Fall Tips for Small-Scale Beekeepers in the High Country
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by Blake Williams. App State Agroecology Major and Intern for N.C. Cooperative Extension of Watauga County
Here in the High Country, we are just starting to see leaves change colors and temperatures drop. To many, these changes mean the beginning of harvests, football games, and the return of specialty caffeinated beverages. However, for beekeepers in the High Country, the onset of fall is the last time to get our hives ready for winter. For many beginning beekeepers, winter seems like the scariest opposition that your hives will face. It is often the factor that makes or breaks hobbyist beekeepers. In recent years, overwintering mortality for hobbyist beekeepers has been around 40%.
There are several factors that affect the success of overwintering bees in our climate. These factors can mainly be broken down into three categories: climate, colony health, and winter stores. Climate obviously refers to the winter weather conditions which the colonies will face. Colony health refers to overall health of the hive and its queen. Winter stores refer to how many resources the hive has to survive the winter with. In many cases, beginner or hobbyist beekeepers are mainly focused on the climate and winter stores factors and completely neglect the overall colony health factor when going into winter. Every successful overwintering strategy must take into account all three conditions. These preparations often begin in the fall, well before the nasty weather begins. If you do decide to do a fall feeding, consider adding entrance reducers to prevent raiding from other hives.
The start to fall preparations should always begin with a thorough hive inspection. For this inspection, you should be focused on assessing colony resources and overall health of your bees. Your bees should have roughly 40-50 lbs of honey, roughly equivalent to an entire medium super of honey. A majority of the honey should be capped, and any queen excluder should be removed. Any additional honey supers should be removed to reduce the nest size so that it is easier for the bees to regulate the internal temperature of the hive and prevent potential pest issues such as wax moths. If your colony’s honey supply is below or close to the 40-50 lb mark, you should consider feeding your hives before cold temperatures set in.
While assessing the overall health of your hives, focus on identifying any pests and your queen’s health. The biggest issue that should be managed is varroa mites. Take a mite count and check your levels against your mite thresholds. Plan to treat your colonies before winter weather sets in if your colonies are close to their mite thresholds. Your queen’s health is also very important. Check her laying pattern and overall brood status. You should find no drone brood or queen cells in the hive. Remove any queen cells to prevent late-season swarming. The hive should have removed any remaining mature drones as the mating season is over and drones only act as a resource drain to the hive. You will probably see many dead drones at the front of your hive, which is normal. Find your queen and assess her health. She should still be very active and show no signs of stress.
Most commercial beekeeping operations in Western North Carolina, and in higher elevations, move their hives to overwintering yards stationed at lower elevations which are in slightly warmer climates. This logic is very sound, simply because warmer climates mean milder winters and less difficulties for the bees. However, hobbyist beekeepers often do not have locations or the luxury to exercise this same translocation practice. This means that hives that remain in the High Country, such as those of hobbyists, often need additional help to manage the colder climates. This additional preparation is often in the form of wrapping hives. While the traditional material for wrapping honeybee colonies was tar paper, other waterproofing alternatives are available. Many bee supply companies offer reusable wrap options. In my own experience of keeping bees as a large hobbyist/small producer, I have found the commercial wraps available to be pricey. Alternatively, I have found that many northern beekeepers (Vermont to Canada) make reusable hive wraps from plastic chloroplast sheets. You can learn more about these in this article from Minnesota Cooperative Extension and in this video. In addition to hive wraps, I would recommend entrance reducers or mouse guards to prevent unwanted guests in your hives. Entrance reducers and mouse guards can help to reduce and mitigate raiding from other hives and pesky rodents.
Fall is a critical time for your apiary. It may seem like there is a lot to do, but preparing for winter prevents the need for entering hives once the temperatures drop. Another great resource for beginning and hobbyist beekeepers is available through the UT Cooperative Extension. Additionally, NC State Extension offers Beekeepers Education & Engagement Systems (B.E.E.S.), which provides experiential classes for beekeepers at all levels. So while you enjoy the changing season, remember to save time to prepare your bees for the winter months ahead.