It's snowing outside as I sit here sharing my thoughts with you today. I am hoping you have your bees ready for the long cold winter with plenty of Honey stores for them. At this point your bees should be ready with a very low to 0 mite counts and a large cluster of winter fat bees that haven't been milled on by mites. I get calls occasionally from new beekeepers who lament that they had a robust hive in August that is now dead after the first couple of hard freezes of the season. They ask me; "What happened? What did I do wrong? I thought they were doing so well and the hive was so big just a little while ago." This can be caused by a few different things. #1 is poor mite management. #2 is undetected loss of a queen #3 is disease. #4 Lack of resources, (# Bees, Honey, Pollen). All 4 of these will cause loss of bee population in the hive. A hive with too few bees will not be able to generate enough heat to survive and will perish in the first severe cold spell.
#1 is preventable if you monitor the mite load in your hive particularly in the spring to make sure you have a low mite population before honey supers go on (mite treatments are severely limited to a very few options during the heat of the summer and because of not wanting to taint the honey in your supers you intend to harvest for human consumption). Our mite management plan requires a spring treatment. I treat my hives here in Utah in late February to the first of March (this is the beginning of the brood-up period) with oxalic acid, my favorite early treatment method whether you sublimate (vaporize) or dribble. I can do a single treatment and have a very effective mite kill since there is little to no brood in the hive that early in the season.
#2 The only way to minimize losing queens at inopportune times is to have a queen management plan. Forcing the hive to requeen in early July will produce excellent quality queens at a time when resources are plentiful and the hive is large enough to produce a top quality queen. This queen will come on the first part of August and will be strong through the fall and into next spring. The worst time for a queen to fail is late in the fall or very early spring. They have a greater chance of not succeeding in raising another queen, let alone good quality mated queen; the best strategy is to take control of when they try to raise a queen. A good beekeeper is proactive and organized instead of only reacting to one crisis after another. A young vibrant queen is critical to a strong vibrant hive. Learn the OTS system from Mel Disselkoen, get his book and learn how to use the method he has perfected so you don't have to buy queens or bees again.
#3 Disease - Learn to recognize the diseases bees are vulnerable to. American Foul Brood, European Foul Brood, PMS (parasitic mite syndrome), Chaulk Brood; learn all you can about them and how to treat the hive or when it's appropriate to isolate and destroy the hive. The State bee and county bee inspectors (State Dept. of Agriculture), or a local experienced Beekeeper/Mentor, can be a big help, and a great resource in properly identifying what you have and what appropriate treatment you should undertake.
#4 Start preparing your hive in the Spring for Winter. Supplemental feeding your hive to help it get up to weight in time for winter (I like mine to be about 80-100lbs in 2 deep boxes in the spring), before you put on your honey super. That is only if you plan on harvesting honey from the hive. You can do a little supplemental feeling in early September if you are a little shy of the weight you want. But most of the weight is put on in April and May for winter. So the strong flow in June will be put in our honey super to harvest without leaving the hive short of food for winter survival. I like to put on my ("Bee Beanie") as added insurance that they don't run out of resources in the spring. It allows a solid bee food to be added to the hive through the winter that the bees can easily access and effectively use.
I am always a little surprised when I get these calls about why my hive died, to hear they hadn't really done anything more than looking under the top cover once a month or more to see if there were bees. One of the challenges for the backyard beekeeper is prioritizing these inspections along with all of the other demands in our lives, work, family, church and our hobbies. Our bees can do just fine most of the time with out us. But murphy's law will always be at play and the moment you skip an inspection will be the one time you should've inspected! (Murphy's law, and Mother nature are brutal that way). Inspecting your hive for evidence of a queen, healthy larva (where disease most often shows it self), Healthy Brood, Queen cells, status of Honey and pollen stores, adding or subtracting boxes/space depending on the time of year. You don't have to go through every frame to do an inspection unless you find something that causes a red flag to go up; then dig deeper! Inspect often enough (recommended every 10 to 14 days) that you find problems before your hive is beyond recovery. 90% of the time things will be fine and you can inspect in just a few minutes, but it's that 10% that will set you back the most; most last ditch efforts to save a dying hive will result in wasted time and money. Preventative medicine is easier and more successful than trying to raise the dead.
I had a beekeeper call me and wanted to send his hives with me to California (thinking that the gentler winters there would be an advantage to his hive to survive the winter since his hive died the last few winters (here in Utah). But someone had also told him, they had sent their hives to California and almost all of them had died. So he was concerned and asked what the chances were of hives sent with me surviving. I told him the survival rate of the hive was the same as it was if they stayed here for the winter. A healthy, robust, well prepared hive for winter, will survive; a struggling small hive will die just as easily here or in California. Bees survive just about anywhere just fine, if they are healthy (large enough cluster), and have enough winter food. Winter is Mother Nature's method of culling out the weak to ensure the best genes are propagated in next year's survivors. Knowledge comes from observing and learning, even if your hive dies, you have learned important lessons for next season. If your hives are dying every year, you're doing something wrong. Talk to another experienced Beekeeper/Mentor, take an advanced beekeeping class, come to a beekeeping association meeting and ask for help in figuring it out. The only difference between you and I is experience. Losing a hive is difficult, but provides invaluable experience; learn from it!
During this Month of November there are few things I do to hives to prepare them for the long winter.
Actions items this Month of November -
Put an insulated top on the hive. ("Bee Beanie") is a great option for insulation of the top of the hive (where 90% of hive heat is lost and the ability to put a solid food resources in the hive as insurance through the winter months so they won't run out of food, till they are able to forage in the wild in the spring).
Wrapping the hive with tar paper gives an extra buffer of wind barrier, and because it's black it will absorb heat from the winter sun helping to gently warming the hive on sunny days. It also protects the painted surface of the exterior of the hive during the harsh winter months. Some people will insulate the walls of the hive as well. But I have found that here in Utah, our winters are mild enough to not need this. Insulating the top of the hive has the greatest benefit and the extra cost and effort to do the whole hive hasn't been necessary. Here in Utah wrapping the hive and insulating the top has worked great. (less than 10% winter losses of Utah overwintered hives.)
Depending on the honey stores and where the bees are clustering (In the top box or the Bottom). If the top I will start putting the fondant patties on earlier. They will need them sooner than if they are clustered below 80 lbs of honey in the top box. In Which case I'll usually wait till January and check every 3-4 weeks to see if they ate it or not or adding one if they need it.
Start thinking about next year's goals for your apiary.
Do I want to grow, or stay the same or reduce the number of hives
Review your management plan and based on experiences from this year. Look at any tweaks to consider (before finalizing anything, talk to a mentor and get feedback). Sometimes changing things isn't a good thing or necessary; be careful of changing too many things in your management. It's hard to isolate later which ones helped if things improve or hurt you hive if too many variables have changed. You have all winter to think about this, but starting early gives you time to do some research and talk to other more experienced bee keepers in evaluating any changes, make them sparingly and only if the science and experience agrees it makes sense.
Happy Holidays to you all! Enjoy the down time with your bees to study and learn.