Once the summer honey harvest has been collected, it’s time to make preparations for tucking the bees away for the winter. Here are the steps that we take when beekeeping in the fall.
Beekeeping in the Fall
Summers in Alaska are fairly short but thanks to the long days, the bees manage to be very productive. They spend the few warm months available to them gathering pollen and nectar and increasing their numbers. Our family loves watching them fly all over the place around our home.
We are fairly hands-off during the summer months, completing hive checks as needed to prevent swarming. We extract honey in August, giving thanks for the sweet treat the bees provide for us but leaivng plenty for them too.
By early September, depending on the weather, the temperatures are cooling down and we turn our focus to preparations for overwintering. We want to make sure that the colonies are healthy and hardy for the coming winter months.
There are a few important tasks to complete when caring for bees during the fall months prior to overwintering:
- Condensing the colony down to one hive box
- Installing an entrance reducer
- Feeding sugar water
The first step that we take once summer is over and we start to prepare for overwintering is to get all of the bees down into one brood box. During the summer, as the colony populations grow and they need more space for storing honey, each hive consists of two brood boxes and one or two honey supers on top of those.
After pulling out the honey frames for extraction, we remove the supers and the bees are left with two brood boxes. This is too much space for overwintering. The bees need a smaller space to heat so it’s important to get the entire colony down into the bottom brood box for the winter.
We do this by using bee escapes. There are different versions of these available. You can use a small bee escape, such as this, but we didn’t have very good luck with those. We prefer large, wooden bee escapes. You can purchase these online as well but we were fortunate to have a friend build his own and share them with us. They work great.
First, we make sure the queen is in the bottom brood box. Then we place the bee escape on top of the bottom brood box, hole side up with the triangle facing down. The second brood box goes on top of the bee escape. The bee escape will be sandwiched between the two brood boxes.
The bees will travel down from the top brood box through the hole and then through the triangles into the bottom brood box. But once they’re in the bottom brood box, they’ll be unable to figure out how to get back up! Within a day or two, all of the bees will be down in the bottom brood box and the top brood box and bee escape can be removed.
To help the bees stay warm while the temperatures drop, an entrance reducer is placed in the bottom entrance to the beehives. This small strip of wood fits perfectly in the hive entrance and covers all but a small opening. The bees use this opening to exit and enter the hive and less cold air gets in.
Fall Bee Feeding
Now that the honey flow has ended, we must provide food for the bees. We do this in the form of sugar water, just the same as we feed them in the springtime when they first emerge after winter. We will only feed them sugar water for about a month until it’s time to overwinter them. They don’t receive any sugar water during the winter but sugar board instead.
We use top feeders on our hives that we make out of 2-gallon food-grade buckets. We simply cut a small square out of the lid, about 2-square inches. Then we cut an even larger square, about 4-square inches, of screen material. On the inside of the lid, we attach the screen using clear epoxy.
The buckets are filled with a 2:1 ration of sugar water. To the sugar water, we add 1 tablespoon of Fumidil-B to prevent nosema during the winter. The sugar is mixed into very warm water and then the buckets sit in the house for a few hours to reach room temperature.
Each beehive lid has a 1-inch hole drilled into it. We keep small caps on these during the summer and remove them when it’s time to set the feeders out. The buckets go upsidedown and the screen goes over the hole in the lid. Gravity will keep the sugar water in the bucket, although a little will spill out when turning the bucket over. Now the bees can have access to the sugar water.
These top feeders don’t take up precious space inside the brood box where frames need to be. We usually have to refill these buckets once or twice before winter.
These buckets will be removed when we put the bees away for the winter and replaced with candy boards. We make these ourselves and they provide enough food for the bees the entire winter. You can find instructions in this post.
Finally, we wrap each hive in 1-inch thick insulating foam. We usually first wrap the foam in duct tape to protect it from weathering. Four pieces cut to match the sides of the hive are held on using a bungy cord. Now the bees are all set for the remainder of fall as the temperatures cool down.
Beekeeping doesn’t end once you have your honey! Fall is a new season that brings important tasks to keep the colonies healthy and strong before winter sets in. Taking these steps ensures the well-being of our bees and allows us to enjoy them a little longer before they’re tucked away for the winter.