Sunday, December 22, 2013

Is your honey crystallized? Here is the crystallized honey fix

Honey crystals. This year's honey crystallized fairly quickly.
Raw, unfiltered honey will often crystallize. Certain honeys such as canola and dandelion will crystallize faster due to their higher glucose content as opposed to acacia, sage, tupelo, and black locust. Honey that is stored in cooler locations will crystallize faster than honey kept at room temperatures. Professor Elton J. Dyce discovered that honey crystallizes the fastest at 55F (12.7C). Unfiltered honey will crystallize faster than filtered honey, because filtration removes the "starter" crystals.

Personally, I prefer not to re-liquefy honey once it is crystallized. Crystallized honey, also known as creamed honey, is not as messy as liquid honey. It does not leave messy drips and trails when you use it in your tea, and it spreads nicely on your biscuits. It also retains all of its original awesome flavor. Do you like your honey crystallized or liquid? Leave me a note in the comments section.

Still, I often get asked how to re-liquefy the honey. Here are the basic steps (for the YouTube video click here):
The crystallized honey fix: place the honey in a pot of warm water

  • Heat a pot of water to 150F (65C). 
  • Remove the pot from the heat in so that you don't accidentally scorch the honey in the process
  • Place the crystallized honey in the pot
It took us almost an hour to re-liquefy our jar of honey.

Finally, we color graded our honey. I want to mention the awesome post called "Honey colours" by Jeanette Jeffrey. In it, she provides a very easy to use grading scale. Here is our honey (Basswood) by the scale.
Looks like our Basswood honey is between Extra White and White
Did you ever try color grading your honey? What were your results? Leave me a note in the comments section.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter inspections: Checking on your bees in winter

In a single deep, the winter cluster is right under the cover.
Right now, the temperature here, in NW Ohio, is 16F (-8.8C) and Ohio, much like the rest of the northern USA is encased in snow and ice. Even if I wanted to, today is not a good day to be checking on the bees in winter.

This is our second winter storm for the season. The first one brought us almost 2 weeks of below-freezing temperatures and even some snow flurries. However, right before this second winter storm hit, we had a couple of days where the daytime high was 50F (10C). I took the opportunity to pop open a couple of lids and take a peek at the bees. I wanted to see how the insulation is holding out and whether I had any moisture collecting on the inner lids. Moisture is a big killer of bees in winter.

As expected, when I cracked the lid on one of my hives in 2 deep brood boxes, there was nothing to see. The cluster was still in the lower brood box. All you could see from the top were their honey stores - frame after frame of beautifully capped honey, a perfectly dry inner cover (the insulation on top is working!) and not a bee in sight. Even though the temperature was close to 50F, I know better than to start digging into a honey bee hive in the winter. I closed them up and went to check on the bees in single deep brood boxes.

I am going to take a few minutes and explain how I do inspections of my bees in winter. First, of course is: Always wear protection. You have probably heard that bees don't fly when the temperatures are below 50F (10C). This, of course is true. However, they will fly to protect their hive. A determined guard bee can usually make it from the entrance of the hive to your face and sting you before she succumbs to the cold. It bear repeating: Always wear protection, even if the temperature is 32F (0C). I also learned (through bitter first hand experience) that you should not use smoke when you are inspecting a beehive and the temperature is below 50F (10C). Even a puff of smoke can cause the bees to come pouring out of the hive entrance - quite the opposite to what one is accustomed to when doing inspections in the summer.

Bees in winter. The cluster forms off-center in a single deep box.
Now, let's get back to what I found under the cover of my single deep hive. The interesting thing to note in a single deep (or a nuc for that matter) is that the cluster forms off-center in the brood box. In a double deep, the cluster forms in the center of the bottom brood box and then slowly eats its way to the inner cover all through winter. In the singles and nucs, the cluster formed at the back (accross from the entrance). Through winter, the cluster will be making its way toward the entrance.

Finally, the inner covers on the singles were as dry as the inner covers on the double deep beehives.
A well propolized and most importantly dry inner cover
The insulation between the telescoping cover and the inner cover is doing its job - reducing the temperature differential between the bees warm breath and the wood of the inner cover.

To the left is a picture of the inner cover - well propolized and most importantly - dry! The circular pattern on the cover is from a bucket feeder that I used in the early fall. This inner cover is one of the first covers I made almost 5 years ago and is showing its age.

Have you been tempted to peek into your hives? What did you find? Leave me a note in the comments or drop me an e-mail from the links below this blog post!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Think Spring: Evaluating Bee Hive Kits and the Beekeeping Starter Kit (Part I)

You will find that your beekeeping kit grows with you.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but all the excitement and associated activities really messed up my posting schedule. If you've been waiting for this post – I am sorry for the delay!

Winter is the time when many beginner beekeepers will start attending classes and gathering supplies. Most of the bee suppliers target those beginners with their bee hive kits. You see a beekeeping starter kit on the first few pages of most beekeeping catalogs. So, let’s figure out what a beginner beekeeper needs to get started and then let’s take a peek at those bee hive kits and see if a beekeeping starter kit will work for you.

Beekeeping is very easy to start. You will need:
  • Some basic knowledge in the form of a beekeeping class, a beginner beekeeping book, or reading a lot of blog posts and beekeeping forums. A good beginner beekeeping book is Beekeeping Basics that Penn State uses in its online program. You can find it here (PDF): Starting in early spring, I also plan on publishing a series of blog posts and YouTube videos showing how I manage my nucs and packages into full size, honey producing hives. If you would like to do it along with me, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog and YouTube channel from the links on the right.
  • Personal protection equipment. This can be anything ranging from a hat with a hiker’s mosquito net along with a long-sleeved shirt and jeans (this is what I started with) all the way to a vented full body suit (this is what I am currently using). You may see a lot of YouTube videos, where the beekeeper is not wearing any protection. Don’t be tempted by those videos! One of my worst inspections started with a perfectly calm hive on a perfectly nice day. Things got awful in a hurry when a crop duster decided to take a closer look and took a dive right above the open hive. I had to beat a hasty retreat as the whole hive went on alert. Bottom line: always wear protection!
  •  Smoker. This has been the beekeeper’s go-to tool for ages. In the spring, you can get away with using sugar water or similar. In the fall, there is no substitute for the smoker if you want to avoid starting a robbing frenzy or if you want to stop one.
  •  Hive tool. Over the years, I have used a painter’s tool, an extra-long screw driver and an actual hive tool. Anything that will let you pry apart propolized frames works just fine.
  •  Hive(s). You will need a bottom board, brood box (or boxes), honey supers, and a cover. There is a myriad of options out there. You can pick deeps, mediums or shallows in 10 frames, 9 or 8. All of them have their pluses and minuses. The most useful advice for picking the size of your brood boxes is to make sure the brood boxes are the same as your supers. Manipulations are a lot easier and straight-forward when you can exchange a brood frame for a frame from your honey super. 

