Preparing the Backyard Bees for Winter

Winter Bees

Often, when talking to people about our bees, I get asked what the bees do during the winter. The answer is pretty amazing, really. 

A bee born in the spring will generally live for around six weeks, but a bee born in the late fall can live for up to four months. The reason for this is that over the cold months, the bees’ metabolisms slow down, preserving their energy and, as a result, slowing the aging process. 

Bees are experts at regulating the temperature in the hive. In the summer, that means bearding and fanning to cool things off. In the winter, that means sealing the hive with propolis (bee glue) and forming a cluster. Bees cluster when the outside air temperature dips below around 57 degrees. (I have sometimes seen the bees out flying when it is slightly cooler than that.) The cluster keeps the queen and any brood present at the proper temperature, between 85 and 93 depending on the status of the brood nest. The cluster needs to maintain contact with the stored food or they can starve to death even if there is plenty of honey in the hive. If it gets really cold outside, the bees may enter torpor, a sort of suspended animation in which their metabolism slows down so much that they require little fuel and look dead. Their are plenty of videos out there of people breathing bees “back to life” by bringing them out of torpor. 

Winter Hive Setup

Since temperature isn’t really a problem for bees most of the time, the really issues are 1) mites and 2) moisture. 

The Varroa Destructor Mite is the probable cause of many colony collapses because the parasitic mites deplete the nutrition vital to winter bees and also spread disease. It is vital to get the mite situation under control before the queen is rearing the winter bees so that the cluster is as healthy as possible. I treated our bees with Apivar and Formic Pro during the year. Before closing the hive up for the winter, I also did an Oxalic Acid Drip to try to get rid of as many mites as I could. I feared that the extended bit of warm weather we had, which lead the queen to keep laying a decent sized nest, meant the mites would keep breeding too. Having a large cluster is great, but as the bee population starts to decline, the mites could overtake them. So, I hope that worked. 

Colorado is a pretty dry climate, so I am not very worried about moisture, but too much moisture in the hive can be disastrous to the bees. When they generate heat for themselves, some condensation is created and some is needed. Bees, like all living things, need water. But if too much builds up, it can drip on the bees and/or lead to mold, both of which are very bad. To control moisture, I put a quilt box on top of the honey super. The quilt box (purple in the picture) has a thick layer of pine shavings from the chicken supplies that will absorb moisture. It also features screened vents to allow ventilation, another form of moisture control. Under the quilt box, I have a feeding shim (blue), which will allow me to add a layer of dry sugar (Mountain Camp Method) later in the winter as emergency feed. The dry sugar will also absorb moisture in the hive. If I put it in too early, though, the bees will just haul it out like trash. Many beekeepers tilt their hives forward about 5 degrees to allow water to run out of the hive, but I cannot figure out how to do that with my hive stand. Given the dry climate and the quilt box, I hope that this setup works.

Finally, there’s a mouse guard and it’s all strapped to gether with a ratchet strap with some heavy rocks on top. This setup held it all together during 85 mph winds yesterday!

 It’s our first winter with the bees and I have so enjoyed them this year. I really hope that they make it through the winter. The requeening late in the season made me nervous, but the long stretch of warm weather gave them a leg up, I think. I fed them 2:1 syrup along the way so that they didn’t have to break into their stores. At the last inspection, I estimated that they had about 100 pounds of honey stored, plus plenty of pollen. I’ve seen them out taking “cleansing flights” (to go to the bathroom) and dragging out dead bees on each warm day, and I get a little thrill every time. 

