As we approach late fall and early winter, there are a number of management tasks we should consider. By this time, you have done your fall inspection and the bees are settling in for the winter. By this time, combing weak colonies is preferable to trying to keep them going through winter. Combining two weak hives into one colony versus adding a weak colony to strong is suggested. My suggestion is to use the newspaper method to do this. Don’t forget that both colonies need ventilation while being combined.
If you have not already done so, remove queen excluders and add mouse guards.
While counterintuitive, it is not the cold but moisture that should concern us. As Rusty Burlew of Honey Bee Suite (honeybeesuite.com) says, there is a big difference experiencing a cold day with dry gloves versus wet. Wet gloves can lead to frostbite while dry gloves keep you comfortable. The temperature is the same; the moisture is the difference.
With that being said, think about this as you prepare your hives for winter. There are various ways to vent excess moisture from the hive. I have found the use of an insulated box containing burlap or other absorbent material, such as old towels, to be very effective. The insulated box serves a dual purpose: it keeps the bees dry as well as warm.
Start with a box that has the same footprint as a standard box. Then add ⅛-inch screened ventilation holes on the sides, and cover the bottom with ⅛-inch hardware cloth to keep the absorbent materials in place. Position the box just under the outer cover. Check the absorbent materials once or twice over the winter, and replace them as needed. It is fun to see what you find in the insulation box in spring. I have found mushrooms, worms, and even a frog. Early spring is when I remove the insulation box.
Adding an upper entrance can also assist the venting of excess moisture. The sticky board can also be used for additional moisture control. The objective is to provide ventilation while at the same time helping to block cold winter winds. Push the sticky board in roughly half way under the screened bottom board. This position is similar to what would be done for a mite count except it is pushed in half way rather than all the way.
By November the bees should have stored approximately 80–100 pounds of honey. Less than this amount signals that continued feeding is necessary. According to Ann Harman, a frequent contributor to Bee Culture, when day-time temperatures are consistently lower than 57 degrees F, we should switch from a liquid feed to a solid feed. At this temperature, the bees have a more-difficult time metabolizing sugar water and evaporating off excess moisture in the syrup.
This is the time for solid feed. I like to use no-cook candy because it does not produce toxic HMF produced when carbohydrates are held at a high temperature. Rusty’s Honey Bee Suite site has a recipe for no-cook candy. I find it a simple and effective way to feed the bees during winter.
During fall/winter, the temperature occasionally reaches 50 degrees F or more. You should see your bees out doing cleansing flights. On these days, if you notice that a hive is inactive, it warrants closer examination. Lightly tap the side of hive and listen for a response. If you find the hive is a dead out, a necropsy is in order. Try to determine why it failed. If you have any doubts, see if you can get a more-experienced beekeeper to help. A Bee Lab such as Beltsville, Maryland, can also be used to diagnose American Foulbrood and other diseases.
Hive entrances should be reduced this time of year to prevent robbing. The entrance should also be periodically checked to make sure it is not plugged with dead bees. The undertaker bees don’t carry bodies out very far when it is cold; they can pile up at the entrance. A mouse guard will prevent mice from using your hive as a warm, winter hide out.
November and December provide a late-season window of opportunity to deal with Varroa mites. After Thanksgiving the colony should be broodless. If your mite counts are still above 1 percent, this is when you can use oxalic acid because there is no brood that it can harm. This can be your final safety net for the year. For the last several years, I have used oxalic acid resulting in mite counts at almost zero percent the following spring. Please keep in mind that while oxalic acid is a great tool, it must be used at the appropriate time of year and safely. I suggest visiting Randy Oliver’s website www.scientificbeekeeping.com for the latest application updates. Whatever method you choose, follow the directions exactly.
Once the bees are tucked in for the winter, it is a good time to evaluate what you learned this year and make plans for next. Winter is also the time to build bee equipment and gizmos/gadgets. It is also a great time to read about bees and beekeeping. I have found Beekeeping Your First Three Years, a newer publication from A.I. Root, to include valuable information even for someone like me with 50 years of beekeeping experience.