Last fall, preparing a hive for winter was new to me, but consisted of making sure the hive had been treated late fall for mites, stores of honey and pollen were plentiful, putting a mouse guard (made of ¼ inch hardware cloth) to prevent nesting invaders, and capping up the hive for the winter. Seemed simple enough.
This year, like everything else, our fall beekeeping looked A LOT different.
After removing the last supers from the hives, we began to prepare for winter. We put in mite treatment in two phases over a 14-day period. This did a good job of knocking down those populations just prior to the fall bees being produced. It also turned cold and we decided to feed the hives some heavy sugar syrup (2:1, sugar:water) to keep them from using up their winter stores too early.
Moving Time! We had a long summer of struggling with three hives crowded so close together. Each time we disturbed one hive, we had to step back to let them settle before we could open the next hive…it was really hard to not get stung. The decision was made to relocate the hive in the middle. It was glorious…room to spare and no one had to stand in front of the entrance (a bad position to be in when you are driving bees out of a hive or they are returning from foraging). This was like that home improvement project that you let go for 5 years, it took 15 minutes to make the repair and you wondered by you hadn’t done it sooner.
Late summer/early fall, we struggled to get one of the hives queen-right. We gave them frame after frame of eggs and they produced no queen! This was a big problem. By late fall, we decided that hive was just doomed to fail. Remember that hives have population turnover continually with spring and summer bees having about a 6-week lifespan. Without a queen to make fall bees, the hive wouldn’t survive the winter. We had to make some tough decisions. What do we do with the bees in the hive (who seemed to not know they didn’t have a queen)? Also, what to do with all of the resources they were still bringing into the brood boxes (honey and pollen)?
THE PLAN…we would combine one story of bees and resources from this failing hive with each of the other two prospering hives. Neither of us were positive on the best way to approach this so we took to consulting online posts by other beekeepers. Advice guided us to the best placement for the box we were introducing was on the BOTTOM. The logic on this is if there is a queen that we somehow missed, the queen in the more successful hive is on top and has the advantage in any coup attempt by another queen. Between the two populations, a layer of newspaper is placed to allow the bees to adjust to the pheromones of each other before they chew through the newspaper and officially share space. (see photo)
When the failing hive was opened to make the combination, there were TONS of drones (male bees). This means that there definitely was (as we suspected) a ‘drone layer’. A drone layer is an infertile worker bee that takes over laying when a queen is not present. The presence of a drone layer could explain our lack of success having the hive raise a queen…they thought they had one because eggs were being laid. It also could explain their fairly even temperament…usually a hive with no queen is very feisty when disturbed. The usual remedy for this condition is that if you can verify the presence of a drone layer (and can find her), to remove her from the hive and try to get them to raise a queen. It was too late in the season for that so we continued with the combining process.
We now have two VERY active hives with the recent warm weather. These foragers were looking for the last blooms in the gardens to try to harvest from.
As temperatures dip again, we no longer feed liquid sugar to the bees. Too much moisture in a hive can impact overwintering success. As mid-November approaches, we will be treating the hives for mites one final time with oxalic acid drip. This will be my first time doing this so as with most things, we will see how well they take to it. Many beekeepers swear by this very late treatment providing for more successful overwintering…ultimately that is our goal!
We will continue to provide supplemental food as support when stores start to decline and hope for a winter with moderately low temperatures so the bees can keep themselves warm in their clusters.