You can find a lot of posts and articles discussing the benefits and the drawbacks of the different size boxes. In this blog post, I want to focus on the number of boxes you are going to need.  Beekeepers in the south, where the bees can fly through the year use only a single deep for a brood box. Beekeepers in the northern part of the USA traditionally use 2 deeps as brood boxes. The second brood box provides ample amounts of stores that sustain the bees through 5 or more months of non-flying weather. If you are not sure whether to use one or two deep brood boxes, I would suggest erring on the side of caution and going with 2 for the first year. In the spring you can gauge the amount of leftover honey and have a better idea if two boxes will work for your area.

You have probably heard that first year hives do not make honey. Many beginner beekeepers interpret this as “I only need to buy brood boxes for my first year”.  Many experienced beekeepers have found out that placing swarm traps near beginner beekeepers’ apiaries usually results in them catching nice swarms with a marked queen as a bonus.

Bottom line is that first year hives (started by either nucs or packages) managed by beginner beekeepers often swarm. I believe this is due to the timing of the install, the abundant feeding of sugar and the lack of space.

Demand for earlier and earlier packages has pushed package bee suppliers to deliver queens and bees as early as possible. The further north in the USA you are located, the better your chance of getting a package early enough to make the most of your major flow. For example, here in NW Ohio, packages are available early in April (usually the 1st week of April). Our first frost free date is May 1. Dandelion blooms by the end of April. Apple bloom starts soon after, in the beginning of May. Our major flow usually starts by the end of May/early June. As you can see from this timeline, an early package here has a very good chance of making a honey crop.

According to the 2013 USDA honey report (, the average hive production for USA is 59.6 lbs. This is enough honey to fill a deep super or a couple of medium supers or 3 shallow supers. To get an estimate that is more appropriate for your specific location, please consult the USDA source above. After all, all beekeeping is local. As I mentioned in “Think Spring: How many bee hive boxes do I need? Should I get a bee hive kit?” (, I also like to keep an extra box on hand in case I end up with an exceptional flow. All in all, to consider any bee hive kits adequate, I would expect to see some supers included (generally at least 2 deep supers, 3 mediums or 4 shallow).

Finally, I personally believe that each bee hive kit (or even a beekeeping starter kit) should include an extra bottom board, an extra brood box and an extra set of covers. This would allow you some wiggle room in case you package decides to swarm. It might surprise you, but packages, especially those belonging to beginner beekeepers swarm quite frequently, due to the lavish feeding with patties and sugar syrup. Having an extra single hive will allow you to have a safe place for your queen at the first sign of swarming. In this way, you will have extra options in case the virgin fails to mate or you're not happy with the replacement.

This entry is getting fairly long – stay tuned (you can subscribe to the blog from the links on the right side of the page) for the next part where we will see how the bee hive kits match up to the above criteria. Of course, let me know if you think I should add something to the above!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Monday, November 25, 2013

Think Spring: How many bee hive boxes do I need? Should I get a bee hive kit?

My beekeeping kit :D. I am trying to get a handle on how many boxes I am going to need come spring.
Today, the high is only 26F. Old man winter is here. This is the time old and new beekeepers alike get all their equipment ready for our busiest time - spring.

If you've taken your bees through at least one main flow, you know what to expect. However, if you started your bees late or if your package or nuc suffered a major setback, you are pretty much in the dark about what to expect.

This past season, I was able to get 2 full deep supers out of each of my honey producing colonies. My rule of thumb is to have as many supers ready as my biggest harvest to date plus one extra box just in case. For the 2014 season that would be 3 deep supers with frames and foundation (or drawn comb) per colony going into honey production. If you don't know what your colonies are capable of producing, you can still get a good estimate by looking up the average honey crop for your state here:
The average honey crop for Ohio is reported as 66 lbs. per colony. This ends up being a little bit more than a full deep super, so adding a spare should get you to my number of 3 deep supers per colony.

Additionally, you need to take into effect swarming. There are various techniques to reduce swarming, but to be on the safe side, I would like to have an additional complete hive set (bottom board, brood boxes, inner cover and migratory cover) for each hive going into honey production.

This winter, I am trying to overwinter 19 colonies, 5 in a standard double deep setup, 5 in a single deep and 9 in 4 frame nucs. According to the Bee Informed survey, the average colony loss for last winter (2012/2013) was 45.1%. If the same scenario plays out for me this winter, I would have about 10 colonies to put into honey production this spring.

So, let's put all of the above into numbers. To get 10 colonies into production, I will need 5 deep boxes each (2 hive boxes for the broodnest and 3 for honey supers). In total, I am going to need 50 deep boxes to house my surviving colonies. I have 15 deep boxes currently occupied by bees and 26 spare boxes (out of which only 16 have drawn comb or foundation) for a total of 41 deep boxes. I will need to build 9 more boxes to accomodate the bees and the honey production. I will also need 10 more hive sets (or additional 20 deep boxes) in order not to lose bees to swarming. I will also need to assemble and wire 390 deep frames and foundation.

Of course, all of those numbers assume only half of my honey bee colonies make it through and make no allowance for rapid expansion. I may end up needing as many as 45 extra boxes.

Do you plan to grow next year? How many boxes do you think you're going to need?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wrapped hives and our first winter storm


The home apiary before the storm.

The home apiary after the storm.

I wrapped my hives in the begining of November, and this past Sunday the hives (and wrapping) passed their first test.

The Toledo Blade and the National Weather Service report that the strong storms that hit our area on the evening of November 17, 2013 have resulted in 3 confirmed tornadoes that struck parts of Perrysburg and Lake townships, Northwood, and Oregon. Wind gusts reached up to 125 mph.

The next morning, we went to check on our hives - as you can see from the before and after pictures above everything was fine. The wrapping withstood its first test.

The hive closest to the front in the after photo came close to being blown off the stand, so we will have to work on anchoring it this weekend.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Video Post: Making Bee Candy Boards | Bee Fondant Boards

Maria's Bees YouTube channel is officially opened!

My first two videos are a family effort :D !

The first one shows you how I make the frames. You can find it here.

The second one shows you how to pour the fondant. You can find it here.