 Good luck, bees! I hope to see you in the spring.  -Kasey

Further Reading

Scientific Beekeeping: Fat Bees Part 1

Honey Bee Suite: Temperature regulation in a winter cluster

The Saga of Queen Leslie Knope II

IMG_20211005_101958753_HDR (2)I mentioned briefly in an earlier post that my beehive lost its queen after a Formic Pro treatment. I had suspected for a few weeks prior that the queen was getting weak, but as it’s my first year, I wasn’t sure if she was slowing down because it was summer dearth or if it was a problem. The hive had made moves to replace her before, and I thwarted them. Because she was unmarked, I did not know how old she was. Looking back, I should have either requeened the hive earlier in the summer or let them requeen themselves. When I removed the Formic strips and did a hive inspection in the last week of September, I found many supersedure cells. I stopped counting at 12. That late in the season, however, it was too late for them to raise a new queen and get her mated. Thanks to the advice of a couple of other local beekeepers on Instagram (Thank you!), I moved quickly to find a new mated queen. I couldn’t find one locally anymore, so I was able to get one shipped from California. Thankfully, she arrived safely. 

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Queen Leslie Knope I

While I was waiting on Queen Leslie Knope II to arrive from California, I had to deal with the mess in the hive. I inspected the frames to cut out the supersedure cells. I saw a lot of eggs, but at the bottom of a few frames, there were multiple eggs in a cell, all at the back. It was perplexing. For some background, the presence of the queen’s pheromones suppresses the ability of worker bees to lay eggs. If a hive has been queenless for a bit, some of the workers may start to lay eggs. The problem is that they are unmated and so they can only lay eggs for male bees—drones—whose only job is procreation (and sometimes heat regulation) so in the fall they are so useless that before winter the workers evict them entirely. A laying worker bee also doesn’t have the long body needed to lay an egg in the back of a cell, where it belongs, and she generally lays multiple eggs per cell. Once the eggs hatched and the workers capped the cells, I saw that the hive was full of drone larvae. But it had looked so good when it was in the egg stage. It is also possible that before a queen bee dies she runs out of stored semen to fertilize eggs and only lays drones. I wast not sure if what I saw in the brood nest was a laying worker or a dying queen. 

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Supersedure Cells.

Either way, I had to find and dispatch Queen Leslie Knope I before introducing her successor. If the queen was already in the hive, the bees would most likely reject the new queen, killing her. Or the two queens could do battle, possibly leaving me with the failing queen again. Queen Leslie I was on the smaller side and unmarked. I had not been able to find her in previous inspections, although I did find her in a couple of photos over the summer. I did careful searches for her on consecutive days and never found her. I also never found fresh eggs, which told me that she was likely dead already. 

Then, there was the question of the laying workers. If I had laying workers, it also increased the likelihood that the hive would be hostile to the new queen. I still wasn’t sure if I had laying workers or not. The absence of new, messy eggs leaned toward not. But, to be safe, I thought I should intervene. I read that one way to deal with laying workers is to shake the frames of bees out about 100 feet from the hive. Laying workers are usually, but not always, nurse bees who have not left the hive to forage yet. The theory is that if you shake a laying worker out away from the hive, she won’t be able to find her way back. It felt kind of mean, but the hive is really a superorganism and it’s not worth risking the whole colony for a few bees. So, I shook out the brood nest away from the hive. I don’t really know if that did anything other than making the bees angry. Based on subsequent reading I did, though, I am pretty sure that I had a drone-laying queen, not laying workers.

IMG_20211005_102708275By the time Queen Leslie II arrived, I was as confident as I could be that Queen Leslie I was no longer in the hive. Even still, I spent some time observing the bees’ attitude toward their new queen before I left her in the hive. When you order a new queen, she comes in a little cage with a few attendant bees who are there to care for her. One end of the cage has fondant for the bees to eat and the other has a candy plug that the bees will gradually eat through to release her into the hive. This slow-release mechanism allows the queen’s pheromones to circulate through the hive before she is loose, helping the hive to accept her as their queen, and not immediately ball and kill her. Usually the candy plug is reinforced with a cork, which you pull out before putting the cage in the hive. When Queen Leslie II arrived, I set her on top of some frames for a while and watched how the bees approached her. They were not at all aggressive. Workers came up to the cage and crawled around it, but none were trying to sting her through the mesh or trying to ball her. So, I left the cage suspended between two frames in the brood nest. (Full disclosure: I accidentally hung it upside down, so I had to go in the next day and flip it. If one of the attendats had died in the meantime, it could have possibly plugged the exit. Oops.) Some people encourage beekeepers to remove the attendant bees before placing a queen, as the presence of strangers can cause aggression in your workers. I read that the queen’s pheromones cover these workers too, so it shouldn’t really be a problem. Additionally, as a new beekeeper, I didn’t want to run the risk of losing or injuring the queen while removing the attendants. 

