Preparing the bee colony for winter

A honey bee feeding on ivy flowers.

Mary O’Riordan continues her bee column with advice for autumn — the year’s true beginning for committed apiarists.

The beekeeping year starts at the end of August and early September, when the honey crop has been taken off and the colonies are being prepared for winter. 

The aim is to see that every colony has a good start the following spring by going into the winter in optimum condition. 

The colony should have a young queen, plenty of bees, and stores should be sufficient to last until the weather gets warm in March/April, and spring flowers arrive.

The colony should be free from disease, and protected from predators and pests, like wasps, mice and rats. If entrances are too wide, there should be a mouse-guard put in place. There is nothing worse than opening a hive in the spring and finding it has been decimated by mice.

The bees should be in sound waterproof hives so that they are dry, (bees can withstand cold but not wet and damp) and preferably on hive stands. 

Hive stands are easily made, are great to keep the hives well off the ground, where the air can circulate around them, and are a great help also for the beekeeper’s back when working with bees.

It is a great advantage to have young queens in the colonies going into the winter, partly because they are less likely to die or become drone layers, but mainly because the younger they are, the later in the season they tend to keep an active brood nest, which means that these freshly emerged workers do not have to live as long under winter conditions.

Beekeepers who are only starting off will always ask the question: “how do I know if they have enough food?”

A national brood frame of honey, when full on both sides holds about 2.25kg of honey, using this quantity, the beginner can go through his colony and calculate roughly how much honey is in the brood chamber, they will also learn quickly by hefting the hive from the side.

Sugar syrup — that is 0.9kg of sugar to a pint of water mixed to make a liquid — can be fed if you think there is not enough honey for the hive — 18kg to 23kg of stores is sufficient for our national brood chambers. 

Feeding is best done late in the evening, so that darkness will help prevent the rushing about of bees which always occur when bees are being fed, it also reduces the chances of robbing, and entrances should be reduced.

Ivy, (Hedera helix) is often maligned as a garden pest , but can be a vital source of nectar and pollen in the autumn for honeybees, bumblebees, late butterflies, hover flies, and lots of other insects. 

It grows prolifically in towns and the countryside and has an important and beneficial effect on foraging as the bee has shorter distances to fly to find high quality flowers. Having access to high-quality nectar and pollen late in the season improves the chances of successful overwintering for the bees.

The ivy flower is small and green with tiny petals, and may not be noticed by people in general, only for the huge amount of activity and buzz by all the insects that work it. Ivy is often removed due to the damage it is thought to cause to trees, in fact ivy rarely harms trees as it climbs, it may even act as a protector.

Ivy honey is now hailed as being a highly effective medicinal honey, and according to a company in Adare, Co Limerick, called Beeactive, it is very good for bronchial and other chest problems, and its website is well worth a visit — email at info@beeactive.ie. Perhaps Irish beekeepers need to take a new look at ivy honey and treat it as a crop, and not just a source of feed for the bees.

There is another very important job the beekeeper has to perform when the honey is removed, and that is treating for the Varroa mite which arrived in this country about 15 years ago, I will speak about this in the next bee column.


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