You can find my printable recipe here.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fall Inspections: Bee candy boards and upper entrances

Honey bee candy boards in the making. The facility is under tight security.
I make my own boxes (deep) from 1 x 12 pine boards. I use half-blind dovetail joints. The rims that you see on the pictures are the extras left over once I cut the box down to proper depth. They are 1 3/4" deep.

I actually like having them since they make tight-fitting inner covers (crown boards) and bottom boards. Today, they are going to make tight-fitting bee candy boards or bee fondant boards.

I cut a 1/4" thick plywood to act as the lid on my fondant board. The kids helped me decorate them with bee pictures :D. I used 3/4" narrow crown staples to fasten the lids to the rims. Finally, I routed a 3/8 x 1/2" upper entrance in the fondant board.

The bee candy boards are ready to be filled with fondant.
The upper entrance is important as we often have drifting snow that can completely block off the bottom entrance. The upper entrance also serves as extra insurance in case the bottom entrance becomes clogged with dead bees as winter progresses. Finally, the entrance allows me to gauge the depth of the fondant/bee candy and allows me to leave the 3/8 bee space above the top bars. I have a YouTube video showing the process here

Now it is time to make the bee candy board | bee fondant boards. I've made a printable copy of my bee candy board | bee fondant recipe here. You can see the video here.

Equipment needed:
  • Pot (I use a 21.5 quarts canning pot)
  • Drill with metal plaster stirrer attachment (optional UNLESS you use the quick-set method)
  • Cooking or candy thermometer
  • Scale
  • Gloves
  • Bee candy board forms | bee fondant forms
  • A wooden spoon | spatula to fill the forms and pat the mixture into shape
Ingredients needed:
  • 4 parts by weight sugar (I start with 15 lbs.)
  • 1 part by weight water (3 lbs. and 12 oz.)
  • 1/4 tsp. vinegar for each pound of sugar (1 Tbsp. and 3/4 tsp.)
  • Pollen or dry pollen substitute (optional, I use about a handful for each form)
Additional ingredients for the quick-set method:
  • 4 parts by weight sugar (I use 15 lbs.)
  1. Mix together 4 parts sugar, 1 part water and the vinegar into the pot and set it on high.
  2. Once the mixture starts boiling, start checking the temperature. We are aiming for the soft-ball candy stage or 242F.
  3. You are done once the mixture reaches 242F. Turn off the heat. The mixture is ready to pour when it cools down to about 180F.
  4. If you don't want to wait, you can proceed with the quick-set method:
  5. This sets very quickly! Make sure you have your power stirrer, your spoon | spatula, your forms, the pollen, your gloves and the extra sugar set out.
  6. Put the gloves on and carefully take the pot next to your forms.
  7. Make sure you have your spoon | spatula, your mixer and the pollen | pollen substitute ready.
  8. Dump the extra sugar into the mixture, mix it thoroughly and spread it into the forms. Add the pollen | pollen substitute and tap it in.

The final product: bee candy boards | fondant boards ready to be put on the hives. Those took 90 lbs. of sugar.

I want to say a few final words on using bee candy | bee fondant boards. The boards that I just made weight roughly 7.5 lbs. for a nuc-sized board and 15 lbs. for a standard-sized board.
  • Adding a candy board on a nuc will increase the honey bee colony's resources by 54%.
  • Adding a candy board on a colony in a single deep will increase its resources by 27% (a bit more than 1/4).
  • Adding a candy board on a colony in a double deep will increase its resources by 21% (a bit more than 1/5).
Adding a bee candy board cannot make up for failing to feed a light colony earlier in the fall. It can, however, add extra insurance for smaller colonies going into winter.

One final note on the timing of installing a bee candy board. The bee candy board recipe includes pollen and pollen stimulates brood rearing. As a result, you do not want to add this candy board before the colony starts clustering consistently. Otherwise, your colony may end up trying to cover too much brood once the weather gets cold and result in a split cluster. You want the candy board to be a last resort of sorts and you really want the bees to find it and start using it in late winter, when they start rearing the brood for the new season.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fall Inspections: Wrapping hives and installing mouse guards

The home apiary before wrapping (with foam between the inner cover and the telescoping cover)

The home apiary after wrapping (The nuc on the left is wrapped by itself. All the other nucs are wrapped in pairs. I am curious to see how this nuc does in the spring.)

 I spent this weekend wrapping my hives.

Couple years ago, I made two home-made hive cozies. They slip right over the hive on the stand. You can also remove the "roof" and get into the hive without having to pull the entire "cozy" off. They are perfect if you only have a couple of hives. However, they are way too bulky to store in the summer. You can see them on the "after" picture.

All the other hives got 1 piece of foam between the inner cover and the telescoping cover. I used 1" thick rigid pink insulation foam. I also put 4 pieces of that foam so that they completely enclose the hive, except for the bottom board and 3/8" right above it. As you can see on the picture, I used some pieces of duct tape to hold the pieces of foam in place until I was able to tighten the strap. I will remove those pieces of tape later, when I install the candy boards. I also wrapped duct tape completely around the top and bottom of the hive in case the strap fails:

Double deep hives, fully insulated
The duct tape goes completely around and ends up on itself, since sometimes when it is cold (as it was yesterday) it does not stick on the foam.

For a strap, I used a 1" x 6' cam buckle strap. I prefer those instead of ratchet straps as they don't seize after being exposed to the cold and rain all winter. Of course, of you have more hives, either one of those straps may not be practical. A simple spool of 1" webbing and a trucker's knot will accomplish the same at a fraction of the cost.

So, what is the purpose of wrapping hives? After all, bees have made it without wrapping for millions of years.

I wrap because it stabilizes the brood nest temperature and reduces condensation.

If you ever had a strong hive and not-so-strong hive side by side, you probably noticed that the stronger colony starts to forage earlier and finishes foraging later than the weaker colony. This is because the stronger colony has more foragers to spare. Adding insulation to a colony also allows it to send out more bees as foragers. It reduces the temperature swings between the daytime high and the nighttime low. With insulation, a honey bee colony needs less nurse bees to maintain the brood nest temperature. In this way, an insulated honey bee colony can resume brood rearing earlier in the spring than a non-insulated one. It can also make the most of the first pollen flows (maple and willow here in NW Ohio) that usually happen during marginal flight weather. An insulated colony will usually be 2 weeks ahead as far as population and brood rearing are concerned compared to a non-insulated colony.

An added benefit of insulating your colonies is that the insulation dramatically reduces condensation on the roof and sides of the honey bee hive. As you probably know, moisture in the winter kills bees. Sometimes, moisture in the hive is introduced by uncured syrup, especially if you had to feed late in the fall and the bees did not have time to cure and cap the syrup.