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Queen Leslie Knope II at work in the hive

I installed the new queen on Wednesday, October 6. Because it was so late in the season, I wanted to get her laying eggs as soon as possible, so on Friday, I went back to check how things were going. The bees were still not aggressive toward her and they had started to eat through the candy. I spent some more time watching them. I tested their response by brushing them off the queen cage—the brush test. They were easily brushed away, which was the result I was looking for. So, I took a small nail and punched through the candy plug. She was out. 

A week later, I did a hive inspection and there were a few eggs, but not many. I felt so anxious about the hive at that point. I was afraid that they couldn’t get a good cluster going before winter. But, the next week, my hive inspection revealed many more eggs. The drones that Queen Leslie I left behind were hatching out and Queen Leslie II had the beginnings of a healthy nest of workers. Now, a month later, the hive is booming with bees. This warm fall has helped, no doubt.

IMG_20211018_141426793_HDRIt is not unusual for hives to try to replace a new queen. During that first hive inspection after installing her majesty, I again found supersedure cells. I cut them out, and scolded my workers a bit. During the first weekend of November, I was doing a hive inspection on an unseasonable 70-degree day, and found a swarm cell—with a larva in it—on the bottom of one frame. That there was only one, and that it was there so late in the season was confusing, and frustrating to me. Before I could even decide what to do, I accidentally smashed it while moving the box it was in. My latest, and last, hive inspection showed no signs of them trying to replace Queen Leslie II, who is still laying like a champ. I expect that as the temperature drops, she will slow down. In the meantime, it has been an absolute treat to have a marked queen. I can always find the queen now and I am delighted every time I see her. 

Long live Queen Leslie Knope II. 

Helpful Resources on Re-queening

Barnyard Bees: How to Tell if Bees will Accept a New Queen

Barnyard Bees: How Bees Act When They Reject the Queen

Bee Culture: Laying Wokers. It Happens. Fix It. 

Honey Bee Suite: How to Fix a Laying Worker Hive

Backyard Beekeeping: How Many Days after Requeening Should I Expect to See Eggs

Lessons We Learned In Our Second Year

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We are having an unseasonably warm autumn where we are, with temperatures still consistently in the upper 50s. We’ve even had some days in the 70s lately, which has been great for the bees and for giving us a little leeway as we break things down for the winter. 

As we work on winterizing the garden and the beehive, it has been natural to think about what we learned this year, primarily by making mistakes or making things harder on ourselves. So, here are the big lessons we’ve learned. 

IMG_20210825_135914620_HDRBrush the Alpacas Before Shearing Them

During the first week of June, our alpacas were sheared for the first time at our homestead. They were so ready for a haircut! Before we sent the prime cuts of their fleece to a fibermill to be spun into yarn, we had to skirt the fleece—that means picking out the hay, debris, and matts. I don’t know if you know this about alpacas, but they like to roll around in the dirt and hay. They were pretty dusty and dirty and skirting their fleece was a nightmare. Kasey is still working on getting their second and third cuts ready to spin and it is just so full of hay. 

We contacted our mentor to ask him if there was anything that we could do to keep them cleaner. Some really serious farms keep their alpacas in coats so that they can’t get hay, etc. stuck in their fleece, but that is too hardcore for us. And Moira is always hot enough as it is. We also knew that brushing them could destroy the structure of their fleece, which is meant to have a beautiful crimp to it. We visited our mentor during Alpaca Farm Days and he showed us a bucket full of different brushes that we could use before shearing. If we are shearing them to spin the fleece into yarn, it is okay for us to brush them then, because spinning destroys the crimp of the yarn. Of course! So, we hope that next year that will be less of an issue for us. 

