Getting the bees ready for winter

Many beekeepers will have prepared their hives for winter many weeks ago. Here, in our sheltered southerly location, our bees work late into the year. Even now, they are still very busy and bringing in lots of pollen. However, with a change in the weather forecast, last week we took advantage of what turned out to be the last nice day to undertake a final inspection and make the necessary preparations.

We currently have four colonies, three in national hives and one in a long deep hive. Two colonies are quite young, so we did not expect to find them in great condition. The first colony we inspected was one that we requeened earlier in the year. The original colony was a good size and may have produced a surplus this year, but they had become somewhat aggressive, so we decided to replace the queen. Although it would bring a check in the brood, which meant that the colony did not produce for us this year, we decided to allow them to make a replacement rather than try to introduce yet another bought in queen. We did this by removing the queen and then removing the queen cells that they produced to replace her. We then introduced a frame with eggs and larvae from a donor colony of well behaved bees that we quite liked and allowed them to make their replacement. They produced a fine looking queen that has since been very busy building the colony back up to full strength.

On this inspection, we found the colony to be in very good condition. It was a good size, appeared to be in excellent health, and still had a large area of brood. Although it had not produced a surplus, it had packed away many frames of solid honey in the double brood that we allow on our national hives. These bees will have no need of any supplementary feed this winter and will have plenty to see them through any lean patches in the spring. We are quite hopeful of a good surplus from this colony next year.

We were rather surprised to find that some of the honey recently packed away was very dark, almost black. Of course, honey varies considerably in colour, from a very light gold to a rich and dark chestnut, depending on what is in flower at the time, but we have never seen anything nearly so dark as this. It was more like treacle. We later found the same honey in the other three hives. I would be quite interested to find out what the source might be, but I would guess it is something they have not found in abundance in previous seasons.

Frame with some brood and the recently gathered dark honey

Frame with some brood and the recently gathered dark honey

The next hive we inspected was our donor colony, which we used to requeen two other colonies. Some time after this, the colony lost its own queen. We are not sure why, but in any event they made a replacement and have built up into another reasonably sized colony and put away plenty of stores for the winter. Again, no supplementary feed should be needed, and this colony should be in a great position to produce a surplus next year.

Brood box packed full of stores

Brood box packed full of stores

We then came to a small colony that we requeened mid season. It has made satisfactory progress, with enough bees to have a good chance of surviving the winter. They had put away some stores, but not nearly enough to see them through the whole winter. We added some sugar syrup, and have since topped it up once more, whilst they still have time to process it. We will soon add a slab of fondant and keep an eye on them through the winter and spring, adding further feed as needed. This will be our most vulnerable colony this winter.

Even the small colony put away a few frames of honey

Finally, we inspected the long deep hive. This had our best colony of bees; gentle and productive. The queen, though, was in her third season and, to go along with all of our other queenless colonies, we lost her too. We would probably have needed to replace her this year anyway and they made their own replacement readily enough. As the colony was so large, with an enormous brood area, it did not seem to be too disturbed by the check in laying. The previous queen was introduced as a virgin, so with this second crossing there was quite a chance that the colony could become more aggressive. Our previous gold bees are now looking rather dark, but, thankfully, appear to be quite calm.

We had already taken plenty of honey from the long deep hive earlier in the year but still had the supers on. We found some frames with honey to extract, but not as much as we had hoped. Towards the end of the season they stop filling out the super frames and fill in those areas of the main frames that were previously packed out with brood but are now being gradually freed up as the queen reduces laying. We boxed up those frames with honey, carefully shaking the bees from the frames, and removed the empty frames and supers. When we looked in the brood area, we found that many of the deep frames had been completely filled, but there was still a surprisingly large amount of brood. The colony looks to be in excellent condition for the winter, with no need for any supplementary feed.

One of the better super frames; not entirely filled, but all capped and good for extraction

One of the better super frames; not entirely filled, but all capped and good for extraction

Overall, we were very happy with the condition of all four colonies. We have had some disappointments this year, with all four making new queens and being somewhat disrupted. However, we did get a reasonable crop from the long deep hive – more than we need – and three of the colonies are in excellent condition to go through winter. We are only hobby beekeepers, and do not need to produce so much honey. We prefer to allow them to keep enough to go through the winter and spring without supplementary feeding if at all possible. If they survive, three of our four colonies should be well positioned to produce a good surplus next year.

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