Moisture is also introduced through the metabolic processes of the cluster itself and the conversion of honey into heat by the honey bees. If the top of the hive is not insulated, the warm and moist bee breath forms condensation droplets right above the cluster. The resulting water droplets can drip on the clustered bees and quickly chill and kill them. Adding insulation overhead as well as gently tilting the hive towards the entrance alleviates that.

Of course, once the bee hive gets cozier due to the added insulation, a slew of other critters want to make it their home, too. The most destructive are the field mice.
A single deep hive box with mouse guard and 3 3/8" holes on the left
You probably haven't seen any traces of mice in your apiary. Mice are tricky. They usually invade the hives once the bees start clustering consistently. Then they can make their nests at leisure, often destroying the entire bottom box by chewing through the frames and foundation. If the weather warms up unexpectedly for the mouse, the bees will kill it and completely propolise the body.

I always recommend putting mouse guards on. They are quick and easy to install and can save the beekeeper a lot of grief in the spring. You can make them from 1/4" pet fencing. This year, I used drywall corner (available in all home improvement type stores) that I cut to size and drilled 3/8" access holes. If you use a wood block while you are drilling, your holes will be clean and won't have burrs and sharp edges that can damage the honey bees wings.

This blog post is getting quite long. I will finish it next week with pictures and recipe for my candy board. I will also talk about upper entrances for winter. Meanwhile you can tell me in the comments how you insulate your hives. Did you insulate already and if not when do you plan to do it?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fall Inspections: How to downsize your hive without inciting robbing and get your bees ready for wintering

Getting ready for wintering bees: 5 nucs and 2 singles have pink insulation put over their inner covers.
Fall is the perfect time to check your beehives and make sure your honey bees are ready for wintering. Ideally, you would do this right after the last fall flow (goldenrod and asters in mid-August through the beginning of September here in NW Ohio) as this will give you a good read on the strength and stores of the honey bee colony going in the winter. Unfortunately, while the timing is great for assessing stores, it is bad for performing thorough inspections. We all know the reason: robber bees.

Here are a few facts about robber honey bees:
  • They are opportunistic.
  • They engage in explorative foraging.
  • If they find a source of nectar or pollen, they will return to the same spot until the source is exhausted. They will also check the vicinity of the source to see if there is something else available.
  • They will stop robbing if it gets dark, if it starts raining, if it gets too cold or if there is a lot of smoke. They will resume the robbing once flying conditions improve.
  • Feeding sugar syrup, especially syrup with stimulants such as HoneyBHealthy attracts robber honey bees.
  • Weak hives and nucs are especially prone to being robbed out very quickly in the fall (or in a dearth).
  • Robbing in the fall (or in a dearth) is really easy to start and very difficult to stop.
Now, let’s go back to getting your bees ready for wintering. Unfortunately, the honey bee colonies that need the most help are the ones the robber bees are more likely to target:  nucs, weak colonies or colonies that are getting fed.

When evaluating your honey bee colonies for winter stores, you need to keep the following honey bee facts in mind:
  • It takes about 3-4 days for a small nuc to take about a quart of 5:3 sugar syrup or about 1.25 lbs. of extra stores
  • It takes about 1 week for a colony in a single deep to take about 1 gallon of 5:3 sugar syrup or about 5 lbs. of extra stores.
  • It takes about 1 week for a full sized colony in a double deep configuration to take about 5 gallons of 5:3 sugar syrup or about 25 lbs. of extra stores
Keep in mind that those time frames are for hives that are properly sized for their box as far as brood frames and cluster size are concerned (even though they might be light on stores). For more on appropriate sizes see my post Fall inspections: Finding the right size box for your bees

In addition to the above mentioned time frames, the bees need some extra time to cure the syrup to proper moisture content before cold weather sets in so that there is not a bunch of extra moisture added to the hive. Allow at least couple of weeks after you are done feeding for the bees to cure the syrup.
Depending on the time frame available until the end of the beekeeping season, downsizing may be the better choice for getting your colony through the winter.  Keep in mind that downsizing takes approximately 15 minutes while feeding can take anywhere from a week to several weeks in a row. Chances to start robbing are bigger with feeding as compared to downsizing.

After all this, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of downsizing a hive without starting a robbing frenzy.
First, start with a plan. From weighing the hive, you should have a pretty good idea about what the target size should be.  Let’s pretend that we have a colony in a double deep hive that weighed at 75 – 80 lbs. Even without opening the hive, you know that this colony will be better off in a single deep and that there is pretty much at least one box worth of empty comb. You will still need to feed this colony after downsizing it, but not as much as you will need to feed if it was still in a double deep configuration.
Once you decide on the size that you need, make a note of what frames you need. For a single deep you will need 2 brood frames, 2 pollen frames and at least 5 full honey frames.  Next, let’s talk about where you’re most likely to find those.  In an established hive, the honey frames would be in the top deep, while the pollen and the brood frames most likely are going to be in the middle of the bottom deep. In an established hive that weighs 75-80 lbs. chances are that the top deep is going to be full of empty frames and you could possibly have the 2 outside frames in the bottom deep full of capped honey. In a newly installed hive with the same weight, the top might even contain undrawn frames. You might find some honey stores in the middle of the top deep. The bottom deep is likely to have a couple of undrawn or partially drawn frames towards the outside of the box.
A robber cloth made from a receiving blanket with 2 boards on the wide side. Since the temperature outside is 40F, I am using a box with foundation for my demo picture. Note how the robber cloth allows you to expose only one or 2 frames at a time.
As a final step, get your tools and equipment together. You will need an extra hive body to sort the frames into and an inner cover. If you don’t have an extra inner cover, you can use a scrap piece of plywood of the appropriate size or make a robber cloth. You can make a robber cloth out of any piece of cloth that is big enough to cover a hive body with some overhang over the sides. Attach something to weigh the sides, so it does not get blown away while you are working. On the picture you can see a robber cloth made out of a baby receiving blanket.
Finally, get your smoker going good and don’t forget your hive tool. Remember, the goal is to get in and out as quickly as possible.
Smoke the entrance and through the inner cover, wait a bit and then separate the 2 boxes. Put the top box off to the side on the top of the outer cover and cover the bottom brood box with the inner cover. If you have a lot of bees in the top box, you will need to shake the frames into the bottom box as you go. If you pick a cooler morning to work, the majority of the bees will be clustered on the brood nest and this will allow you to work faster. Keep your smoker hanging on the box you are working on, so the smoke blows over the top of the frames. This will also minimize the chances of starting a robbing frenzy.
Pick the 5 heaviest frames from the top brood box and set them aside in the extra box.  Cover the box with the extra inner cover and open the lower brood box. Use the inner cover to cover the top box. Start working from the outside frames. Pull an outer frame. If it is heavier than the heaviest frame in the spare box, put it back in. If not, replace it with one of the frames from the spare box. Evaluate the 3 outside frames on each side in this way. At this point you will have the 5 heaviest frames of honey plus whatever they have/had in the brood nest. This is it. You're done.
Shake the bees from the extra box and the top brood box into the lower brood box and put the covers back on. If there is syrup/nectar on the frames that did not make the cut, put them in one of the boxes and place the box upside down over the inner cover and put the telescoping/migratory cover on top. This will allow the bees to consolidate the syrup/nectar back into the brood nest. Feed to get them to proper weight and don’t forget to reduce the entrances.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How to maximize your honey production while minimizing swarming (Part II)

