Beekeeping is an activity that is very both local and tied to the seasons, and here in Central Texas, it’s this time of the year again….
The waning of daylight hours and the reduction in nectar and pollen have signaled to the queen it is time to stop laying eggs, at least in significant quantities. By now the colony should have raised or be well on its way to raising Winter bees, which thanks to a different metabolism will survive for months on oversized fat bodies, and outlive regular workers bees so they can take care of the Queen during the Winter and be there to raise the first batch of new bees in the Spring.
Good beekeepers know that, once the cold sets in, it is not recommended to crack those propolis seals and expose the bees. So, as the colony numbers begin to decrease and the cold days become more consistent, they need to make the last of their overwintering preparations by:
topping off colonies who are too light to get through the Winter on their current reserves,
batting down the hatches as the cold sets in by making sure the hives are fairly tight and well protected from weather related troubles.
The good news is that our Winters are typically mild, and cold in itself is not usually a huge issue around here.
The bad news is that our Winters are typically mild, and starvation is usually the biggest threat to a healthy colony.
So, here are some things to consider here in Central Texas as you finalize Winter preps:
We have mild Winters with some forage available nearly year round, but we also have periods of dearth that can take a toll on even the healthiest of colonies. The most dangerous ones are during the hottest part of the Summer, just when the bees are starting to prep for the Winter, and in the early Spring, when colonies start to brood up but cold weather snaps and depleted honey reserves might catch them off guard.
As a matter of fact, here in Texas, our bees do not really die of exposure – but they often starve.
How much do you need to leave a colony for Winter? Well, as with everything in beekeeping, it depends... it depends on the type of hive you have, your bees (genetics and numbers), the weather, air leaks, whether you have a wind break, etc. The fact is, you cannot predict how much each colony will need to sustain the cold months and especially the active warmer days of Winter (a real issue here in Texas) and make it to the first nectar, therefore it is always better to estimate on the high side. To be safe, we recommend around 80lbs of honey on a mature sized, healthy colony (of 2 deep brood chambers on a Lang or 15-20 bars of bees on a Top-Bar Hive) - the equivalent of a full deep of honey - to assure a good supply of natural food... this will save you messing around with syrups and sugars and supplements. In short, it is good for them and good for you.
If you are concerned that your bees won’t have enough, here is what you can do:
Don't ever harvest any more honey than what the bees have stored in surplus and then feed them sugar syrup: that's not good for them.
As a rule of thumb, plan ending the season with about a minimum of 40-50lbs total weight per deep hive body on a Langstroth, or at minimum the equivalent of 4 deep combs (or 6 mediums) of honey per deep 10F brood box (below you will find an easy way to use a makeshift scale to measure hive weight. Note it down and compare it in February to assess if feeding is necessary).
If your hives are not there yet, you might want to consider some emergency feeding:
while the temps are above 60F, you might consider some 2:1 sugar syrup feeding inside the hive (in-hive, tray or frame feeders, never entrance feeders or open/community feeding), but quit if temperatures drop
If temps drop below 50F, it is best to not crack those lids much, but in case of emergency you may slide in a no-cook sugar block without anything but sugar and some acids in it (the heated stuff is not good for the bees, as heating sugar above 120F especially with acids creates a substance very toxic to bees, HMFs). Look below for a quick, easy and cheap recipe!
It is not recommended to feed pollen to your bees in Central Texas (we always have plenty), especially in the Winter, as it may cause the loss of a colony or premature swarming due to early brooding comes Spring.
Consider a temporary entrance reduction to reduce robbing events from hungry bees (Italians are notorious for that), but watch that it does not block good ventilation:
For Top-Bar Hives, close down most entrances completely (cork, grass, disc entrance, etc.) but make sure to leave one hole open.
For Langstroth Hives, you may buy special entrance reducers from a beekeeping supply store, or just use pieces of wood.
In nature, colonies nested in tree cavities are well protected from the elements by a thick layer of insulating wood and their ceiling is domed, preventing condensation from forming above the brood's nest and allowing it when it happens to slide down the sides of the cavity.
With the decrease in egg-laying, the brood nest reduces in size, which allows for more storage of pollen and nectar above and on each side of it: when all goes well, that provides enough food and internal insulation for the colony over Winter.