Get Beekeeping Timing Right

IMG_20210616_134653790One of the biggest disappointments we had this year had to do with the beehive. Kasey keeps our bees and this is her first year. She got the bees on May 2nd and now wishes that she had immediately tested the bees for mites and treated them, but she was new and nervous about it and it took a few weeks to get used to working with them before she was ready to check for mites. She did so the third week of May and the mite count was really high. If she had understood her options better, she probably would have used Formic Pro, but she didn’t understand that the temperature restrictions were just for the first three days. Knowing that it would soon be really hot, she instead used Apivar, adding it May 25 and removing it on July 20th. 

Apivar cannot be used with the honey supers on, because the treatment creates residue in the honey and the wax that is not safe for human consumption. When the treatment was added, there were no supers on, but there were two deeps. It was a killer honey flow this year, though, and so supers were needed after a couple of weeks so that the bees didn’t run out of room. Long story short, they filled two medium honey supers with honey, none of which was safe for human consumption. It will get fed back to the bees, but by the time the treatment was done, the honey flow was over and summer dearth had set in. So many mistakes. 

Kasey feels pretty annoyed and let down by this mistake. She didn’t plan on harvesting honey this year, but with such a good season, it would have been nice to be able to harvest a couple of frames to give as Christmas gifts. Then, in late summer, she did use Formic Pro, and the queen ended up dying. More on that in another post. The most important thing is that the bees make it through the winter, but this was a steep learning curve and the mite treatment was the only part that was really frustrating.

Gardening Lessons 

IMG_20211009_152353403 (1)The garden grew SO. MUCH. BETTER. this year overall. We grew a delicious assortment of winter squash and pumpkins, patty pan squash, zucchini, greens, some tiny carrots, green beans. The Harvest Moon Squash was a variety we’d never tried before and it was delicious when stuffed and baked. 

But there’s still room for growth (pun intended). We realized that we want more room, so next year we are most likely building four more raised beds to create a natural buffer in front of the beehive and extend the garden’s footprint. 

We also learned that our watering strategy was insufficient. Although we got many, many squash and pumpkins, our Jack O’Lanterns and corn were puny and we think that was in part due to shifting too late from the type of watering we were doing to encourage the seedlings to grow to the deep watering that the plants needed to form fruit. We will also be watering the orchard more. 

IMG_20211009_114345683_HDRWhen we cleaned out the barn, it produced a giant mound of old, old horse manure. We were able to give a lot of it away for people to compost, but Kasey also used a lot to create a base layer for flowerbeds around the edge of the horse run. The plan was to grow wildflowers there to support pollinators. Her dream is to have lush perennial wildflower garden that takes not that much maintenance. She planted lavender, sunflowers, apache plume, Veronicas, and cone flowers there. The lavender was really the only thing that grew. Everything else scorched. She needs to test the soil, but it seems like the soil is too hot. The plan is to mulch it over the winter to draw out some of the nitrogen, but it was a good lesson in checking soil PH. 

There were so many lessons this year, but these were the biggest ones. What did you learn this year through trial and error? Let us know below. 

Notes on a Bee Sting

IMG_20210720_111925228Now that summer dearth has settled in, I’ve had a lesson about honeybee psychology. 

I did a hive inspection on Tuesday and was puzzled to find that there were plenty of eggs, larvae, and capped brood in the second deep box, but wide patches of empty comb in the brood nest in the lower deep box. There was clear evidence that the hive was queenright, so I was confused. After doing some research, I understood that I was probably seeing a brood break in response to the mid-summer dearth. Sensing that resources are scarcer, the queen lays fewer eggs so there are fewer mouths to feed. That would also explain why the bees had not drawn any comb in the third honey super I had given them the week before—although they had drawn out the brood frame I had put in place of a drone frame. I decided to feed them 1:1 just to get them through dearth and to encourage them to maybe, just maybe, draw out that super. 