One of my single deep beehives, opened on Oct 20, 2013. Lots of healthy honey bees.
Last week, I summarized “A year’s work in an out-apiary; or, An average of 114 ½ pounds of honey per colony in a poor season, and how it was done” by G. M. Doolittle and promised to explain how I use his method in my apiary.

I want to point out that G. M. Doolittle ran his hives for section honey. Section honey has its own set of challenges, namely:
  • You must crowd the bees as you want each section completely drawn (front and back, top to bottom and side to side). Undrawn or partially drawn sections are not marketable. G. M. Doolittle uses them as “bait” sections in the following year.
  • You must use a queen excluder as sections with whiter cappings (and whiter honey) command a premium
The color of the cappings and partially uncapped frames (as long as the frame is about 75% capped or you have a good refractometer) are not such crucial issues anymore. However, G. M. Doolittle did not have to deal with small hive beetles (SHB) or varroa mites.

So, without any further ado, here is my schedule for year 2014. G. M. Doolittle’s flows are very similar to the flows in my area and therefore I can use the calendar dates that he provides for manipulations. Still, I will keep an eye on when a flow starts and ends and modify the schedule accordingly. For those of you further south and north, I have included the flows, so you can map them to yours. My comments are below the manipulations in italics.

Date Flow
Manipulations and Comments
April 14 Doolittle: Take hives out, clean the bottom boards

This part of Doolittle’s management part is largely obsolete with the majority of beekeepers in the USA keeping their bee hives outside all winter long. The obvious exception would be Canadian beekeepers that routinely winter their hives inside temperature controlled buildings due to the long Canadian winter. Although you might be tempted to remove the hive wrap and insulation at this point, I usually remove them in the beginning or middle of May depending on the long range weather forecast.
April 24 Elm, soft maple

Apr 28
Doolittle: Make sure each hive has at least 20 pounds in honey stores by adding 1, 2 or 3 combs of honey at 7 pounds each. The honey should be put right next to the brood nest. 

Note that this is done 26 days before fruit tree bloom and 53 days before the main flow (basswood and white clover). It takes approximately 42 days (+/-7 days) to produce a forager bee from an egg. The brood that is produced in the next 11 days is going to produce the forager bees working the main flow. Therefore, it is crucial that brood rearing goes on “swimmingly” during this period. This is one of the reasons why I don’t remove the hive wraps and insulation until later. I don’t want to chill my main flow foragers.

The elm and soft maple are primarily pollen flows that the honey bees use to rear brood. However, the honey bees may not be able to make the most of those flows due to inclement weather and cold snaps. If this is the case, you might want to add a pollen patty on the top of the brood nest to make sure that the honey bees are able to raise healthy foragers for the main flow.  

Another possible sticking point when implementing this plan is that any newcomer to this management technique will lack “reserve combs” with which to supplement the honey stores in the spring. Feeding 1:1 sugar syrup to the honey bees is an alternative solution. The drawback, again, is the weather in early spring. Here in NW Ohio, the average daytime high for April is 62F with lows of 40F. The honey bees stop taking syrup when its temperature falls below 50F. To make sure the honey bees take the syrup, you might want to feed smaller amounts in a Ziploc baggie feeder (or frame feeder) positioned right above the brood nest (next to it in the case of a frame feeder).
May 20
Fruit tree bloom
Doolittle: Clip the queens. Equalize the brood, in order to make sure there are multiple strong colonies at the beginning of the clover flow.  Add a story with 2 bait combs to all the strong bee hives.
Doolittle’s reasoning for clipping the queens is that it will delay the swarm for several days until he is able to perform his “shook swarming”. I haven’t been able to find a good description on how to clip queens, so I haven’t practiced it. Let me know in the comments or send me an e-mail if clip your queens or have a good source. The links for both are on the bottom of this blog post. I have also pulled the honey from the bottom chamber into the 2nd deep.
June 16
White clover:
May 23;
Black locust is done
Basswood flow begins in approx. 10 more days
Doolittle: Mow the grass in the apiary. Prepare hives for filling sections by removing the 2nd story and putting on 1 “bait” section super and one section super filled with foundation above a queen excluder. “Shake swarm” the honey colonies and take all the brood out.
While I use queen excluders in my apiary, I do not use them in my honey colonies. I do not believe them to be as critical for extracted honey production as they are for comb honey.
Doolittle also takes out all the brood when he “shake swarms” his honey bee colonies. However, the white clover and the basswood flows are usually done within a month of that manipulation. In addition, his next flow of any importance is the buckwheat flow and it does not start until middle of August. If your main flow is longer in duration or you have a mid-summer flow instead of a dearth, you might want to change this manipulation to a variation of a cut-down split where you take away the queen and all open brood. After the flow, you can re-combine the two hives if you don’t want to increase the number of colonies. In this way, you will avoid the month and a half gap in raising foragers in the middle of the summer.
June 26
July 6
Doolittle: Making increases (nucs)
For the past 4 years, I had very good results raising queens (fall queens) after the main flow. In reality, I start mine on the 4th of July as it is easy to remember. This year, I experimented with raising my own queens using the cut cell method and mating them into small nucs (in past years, I did splits and let each split raise their own queen). While I plan to make some changes in the way I set up the nucs for next year, I am going to stick to this timeline for now.
July 10
Doolittle: Make sure nucs are queen-right; add queens if necessary
July 24
Doolittle: Taking off surplus; preparing for buckwheat flow
Usually this timeline works well with my schedule, but this year was the exception. I believe the cold and wet summer caused a delay in the capping of the supers. The majority of the supers were not capped until well into September / the beginning of October. And yes, those stores were sitting uncapped since July. Did you notice if the honey bees took longer to cap? Leave me a note in the comments.