But with hives made of 1/2" or 3/4" wood (like Langstroth hives) that provides almost no insulation to the cluster, the cluster may expand more energy to keep at temperature than in a better insulated hive. Hives made of 2" lumber (like certain Top-Bar Hives) are better insulated than others and typically have no issues in the Winter, but for the others, here are some tips to prevent the dreaded condensation drip that can quickly lead to icy, frozen bees and kill a colony (it happens when warm air from the brood's nest rises and hits a cold ceiling):
For Top-Bar Hives,
Reduce the entrance holes down to one and close all others
Consider sliding a burlap bag filled with straw under the roof and above the bars for ceiling insulation
If your Top-Bar Hives are made out of wood less than 2" thick, consider draping some burlap bags down the sides (secure with zip ties or rope) to provide a wind break - leaving the entrance open
Reduce the entrance to half with a piece of wood.
We don't recommend screen bottom boards as they make it hard for the bees to control their brood's nest humidity levels and temperature, but if you have them, it is time to close those up for the Winter.
We don't recommend queen excluders either, but if you have them they should not be left on all the time and now is definitely time for them to go (if the bees go up the honey stores the queen can't follow them and might die of exposure)
look up "quilt box" or "vivaldi box" against ceiling condensation: one can easily be made with an eeke (2" or so box placed with screened ventilation holes placed on top of the inner cover and filled with a neatly folded burlap bag that will wick keep the inner cover warm, wick the moisture upward and evaporate it under the hive lid, which can remain cold)
A simple tilt forward (toward the entrance) of the hive might be all that is needed to allow for any condensation that has formed to slide down the front vertical wall and out the entrance instead of falling on the brood’s nest, chilling it.
Some beekeepers also believe that creating a top-entrance will allow for better ventilation and less condensation, but it might also introduce unwanted drafts so be mindful of the bees' carefully controlled climate in the nest with this one.
Please note that in our neck of the woods, wrapping the sides of your hives is not recommended as it might increase problems with condensation
it does not usually get cold enough to mandate a wind block, but if you put one up put it away enough from the hives to avoid condensation issues, and keep in mind that hay attracts mice and mold, so we don't recommend those for wind blocks.
Whatever you do at this time of the year, now is not the time to go through a complete inspection, breaking off propolis seals and disturbing/exposing the bees: just check you have some normal egg laying or very young larvae at the edge of the brood's nest and enough bees in the box, then close it all up. If your colony is too small or seems off, consider combining it with another one and donating resources, then freezing/stowing whatever is left.
And don’t forget: now is the time to prepare for the 2020 bee season by building swarm traps, building or buying hives, and/or ordering bees….
You may find our non-treated, locally raised, resilient BeeWeaver stock NUCs of bees for 19" Top-Bar Hives here:
While absolute accuracy is not as important as observing changes in weight overtime, statistics say that, outside long time, experienced beekeepers, 75% beekeepers grossly underestimate their hive's weight when they manually lift and assess how heavy they are.
We therefore strongly recommend some kind of measuring tool to more accurately and consistently check on your colony stores and learn to efficiently gauge how a hive is.
What's one mindful beekeeper to do for a scale without over complicating things then you might ask?
Well, here is one of the many ways to do it:
Slide a 3ft long rod under the middle of the hive, parallel to the entrance
hook a 10 dollar luggage scale on the free end (furthest from the hive)
Weigh one side (S1) by lifting the scale 1/8"
Weigh the other side (S2)
Calculate hive weight (HW): HW = (S1 + S2) * 2(OR the average of S1 and S2 * 4)
Divide this amount by the number of deep hive bodies full of bees to get your weight per hive body (remember, that number is recommended to be above 40lbs going into Winter, or HW is recommended to be about 80lbs)
Benefits of this particular method:
Lift with your back upright and only 1/4th of hive weight to save your back
No need to stand in front of hives
No breaking propolis / disturbing bees
Almost all wooden hive stands work
Good for hives up to over 300 lbs (140 kg)
Lifting only 1/8th of an inch or so, the angularity and weight transfer factor is mere ounces and becomes somewhat irrelevant
Take a look at this video for a visual explanation of this system - note that he has placed clips in to avoid having to slide the rod under the center of the hive.