, stealing a pine offcut used to slow down the rate at which they empty the squirrel feeder of peanuts 🙂