This is also the time when you want to test for varroa and treat if necessary. In this way you will reduce the varroa mite pressure on the honey bees reared in the the next couple of months. These are the so-called "winter bees" or "fat bees" and they are crucial for your colony's winter survival.

I usually don't need to treat, because I usually introduce a queen cell into my honey colonies after the main flow, causing a brood break. A brood break is an effective varroa management tool, especially for treatment-free bees.
Sept 8
Doolittle: Harvest using bee escapes / porter escapes

It is a good idea to also use this visit in order to make sure your hives have a good wintering weight. This is about a month and a half before the first hard frost in my area and after the goldenrod flow. Check out my post Fall inspections: Do I need to feed and how much? for more details.
Oct 10
Doolittle: Install winter bottom boards and mouse guards on the hives

Since I don't overwinter my hives in a cellar but outdoors, this is around the time I insulate/wrap my hives for winter.
Nov 23
Doolittle: Temperatures are around freezing, it is time to put the bees back in the cellar.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to maximize your honey production while minimizing swarming

October is here and in McClure, OH that means that my winter preparation is winding down as my honey bees and I are enjoying our last couple weeks of nice weather. The bee hives that needed winter stores have all been fed. The honey bees have propolized the interior of the hives. They have already organized their stores and brood for best wintering. I am working on cutting insulation for the bee hives and pouring candy boards for my nucs. My honey bee season is almost over and while it is still fresh in my mind, I start penciling out my plan for next year.

My invaluable helper is Gilbert M. Doolittle and his book “A year’s work in an out-apiary; or, An average of 114 ½ pounds of honey per colony in a poor season, and how it was done”. You can find the most recent edition on Amazon by clicking here. The book was originally published in 1906. Its fifth edition (published in 1922) as “Management of out-apiaries” is available as an e-book here.

Even though this beekeeping book was published more than 100 years ago, the techniques described are very relevant to modern beekeeping. So let’s not delay any longer and dive right into the details.

Summary of A year’s work in an out-apiary

The book is only 60 pages long and is divided in 12 chapters (one for each visit in the out-apiary for the year):

• Chapter I: An average of 114 ½ pounds of section honey per colony in poor season, and how it was done. On April 14, 10 days before elm and maple bloom, G. M. Doolittle levels the hive stands, takes the honey bees out from their cellar (his bees are wintered indoors in a single hive body) and sets them out on a new/clean bottom board.

• Chapter II. April 24, the elm and soft maples are in bloom. G. M. Doolittle checks the available honey stores of each colony. He supplements any colony that has less than 20 lbs. of honey with capped honey frames. He adds those frames on the outside of the brood nest. His honey bees are still in a single hive body. He enlarges the entrances appropriately for the strength of each beehive and makes sure that the brood is in good condition. He supersedes his queens after the harvest, so if he finds any queens need to be replaced early in the spring, he just combines the hive with another with a good queen. How do you handle underperforming queens in the early spring? Re-queen or combine? Leave me a note in the comments below!

• Chapter III: Bloom time. The thirds visit is almost a month later on May 20th, during apple and fruit tree bloom. During this visit, G. M. Doolittle finds and clips all queens. He also equalizes the brood among his hives by taking brood off the hives with more than seven frames of brood and adding those frames to the bee hives that have 6 or less frames.  In addition, he supers all the hives that have 7 frames of brood. He takes the 2 outer honey combs from the brood nest and exchanges them with 2 empty combs from the super. The first super is all drawn, filled with more or less empty comb. He installs it above a queen excluder. The colonies that have 7 frames of brood and a super are his honey producing colonies. The weak colonies are his increase colonies. At this visit, he also fully opens the entrances on all but the weakest colonies. Do you keep any colonies back to serve as increase colonies or do you order packages? G. M. Doolittle uses 1/5 of his existing colonies as increase colonies. What percentage of your total bee hives are your increase colonies?

• Chapter IV: How to control swarms when running for comb honey. It is June 16 and the white clover has just started blooming (black locust is done). Time to mow the bee yard as tall grasses at the bee hive entrance will slow foragers down and reduce the honey crop. This is also the visit in which G. M. Doolittle treats his honey colonies with “shook swarming”. In essence, he prepares a new box for the brood nest with 1 empty comb in the middle, surrounded by the honey comb from the super. This new box is placed on the hive stand. Then he adds the queen excluder and above it he puts a super with bait (half-drawn) sections and above that a super of sections in foundation. Finally, he shakes all the bees in front of this new brood box. He puts the brood over a queen excluder on top of one of the weaker colonies. Have you tried the shook swarm method of swarm prevention? I have tried something similar, but not exactly as described by G. M. Doolittle. What is your favorite method of swarm prevention? Leave me a note in the comment section below!

• Chapter V: A simple and reliable plan for making increase. It is June 26. On the previous visit, G. M. Doolittle had found some swarm cells in a hive that he wants to breed from. He uses those cells (they are ripe) and the brood he removed on the previous visit to make nucs. He also shakes (shook swarm) the colonies that were weak on his prior visit.

• Chapter VI: How to save unnecessary lifting in taking off filled supers of honey. It is July 10. Basswood bloom has begun on July 6. G. M. Doolittle brings extra queens in case the mating failed in the increase colonies he made on the prior visit. He checks the supers and takes off the capped ones. He uses a wheelbarrow to minimize the lifting of full supers. He also adds an empty super to all colonies from which he removes one.  He puts supers on the week colonies that had brood combs added to them on the prior visits. He uses one of his queens in an introductory cage to re-queen one of the increase colonies. He also makes sure the grass and weeds are not blocking the entrances to his bee hives. He believes a tangled entrance can lead to as much as 1/3 of the possible honey crop being lost. Do you mow around your bee hives? Do you believe it is necessary?

• Chapter VII: Taking off the surplus, what to do with the unfinished sections, preparation for the buckwheat flow. It is now July 24 and the basswood bloom is all done. G. M. Doolittle brings another load of supers to the apiary in preparation for the buckwheat flow. Again, he takes any completed or more than 2/3 completed section honey supers and replaces them with empty ones. His philosophy is to always have an empty super available at all times for the bees. On this visit, he also replaces any queen that hasn’t been performing up to par with a ripe queen cell that he brought with him. He also replaces any queen that is 2 years old. When do you replace your queens? I usually replace mine after the main flow with a ripe queen cell. This gives my colonies a much needed brood break which helps control varroa buildup.

• Chapter VIII: Progress in the supers. It is August 18 and the buckwheat is in full bloom. G. M. Doolittle uses this visit to check progress in the supers from the buckwheat flow.

