We made it! Fall is officially here – Pumpkin flavored “everything” is the buzz word of the season! If you haven’t pulled out the snow boots and over-sized coats yet, you are behind the times (wink–wink)! Fortunately…VERY fortunately, we don’t normally need the cool weather gear until well after Thanksgiving in Texas. For you folks further north, kudos to you…you are tougher than me by far! To quote my husband (James) – “October, my favorite time of year!” You know why? We can finally work our bees without risk of heat stroke! This is the “Ahhh, let’s work bees,” time of year ~ Won’t you join me in the bee yard?
From time to time James and I ramble in conversation (as the “older generations” tend to do), and often those discussions will travel down that familiar path of “Remember when we...?” and we’ll just laugh and laugh. Certainly well deserved, as we made our share of mistakes during the learning curve. Boy-o-boy did we ever….
Most common mistakes beekeepers make: Not feeding consistently when needed; not inspecting the colonies regularly; avoiding the bottom box during inspections…I could go on and on.
One mistake that strikes us both as “under discussed” in the beekeeping world is “Space” aka: "Bee to Box" ratio going into winter.
As new beekeepers we learn that space is a huge factor. “Don’t let your bees run out of space or they’ll swarm!” Space is crucial for proper development of colony growth! What we don’t hear much is, too much space is just as important!
Often, (especially in the first few years of keeping bees), we fail to identify the need to “reduce” space. The 80% rule applies to adding boxes AND it applies to “taking boxes away”!
Hypothetical Hive –
I overwintered with 1 deep brood box but quickly expanded, requiring adding a second brood box in March. Spring and summer came and went and all was well.
Along comes dearth around the end of July/first of August and things started going down hill. Even though I expected a reduction in my population due to the season, I actually suffered a >30% loss in bees. All of a sudden my bursting-at-the- seams double deep was a single deep with a few bees in the top box milling around like they were antique shopping!
Why the loss in bees? It could be a virus/disease problem caused by Varroa. We'll avoid going down that rabbit hole for the sake of this article, but Varroa mites are often the cause of what appears to be a sudden loss of population. Check out recent issues for more on that topic.
What do I do? Count the bees! What? Yes, count the bees! No...not one at a time!
In this diagram you will see a depiction of bees between the frames. If I ask you, “how many frames of bees in this picture?” Would you say 4, 5 or 6?
The answer is 5 – Why?
When looking down in the top of a box, the space in between the frames “full of bees” constitutes a full frame of bees. If you only see a few bees between the frames you would add the partial frames together to come up with a total sum. Example: ½ frame + ½ frame = 1 frame of bees.
We see 4 full frames + 2 partial frames = 5 frames of bees!
Keep in mind, I have 2 boxes so I need to “count the bees” for both boxes to have an accurate depiction of the number of bees in my colony. For this example let’s assume we have only 2 frames of bees in my top box.
Note: We will address the resources and location of those resources in the box shortly.
Solution to the hypothetical hive:
I now know I have a double deep with 7 frames of bees – 5 in the bottom, 2 in the top = 7 and depending on the density, this is approx. 24,500 bees based on 3500 bees per frame average. A double deep colony can easily hold 45-60K bees in peak population.
Considering the population will continue to decline as a natural progression of the season, you are most likely looking at a population of around 20,000 bees by winter in this colony. This is significantly less than what a double deep would normally house.
Following the 80% rule (8 out of 10 frames full to expand or decrease) you should consider taking the top brood box off and reducing your colony down to just 1 deep box for winter. Why?
Too much space can allow hive beetles or wax moths to take over. The population needs to be able to protect the space. If there aren’t enough bees for the space, it is inevitable they will not be able to stop a pest invasion.
Climate control – Too much space requires the bees to work much harder at controlling humidity and temperature in the hive. This is the time of year you want “these bees” to be your spring bees, so overworking them will cause them to not survive the winter; in turn causing the loss of your workforce for the next year.
Plus, bees are much happier when their hive is full, and the more space they have the less productive they will be. I know it is really hard to want to remove a box when it’s full of resources; but leaving it on could also make you susceptible to robbing. A robbing frenzy this time of year with an already declining population could easily kill the colony.
Noteworthy: For those colonies that have converted the top box into a honey super; consider leaving it on to beef up their winter stores, especially if it's been filled during the fall nectar flow. This flow is primarily Goldenrod or Snow on the
Prairie and not well suited for bottling. If you decide to remove it, freeze those frames and either feed them back to the colony as needed or extract them if it's good honey.
What do you do with those resources from the no longer needed top deep box?
A priority in preparing your colony for winter should be to equalize the brood nest and the resources. Taking those resources (honey, nectar and maybe even some brood) and using them to strengthen the bottom box and even “other hives” is a positive for you. Consider it groceries to share and a bonus to enhance a “not so well arranged” bottom box.
Ideally you want at least 2 or 3 frames of honey as your outside frames, some nectar/pollen on frames 3 & 7 and brood/bees on the center frames. If you’re able to keep 2 deeps, the same configuration would be ideal in both boxes.
Equalizing the box –
Some of our bees like to shift left or right as the year goes on. Now would be a great time to give them a little nudge over to “center” prior to the first cold snap. You want that “insulation factor” the resources give the cluster as the weather cools.
Commit to staying on top of hive checks throughout fall. We’re basically done with the full on “hive dives” until early spring – but by no means should we leave them to fend for themselves. Monitor your stores (30lbs) going into cooler weather and follow the “bee to box” ratio we just discussed. In doing so, you’ll come out of winter “smelling sweet as honey” and have strong colonies ready for spring!
By: Chari Elam