As we approach November/December 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. It is usually a waste of resources to try to keep weak colonies going through fall and winter. Combining weak hives into one hive gives the bees more of a chance to survive the winter. My suggestion is to use the newspaper method to do this. Make sure that the uppermost box is provided with a ventilation opening when you do this.
If you have not done so already, 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 wet versus dry gloves. Wet gloves can lead to frost bite while dry gloves keep you comfortable. The temperature is the same but 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 some half-inch screened ventilation holes on the sides, and cover the holes and bottom with one-eighth-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 the absorbent material 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 once. Early spring is when I remove the insulation box.
Adding an upper entrance can also assist the venting of excess moisture. Additionally the sticky board can be used for additional moisture control. The objective is to provide ventilation while at the same time helping to block cold winter winds. Push it 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.
By November the bees should have stored approximately 80 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. With temperatures lower than 50 degrees F, the bees have a more-difficult time metabolizing sugar water and evaporating off excess moisture in the syrup. This is the time for fondant or candy.
Fondant is usually associated with spending time over a hot stove. An alternative is no-cook candy. 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.
Leftover candy canes make a sweet, life-saving holiday gift for your bees. (Right after Christmas is a good time to buy them, usually at half price.) A frame of honey from a KNOWN, healthy hive is also an excellent source of food during this time. Continue to check stores periodically.
During fall/winter the temperature occasionally reaches 50 degrees F or more. You should see your bees out doing cleansing flights. With weeks between cleaning flights, what a relief it must be for the bees! On these days, if you notice that a hive is inactive, it bears closer examination. Lightly tap the side of hive and listen for a response. If you find this hive is a dead out, examine the combs for scales of American Foulbrood. If you have any doubts, send a sample to the bee lab in Beltsville, Maryland, for confirmation.
Entrances should be reduced to prevent robbing and yellowjacket harassment. 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.
November and December provide a late-season window of opportunity to deal with the dreaded Varroa mite. After Thanksgiving the colony should be broodless. If your mite counts are still above one percent, this is when you can use oxalic acid because there is no brood that it can harm. For the last two years, I have used oxalic acid in the fall—resulting in mite counts at almost zero percent the following spring. This is my newest beekeeping best friend. Please keep in mind that while oxalic acid is a great tool, it must be used at the appropriate time of year and safety. With that in mind, I highly recommend the dribble method versus vaporizing. Although vaporizing is slightly more effective, I do not think it is worth the risk it poses to the beekeeper.
Once the bees are tucked in for the winter, it is a good time attend scheduled conferences and 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 49 years of beekeeping experience.