• Chapter IX: A simple way to put on escapes without lifting. It is September 8 and the end of G. M. Doolittle’s bee season. The goal of this visit is to put bee escapes on all the colonies in order to be able to remove the supers. He uses a wooden wedge to lift the supers and slide the escape board beneath them without ever having to remove them from the hives.

• Chapter X: Taking off the honey and storing it at the out-yard. Two to four days later, on a cool day (to prevent robbing) G. M. Doolittle retrieves the supers. He always keeps them covered with a robber cloth in order to prevent robbing. He weighs the hives and makes sure they have a minimum of 25 pounds of stores. He adds full combs to those bee hives that have less. Remember, he overwinters his hives in a basement is single hive configuration.

• Chapter XI. October 10. He installs the winter bottom boards and mouse guards on his hives.

• Chapter XII: Closing words, further suggestions to the plans given in the preceding chapters. It is November 23 and with temperatures just above freezing, it is time to set the bees back in the cellar.

The above summary does a very poor job of describing what a treasure G. M. Doolittle's book is. Every time I re-read this book, I find new ideas to implement in my apiary. I believe every serious beekeeper should become familiar with this work!

So how does this tie into increasing your honey production today? G. M. Doolittle gives you a pretty good plan to manage hives at the serious sideliner or even the smaller commercial level. His plan is a good blueprint to follow if you want to learn how to manage your bees by the yard and not by the hive. He manages to accomplish all his buildup, swarm control and winter prep in just 12 separate visits.

Do you use a system that is similar to G. M. Doolittle’s method? Do you use a completely different method? Please leave me note in the comments section about which method you’ve been using so far.

This blog post is getting quite long, so I will continue next week with some pointers on how to use G. M. Doolittle’s management principles in your own bee yard. I will also publish my management schedule, which is based on G. M. Doolittle’s plan. I will post the second part of this post on Sunday, October 20, 2013. Check back on Monday to read it or click here to get it delivered directly to your inbox! 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fall inspections: Do I need to feed and how much?

In my previous posts, I have often mentioned or advocated feeding in the fall. Reading those posts, one may come to the conclusion that I am feeding sugar syrup to my bees quite often, which of course is quite different from the reality. I would like to take the time to explain how I determine if the bees need feeding, how much and how often.

Determining whether I need to feed

I will definitely feed:
  • New packages
  • Nucs babysitting a queen cell
  • Cell starters and cell finishers
  • Colonies that are going into winter and are weighing in under the recommended weight by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA). Those are:
    • 135 lbs. for a standard 10 frame double deep with stores taking up 70 lbs. Alternative configurations for this setup are the 10 frame 3 medium or the 10 frame 4 shallow configuration. This is approximately 10 deep honey frames, 15 medium honey frames or 18 shallow honey frames.
    • 95 lbs. for singles with stores taking up 55 lbs. Alternative configurations for this setup are 2 medium boxes or a shallow and a medium. This is approximately 5 and a half deep honey frames, almost 12 medium frames in an all-medium setup, or 10 full shallow frames and 3 and a half mediums.
  • Nucs that are going into winter (mine are 4 frame deeps) that have less than 14 lbs or 2 deep frames of stores
I don't have any personal experience with the following, but I have seen it recommended from several reliable sources, including Brother Adam in Beekeeping At Buckfast Abbey. You can find the book on Amazon: Beekeeping At Buckfast Abbey with a section on mead making
  • Feed immediately after the bees have been working a quickly crystallizing honey crop such as canola, oilseed rape or heather. Here is a link for a more comprehensive list of quickly crystallizing honeys.
In those cases, Brother Adam cautions against trying to overwinter on such stores as he believes they cause dysentery. He recommends extracting all available honey and feeding the bees thin syrup to replace their stores.

Determining when to feed

Start feeding new packages, nucs, cell starters and cell finishers as soon as you establish them. Check the weight on your hives going into winter when your fall flow is done. In this way the bees will have the chance to make the most of the naturally available pollen and nectar and you will still have the time to replenish their reserves before the cold weather hits. Please note that the majority of the hives should not need feeding at this point. The bees should have their brood nest and stores organized for winter. Having light hives going into winter should be the exception, not the rule.

Determining how much or how long to feed

Usually, the bees are pretty good at letting us know when to stop feeding. In the spring, newly established packages will stop taking syrup altogether or significantly reduce their syrup consumption when they find a good alternative source of nectar. If you are first year beekeeper when this happens and you are not sure when your local flow is, take note! Your flow is on. Sometimes, the bees will keep taking syrup all along, especially if it is mixed with feeding stimulants such as HoneyBeeHealthy, essential oils or certain herbal teas such as mint or peppermint. In such cases, they will still give you additional indication that they have plenty of nectar available. For example:
  • Your new package has drawn out the brood nest boxes. They have plenty of brood and at least 28 lbs of stores. It's time to let them go and see how they do (keep an eye on their stores in case they get caught in a dearth). Incidentally, this is the same amount of stores G. M. Doolittle likes to see in his book: A year's work in an out-apiary; or, An average of 114 1/2 pounds of honey per colony in a poor season, and how it was done
  • All the frames are wet looking or have nectar in them. The bees have stored nectar in all of the frames and did not leave any space for the queen to lay in. Give them some space and lay off the syrup.
  • The bees are building new wax on top of the frames and storing syrup/nectar there. This is one of the signs of a strong flow. Give them some space and lay off the syrup.
  • When fall feeding, your hives have reached your desired target hive weight or the bees have filled and capped the recommended amount of honey frames.
Before you start feeding, it is good to figure out a clear goal and how you are going to accomplish it. This is especially important when you are feeding during the fall, as overfeeding can cause a late swarm (a most unfortunate event in late fall).

Start by estimating your hive weight. A word of caution: most beekeepers overestimate their hives weights when lifting the back of the hive. If this is your first time weighing a hive, here are some tips to help you get an accurate measure:
  • Use a scale. You don't need to use a fancy hive scale and you don't need to lift the whole hive. Any hanging scale similar to this deer hanging scale will suffice ($13). Make sure your hive is level. Attach the scale to the back of the hive and lift, then repeat at the front. The front and the back weights, when added together will approximate closely the total weight of your hive.
  • Try to do a frame count. You can see the approximate frame counts in the section called "Determining whether I need to feed" above. Ideally, when doing a frame count, you should also keep an eye on the amount of brood and pollen stores in the hive.
  • If you don't have a scale, and you are not able to do a frame count, try to "calibrate" yourself. Stack weight similar to your hive's target weight to a spare telescoping cover or bottom board and try to lift it. Dog food bags work good for this. You want your hive to be heavier than that. Try to do the "calibration" as close as possible to the actual hive weigh-in.
If your bee hive weighs more than your target, then congratulations! You don't need to feed. This should be the case in the majority of bee hives. Otherwise, determine the difference between you bee hive's current weight and target weight. This is the amount of sugar, not syrup, that you need to feed. Please note that if you need to add more than half a box weight worth of sugar, you might want to rethink your bee hive's current configuration. Check out my post "Fall inspections: Finding the right size box for your bees" for more details on how to possibly downsize your hive.

