As we move into autumn with its shorter days, cooler temperatures, lower angle of sunlight, and rapidly diminishing forage for the bees, we will begin to see a declining level of comings and goings at each hive.
It’s late October, 2017, here in the Upper Arkansas River Valley of south-central Colorado, which lies between 6500 and 9500 feet in elevation, and even though we’re still seeing a little bit of pollen being brought back to the hives, especially on days that are sunny, warm, and still, it’s nothing like the level of activity we witnessed through the summer.
So, as we move deeper into autumn, what are the bees doing? Here are a few of the things we know they’re doing in preparation for winter:
- The workers (all females) are evicting the drones (the male bees). All of the roles and purposes that the drones fulfill in both their home hive, and in the inter-connectedness of all the honey bee colonies within their region, is still beyond our ken. Much more research needs to be done on this, but it’s coming. One thing we do know, however, is that the colonies do not carry the drones through the winter.
- The workers are busy chinking any remaining cracks with propolis. It’s very important that they not lose excessive heat from the hive during the winter. One way we can help with this is by being certain that the hive is out of the wind. Do we need to build an additional windbreak?
- The bees are busy building any final burr comb that they need to control the route of ventilation through the hive. Their goal, inside the hive, is a careful balance between ventilation and heat loss. Ventilation is important because it allows them to create a healthy environment and control factors like relative humidity. (Conventional beekeepers constantly remove this burr comb because they find it inconvenient to their highly invasive relationship with the hive.)
- They are bringing back any final sources of pollen and nectar that they can find.
- All summer long they have been building comb, storing nectar (which they make into honey), and storing pollen. They have been placing each of these in ways that will best insulate their hive while also providing food that they can easily reach as they work their way up through it during the winter. Their goal, as they eat their way up through the stored honey, is that they are always in the warmest spot in the hive. (This is just one of the reasons why it’s so devastating for a conventional beekeeper to remove honey off the top of a hive.) The bees will put whatever finishing touches they can on the internal construction of the hive given the remaining resources they have to work with in late autumn.
- They are on the lookout for sources of water that will be available even through the winter. (This is one area in which we can help. See the post “Safely Providing Water for Honey Bees.)
- As a super-organism they will collectively evaluate the condition of the hive and the amount of resources they have to carry them through the winter. Based on this collective evaluation, the queen will begin to lay fewer and fewer eggs so that they reach the number of bees in the colony that they believe is optimum for their survival. This is a balance between enough bees to heat the hive and care for new brood as the next spring approaches, but not so many that they cannot feed them all.
So, as honey bee stewards and hive hosts, what can we do to support the bees in all that they’re doing to prepare to survive the winter?
- Do not remove their food (the honey) that they have so industriously been creating and storing in order to survive the winter. Their honey provides nutrition, energy for creating heat, and insulation. It is a “triple-whammy” to remove their honey, especially if it is removed from the top of the hive. Remember that, to a honey bee colony, there is no such thing as “surplus honey.” They are storing honey against the possibility of a long, cold winter, followed by a drought the next summer, followed by another long, cold winter.
- Do not open the hive and break their carefully constructed propolis seals. By autumn, they may not have the resources of worker bees and tree sap to repair these cracks.
- Be certain that the hive is out of the wind. Your hive location was chosen, as best as possible, to be out of the wind, but that was last spring. Has the wind direction changed as autumn has arrived? Does an additional windbreak need to be constructed?
- Be certain that the hive is level and that the strap around it is tight.
- If inside an electrified fence, be certain that an adequate charge is traveling through the fence. Weeds that grow up and touch the fence will short it out.
- Provide a consistent source of fresh, still, warm water for the bees. It is best not to start this unless you can be consistent with it through the winter. Once they have identified a water source it becomes a habit, and you cause them to waste energy if they fly to the usual spot only to find it dry. But if you can provide this consistent water source it can be very rewarding for both you and the bees. The bees will fly on sunny, still days during the winter in order to do cleansing flights (eliminate outside the hive). They will take that opportunity to also look for water to bring back to the hive. Here’s the link about that: