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.