For fall feeding, due to the short time period, I prefer feeding 5:3 sugar syrup. Since the concentration of the sugar syrup is close to that of 2:1 sugar syrup, the bees tend to store it rather than to raise brood on it. In addition, I don't have as much trouble getting sugar to dissolve completely in the 5:3 syrup as I have when making 2:1 syrup.

Some handy tips and tricks that I've learned through the years:

  • In the fall, it's easier to get bees to fill out a frame than to draw out a frame. If my nucs are not making good progress on drawing out their frames, I will replace the undrawn frames with extracted "super" frames to help them out. I use the same size -- deeps -- everywhere.
  • If I need to feed a bunch of smaller colonies, I sometimes add a drawn super to a stronger colony and feed. The stronger colony will fill it and cap it faster than the smaller ones. Then I redistribute the capped combs among the smaller colonies as needed. In this way, you can save some effort and reduce the robbing pressure on the smaller colonies.
  • When feeding, especially in the fall, always reduce the entrances and install robbing screens to reduce the chance of starting robbing. Keep in mind that it is very easy to start robbing and very difficult to stop it.
I welcome all questions and comments, so please don't hesitate to leave me a note in the comments section below!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fall inspections: Finding the right size box for your bees

You just finished your fall inspections and everything looks great except that one hive that looks like this:

(This image has been graciously provided by member dputt88, but I had a hive looking exactly like this at the end of August. I transferred this hive into a 4 frame nuc)

The bees have filled only approximately half of the box with brood and stores. September is almost over. In my latitude that means that the bees have at most one brood cycle left (a worker brood cycle is approximately 20 days) and the bees are heading into winter with a box that is way too big for their population. What can we, the beekeepers do to help them out?

First things first, we need to determine what happened. Take a peek at the frames with brood and stores in your hive.
  • Do they look normal or is there a cause of concern? Check out my post Fall Inspection for my nucs and singles for pictures of what brood and stores look like this time of the year.
  • Do you suspect that high varroa mite levels are making it hard for your bees to maintain a healthy population? The ScientificBeekeeping site has a lot of resources on varroa and testing for varroa levels. You can find the info here.
  • Maybe your hive has a dwindling population due to laying workers. You can find out what laying workers hive looks like here.
  • Maybe you have a poorly mated queen or a drone layer. Examples and treatment options can be found here.
  • Maybe the flow stopped unexpectedly and you are seeing the last super that the bees could not complete. In this case, the boxes under this one should be full of brood and stores.
  • Maybe you were throwing supers on a bit too fast for them and the bees created a tall and narrow "chimney" of brood and stores right in the middle of the boxes and left the outside frames bare.
  • Maybe you got a little bit too enthusiastic stealing brood for your nucs in late summer and your hive did not have enough time to rebuild. This is my mistake that caused my hive to look like the picture above.
  • Maybe a myriad of other things happened that prevented your colony from building up. 
Once you figure out what happened, you need to take action in order to make sure that your colony heading into winter is:
  1. Queenright
  2. Pest and disease free or those are within manageable limits
  3. Provisioned with enough brood and stores for the size of the cluster/bee population
  4. Housed in an appropriately sized box/boxes for the size of the cluster
After making sure that #1 and #2 from the above list are covered, you need to make sure you have enough stores and provisions. The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA) has published a lot of research on wintering bees on their website. Their recommend minimum wintering weight is 95 lbs. for singles and 135 lbs. for doubles with stores taking up 55 lbs. and 70 lbs. respectively. In particular, that translates roughly to 5 heavy honey frames, 2 frames of pollen and 2 frames of mostly capped brood for singles and 10 heavy honey frames, 4 frames of pollen and 4 frames of mostly capped brood for doubles. Their recommendations have worked well for me in the past 4 years.

As you go through your hive, take inventory of their resources. Is the bee population along with the existing brood and stores better suited for a single, a double or even a nuc (1 frame of brood, 1 frame of pollen and 2 heavy honey frames)?
By the time you are done with your inspection, you should have a pretty good idea what size box would be optimal for the current cluster size. If you have an appropriate box handy, you could just transfer the frames into the new box, put it on the stand, close it up and call it a day. Make sure you keep the brood frames in the middle, with the youngest brood (eggs and open brood) in the center of the brood nest, the capped brood towards the periphery of the nest and the honey frames on the outside.

Reducing the space available to the cluster of bees is not always straightforward, especially if you utilized different sized boxes for your brood boxes and supers and the bees created a "chimney" through all the boxes.

Now, allow me to take the time to explain the difference between a "chimney" and an unfinished super. A "chimney" is when the bees have utilized the middle frames on several boxes while leaving the outside frames undrawn. Your boxes will look like the picture above and the bees will have drawn out approximately half of the frames in each box while ignoring the rest. An unfinished supper, on the other hand, will also look like the picture above, but the boxes underneath it will be completely drawn out and, even more importantly, they will be full of brood and stores. You will definitely want to reduce the amount of boxes the bees occupy if you see a chimney (and that will involve re-arranging the frames into a more compact broodnest). However, if you are just dealing with an unfinished super, you have couple of options:
  1. You could just take off the super and let them overwinter on the boxes below. A modification of this approach would be to raise the super above the inner cover (you may even scratch some of the cappings) and let the bees rob it out and store the honey in the broodnest.
  2. Alternatively, you could try feeding your hive 2:1 sugar syrup (or 5:3) in an effort to help the bees finish out the super and leave it for them to overwinter in.
So, back to the worst case scenario - how to reduce the height of your stack if you have multiple sized boxes. If you have multiples of the same sized box plus an odd size, for example a deep plus couple of shallow supers or a deep plus couple of mediums, try to consolidate the multiples into one and feed to fill out the odd size. In the example above, you would consolidate the half-drawn mediums into one and feed to fill out the deep. If you have just one of each, then your best bet is to feed and let them sort it out.

In conclusion, in order to give your colony the best chance of overwintering, you want to make sure your colony is queenright, pest and disease free (or those are within manageable limits), provisioned with enough stores to last it until the first available pollen in your locality, and the colony is housed in a box/boxes that are appropriately sized for the available population.