IMG_20210803_133307507 (1)I thought about the bees throughout my shift as a greeter at the Molly Brown House the next day, because I watched a single honeybee repeatedly fly around the front porch, where there were no plants, in search of nectar (I guess?). Bees checking and rechecking unusual places is one sign that dearth has set in. Later that night, I did some more research, deciding whether I needed 1:1 or 2:1 syrup for the hive and I asked Julio to make it for me. By the time our baby was asleep, it was almost 8:00 and, although the sun hadn’t set, it was probably too late to go into the hive. It’s fine, I thought, and besides, I didn’t even have to take off the inner cover to put the feeder in place. 

When I got to the hive, the back fence line smelled like the neighborhood skunk had been there recently. Skunks eat bees. I did not know that. I think most people think of skunks as Pepe Le Pew and not much else, but skunks have a voracious appetite for gardens, mice, and insects. Not only will they tear a hive apart to get to the honey, but they will also scratch at the bottom of a beehive and then eat the bees who come out trying to figure out what is going on. They chew them up, devouring their juices, and then spit the little bee carcasses out. Brutal. I had no reason to believe that the skunk had been bothering the garden or the bees, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the bees, who seem so hyper-attuned to their environment, recognized the stench of skunk and were on edge. They were bearding dramatically over the front of the hive, too. All of these factors indicated that I should probably just wait to put the feeder in until the next day, but I figured if I did it now, I wouldn’t attract the yellow jackets, two of whom had been hanging around the hive inspection the day before. 

As soon as I took off the outer cover of the hive, I had hangry bees flying around me. I was wearing just a veil, a regular jacket, and one beekeeping glove. Not a smart move, but at least I remembered to take my rings off. I thought I’d just be in and out quickly, but the defensive bees made it hard to get the feeder in place and the box over it smoothly. Then, a sharp pain. I was stung through my pants right on the kneecap. I had the bees’ knees. 

The box was really crooked and I still had to get the outer cover in place. I grabbed a second glove and went back, but the bees were still angry. Fortunately, I didn’t get stung again, but I did get bitten by a mosquito on the bum. 

That night, as I drank my post bee sting beer, I remembered that the observation cover I’d put over the feeder box had upper vents and that created an additional gap that perhaps the bees might have to guard. I started thinking about yellow jackets and wasps I’d seen in the garden, on edge. A strong hive can defend against a few robbers, but could my hive withstand an attack? I’d have to keep an eye on things and flip that cover over when I could.

The next morning, as I left for my run, I could smell the skunk for a quarter mile up the street. What had it been up to? Had someone hit it with a car? Had the neighbors’ dogs chased it? The stink was everywhere. Earlier in the week, I had been startled by a giant bull snake while on my run. Snakes can also pose an indirect threat to a colony if they choose to take shelter in the bottom of the hive. 

Robbing insects. Skunks. Snakes. In a couple of months, as the nights get cold, mice might also decide that the hive looks like a cozy place to stay. I should probably put on a mouse guard, too. There is always the possibility of a bear, too, however remote. 

As my own anxiety about the security of the beehive rose, my frustration that the ungrateful bees had stung me when I was just trying to feed them ebbed. Seemingly every creature in the neighborhood was trying to steal their honey, their home, their very lives. Or, in the order of priority for the bees, their very lives, their honey, their home. They had worked so hard to build the nest and then to fill it with brood, pollen, and honey. Then, in comes some giant and pops the top off the whole thing just as they’re starting to settle down after a hard day’s work foraging? I’d want to sting me too.   -Kasey

(Disclaimer: I’m a first-year beek, so if any of this sounds really mistaken, please share some wisdom, fellow beekeepers!)