Winter is Coming: Critical Tips for Summer Hive Health

Updated: Oct 20, 2021



Summer has peaked. Over the next three weeks, honeybees and beekeepers will shift their focus to prepare bees for fall and winter. This is a critical time. Honeybees need to create healthy and strong winter bees that will be able to survive four to five months in the hive. Winter bees are heater bees that, along with stored honey, will keep the hive alive. We asked our resident Master Beekeeper, Earl Hoffman, to share his tips for this time of the season. Please consider these critical thoughts to guide your beekeeping management.


Flight Activity

Each apiary visit, monitor the hive entrances for flight activity. Pay close attention to the following:

  • Guard Bees – Does each hive have guard bees at the opening, challenging each bee that enters? If you do not see guard bees, open the hive to investigate as soon as possible.

  • Black or Greasy Bees – If some bees look black or greasy coming in or out of the hive, they have lost their body hair. There are two reasons for this. First, it could be a sign of a viral infection called Chronic Bee Paralysis. Or, it could be robber bees, who attack hives for their honey. They lose their hair in fights with bees defending the hive. Robber bees will fly in a zig zag pattern and dart in and out of the hive. Other ways to know if your hive is under attack is if there is a sudden surge in population, or if there are dead bees around the hive.

  • Forager Bees – If you can capture a forager bee at the entrance, look at the edges of her wings. If they are torn or have rough edges, it means she is an older forager that will only survive another week or two. It is normal to see an old forager this time of year because bees are dying faster than they are being replaced. This is part of the natural hive population cycle. Open the hive to verify that the hive still has capped brood (the next generation) in the frames.

  • Wasps and Other Insects – If wasps and other insects are entering the hive, consider using an entrance reducer shim to give guard bees a smaller area to defend. A 3/8” gap with a 2-3” wide opening may help the hive defend itself from the robbing that happens during a nectar dearth.


Stored Honey

During the nectar flow, beekeepers help their hives with storage by adding empty honey supers to the top of the hive, targeting 80 percent utilization. Now it is time to determine if the hive is honey bound with too much honey and too little space.

  • Burr Comb – Open the hive lid and inspect the spaces between the honey frames. When the honeycombs become full during the nectar flow, they will fill the space between each frame, connecting the hive. If you have burr comb, remove the honey, and give the wet empty combs back to the bees.

  • Brood – Pull off the honey supers and observe the brood frames. If the bees had nowhere to store the nectar, they will move the honey storage into the brood nest. This is a critical event because it means the process of making winter bees is significantly impacted. If honey is in the brood cells, place a super of clean drawn comb either above or below the brood nest area to provide empty cells for the queen to lay eggs.

  • Pollen – Check is there are pollen and pollen frames in the hive. Honeybees can move honey to other areas of the hive, and they can move the brood nest area either up or down in the hive, but they do not move pollen.

  • Queen Bee – This is a good time to determine if your hive is queenright. A queenright hive typically has brood cells filled with one egg each.


Varroa Mites

In late summer, as the hive population is in a natural decline, Varroa mites will reproduce at an exponential rate in the hive. One Varroa mite in 10 brood cycles can turn into over 1,000 mites. Each Varroa mite feeds not only on the brood, but on the young nurse bees. They cause viruses and shorten the life span of each bee they feed on.


Alcohol Wash Test

Many beekeepers find this challenging, but it is critical to learn how to perform an alcohol wash test. This will determine your level of Varroa mite infestation. Use a glass mason jar or buy the Plastic Varroa EasyCheck device. Load it with alcohol and pick a few hives in the apiary to perform a mite count.

  1. Open the Hive – Remove the honey supers by setting them to the side with a cover over them to keep the robber bees out of the honey. Remove the brood frames and verify that the queen is not on that frame. Flip the frame several times to scan quickly for the queen.

  2. Scoop Nurse Bees – Take the frame of nurse bees that are feeding open larva that does not have the queen on it and knock it into an open pail or plastic tub. Scoop a ½ cup of bees out of the container and place them into your mite wash device that has been loaded with alcohol ahead of time. Place the lid on the device, replace the frame to its original location, and dump the extra nurse bees back into the hive. Close up the hive and repeat the process for each hive that needs a mite wash. You do not need to mite wash every hive in the apiary.

  3. Agitate – Let the bees and mites soak for a few moments, then start the agitation cycle of the jar back and forth to dislodge the mites from the bees. After a few minutes, stop shaking and count the number of mites floating to the bottom. The mites will look like small, round, reddish-brown spots. Try not to count the debris by accident.

  4. Analyze Data – If you are fortunate, the count could be as low as one or two Varroa in ½ cup, which is about 300 bees. Any number above three mites in 100 bees (3%) should ring alarm bells – immediate action is now necessary to save the hive.


Treatment

A Varroa mite infestation will compromise the winter heater bees. Several methods should be used to reduce the number of Varroa in the hive, and back-to-back treatments work better. Fresh generations of new Varroa mites are created with each 21-day brood cycle.


Some Varroa mite treatments require that all consumable honey be removed from the hive before you begin. Other treatments may be applied while the honey supers are still on the hives. Many beekeepers use formic acid or oxalic acid to initiate a mite drop and follow-up with either a thymol-based product or a synthetic chemical-based miticide. Do your research to find the solution you are most comfortable with.


When you select a treatment, follow the directions and guidance given. Your single goal during the next two months is to get your Varroa mite count down to below three in ½ cup of bees.


Wash your Varroa mite hives every four weeks to monitor the efficacy of your treatments.


Get Ready

Working through these tips before the end of August will give you the information you need to understand the health of your hive, and the confidence you crave thinking about the hive’s survival. Keep this in mind when you remove honey during the honey harvest. Depending on the climate, hives will need 40 to 60 pounds of honey to get them through to spring.


If you have additional questions about the critical transition from summer to fall, or how probiotics can decrease winter loss and protect from viruses, please contact us. Good luck!