A Keeper’s Year – October

By Serge Labesque


Every year with the bees brings its own series of quirks, surprises and challenges. This spring, an unanticipated hurdle emerged in my main apiary in the form of four-legged creatures: ordinary lizards.

I had often seen lizards waiting near the hive entrances, stalking foragers, but I very seldom saw one catch a bee. Although their preying habit was annoying, I did not think it could have a significant impact on the colonies unless they would catch a queen; not impossible, but an unlikely event. So, I did not dwell on the issue or do anything to prevent the little fellas from capturing a few foragers. Everybody has to live. This year, however, changed my opinion on the danger lizards can present.

In an area of the apiary where the bees had regularly been doing very well, three colonies started declining at the same time. The hives were rather close together, forming a small group that was spread over a distance of about thirty feet. The examination of their brood nests did not reveal any sign of disease or parasitism, but their adult populations were unmistakably shrinking. That’s when I started paying more attention to the lizards that scurried in all directions anytime I came near these hives. If I walked away for a minute, they would almost immediately be back again right next to the hive entrances, ready to pounce onto a bee. And they were all pretty plump! Something had to be done to control this unsafe situation.

At first, I saw no solution other than moving the three hives out of this lizard-infested location. This was promptly done. Unfortunately, and as might have been expected, the lizard issue spread rapidly to all the other ten hives in the apiary even though they were dispersed over a distance of 600 feet. The lizards had become as dangerous as skunks, raccoons and mice can be.

Normally, the bees can defend themselves and sting an occasional lizard to death. But this lizard population was exceedingly large. A little search showed that there are lizard repellents, and that some plants, such as peppermint or eucalyptus, are also said to keep them away. But these means seemed quite impractical or not suitable in that location, if they were actually effective at all.

Alternatively, modifying the design of the hives to make it more difficult for lizards to jump on bees seemed possible. Maybe fences could prevent the lizards from running to the foragers. So, I cut and installed strips of ½” welded wire mesh in such a way that they created spiked edges around the front of my hive bottoms.

Barely noticeable, these defensive obstacles stumped the lizards. At once, the reptiles’ potential prey had been reduced to the few bees that flew or landed outside my fences. These bees, by the way, might be robber bees. I’ll admit that I took pleasure in seeing the predators mystified. The fact is that the colonies did very well during the rest of the summer in spite of the obviously large lizard population that also thrived throughout the apiary.

However, I still find it intriguing that lizards, which are known to be a problem in subtropical and tropical areas, have become such a problem here. Is it simply a fluke, a normal spike in their population, or could it be another sign of climate change? I do not know. Regardless, “good fences make good neighbors”. I think that I’ll make these “lizard guards” permanent features of all my hive bottoms next winter, and we will all be happy, the bees, the lizards and me!

October in the apiaries

During the last hive manipulations of the year, we ensure that the colonies have all they will need to make it through winter. Once this is accomplished, we will leave the bees undisturbed for a few months. No later than mid-fall, the hives should be safe and sound, containing adequate quantities of well-organized stores, a good queen, and enough developing winter bees to form viable winter clusters.

Right now, the queens are steadily reducing their egg production. To some extent, it is the saturation of the brood chambers that force them to slow down. When the bees respond well to the clues of the season, they also help by filling these combs with stores. Consequently, we see that the brood nests hold mostly sealed brood that will become the winter bees.

The volume of brood between early- and mid-fall presages the size of the future winter clusters. It is a good basis to estimate the amount of stores that must be left in the hives. To keep it simple and safe, twice as much honey as there is brood in terms of comb surface area has shown to be sufficient in my apiaries over the years. This usually corresponds to 15 to 35 lbs. of honey, depending on the strength of the colony. Any honey in excess of this amount is surplus honey that may be harvested before closing the hives for winter. If there is a choice, it is preferable for the bees’ sake to leave the lighter honey and to harvest the dark honey, as this may be honeydew honey.

The combs that are centered directly above the brood nests probably hold some bee bread that was left in place when the brood nests moved downward in the hives. This is a good thing, because the bees will probably use this source of protein in mid-winter. The centermost combs of the stores, above the brood nests, should also be comprised of worker-size cells, since that is the location where the brood nests will most likely be located in mid-winter.

The tightening of the contents of the hives during the fall presents a good opportunity to remove old and misshapen combs. If these undesirable frames still hold a little honey or nectar, the comb may be placed in the hive top feeders and crushed. The bees will gather the honey and will relocate it in the brood chambers. Any bee bread may be placed directly on the top bars of the brood chambers. However, combs that hold healthy brood should be left in place.

The removal of some of the frames allows the hives to become somewhat narrower, which is a favorable configuration of the hives during winter. The use of follower boards facilitates these modifications and creates wide air gaps between the follower boards and the sides of the hives. This, too, benefits the bees by improving the air circulation within the hive.

In order to further better the in-hive conditions for the overwintering bees, recently harvested dry lavender can be placed in the hive top feeders. It provides insulation that prevents condensation of metabolic water on the underside of the feeders and it absorbs moisture quite well without rotting.

A generously dimensioned screened ventilation notch cut in the edge of the lids of the hives helps eliminate the excess moisture that would otherwise accumulate in the hives.

The frenzy of forager activity that is visible in front of the hives will soon subside. These are summer bees contributing their last-ditch effort to their colonies’ future. In a few days, in a few weeks at most, they will have disappeared. The only bees that will then be left in the hives will be the winter bees.

As the bees prepare their nest, they seal cracks and they plug excessively large openings with propolis. However, the overall condition of the equipment remains the responsibility of the beekeeper. Mouse guards need to be set in place without delay to prevent mice from accessing the inside, and the hives also need to be secured against the wind and the rain.

In summary, this month:

  • Assess the colonies, their health, queens, brood nests and stores.
  • Examine how the bees have arranged their brood chambers and how the stores are organized. Ensure that there is some comb with worker-size cells, uncapped honey and pollen centered above the brood nests, surrounded by honey.
  • Combine or requeen hives that are not performing satisfactorily (no later than early in the month). Better yet, reduce their volume to strengthen them.
  • Adjust the volume of the hives to match individual colony strength and needs.
  • Remove old and misshapen combs (follower boards greatly facilitate this).
  • Early in the month, configure hives for the consolidation of honey stores (Breaking the cappings of patches of poorly located sealed honey helps.)
  • Harvest, extract and bottle only surplus honey.
  • Render wax from discarded frames and from cappings.
  • Return wet frames and cappings to the bees for cleaning (by placing them above hive top feeders or inner covers).
  • Watch out for yellow jackets and any instances of robbing. Reduce the entrances of the hives that are threatened. Close any secondary hive openings.
  • Ensure that the hives are adequately ventilated.
  • Install mouse guards and reduce hive entrances.
  • Routinely clean and scorch tools and equipment.
  • Store unused equipment to protect it from wax moth or mouse damage and from the weather.
  • Secure the hive tops against high winds.

Serge Labesque © 2019