A Keeper’s Year – September

By Serge Labesque

Any treatments or feeding? Nope!

My beekeeping to-do lists do not mention doing feedings or treatments for pests or diseases. The reason is simple: I do not use these methods with bees. Although I used to do these things many years ago when I started in beekeeping, I now consider that they are ill-advised ways of keeping bees.

Conventional beekeeping, which includes the use of treatments, feedings and all sorts of gimmicks to control the life of bees, is widely promoted by most of the practitioners and even by many scientists. So much so that new beekeepers cannot challenge and shake off the flawed rationale of their instructors. It’s difficult to think differently, isn’t it? They are even led to believe that beekeepers who follow alternative methods are the culprits that cause colony losses.

However, it can be powerfully argued that it is the conventional beekeeping mentality and procedures that are perpetuating and even aggravating the dire condition of the bees. How so? Simply because conventional practices interfere with the process of natural selection. Since the bees are not domesticated animals, their lives should be governed by nature, not by the whims of humans who often have short-sighted, greed-driven objectives. Natural selection ensures that inherently strong elements of the species replace weak or failing hives. Conventional beekeepers, on the contrary, indiscriminately pamper all their colonies with treatments and feedings. The fact is that not only do they fail, as their dismal colony losses show year after year, but the crutches they use to keep their bees alive allow genetically inept colonies to disseminate their deficient genes throughout the surrounding populations. And because this is done by the vast majority of beekeepers, the strength of nearly the entire bee species is being eroded.

Things may be changing though. But, is the evolution of the mindset happening fast enough to save the bees? I doubt it. Several beekeeping magazines land in my mail box every month. I scan them to stay abreast of what is going on in the bee world. With rare exceptions, the articles are depressing reads, boring reiterations of the thoughtless conventional ways. Page after page, they glorify the exploitation of honey bees and they teach how to more effectively draw products, services or revenue from the hives. They appeal to those who love this exploitive form of beekeeping and evidently confuse it with loving the bees. Inevitably, the articles publicize treatments of one sort or another and strongly recommend feeding the colonies. Alternate ways of taking care of colonies and of the species are extremely rare, if not painfully absent from these publications.

And let’s not delude ourselves: When it comes to bee stewardship, organic and biodynamic ways of beekeeping are based on the same conventional honey-hunter mentality. Their defining sets of rules may impose a few constraints for the beekeepers in order to obtain a label, but they produce only superficial differences between these systems. After all, the goals of the biodynamic and organic beekeepers are to acquire good conscience, to appeal to their more demanding customer bases, and to fetch higher prices for the products of their hives. Unfortunately for the bees, these methods still interfere with the process of natural selection and do very little to alleviate their present condition.

Bees that live in trees do not have beekeepers to support them. They must have in themselves what they need to survive. Either they thrive, or else their nests become available to stronger colonies. That is the way bees live in my apiaries. I do not neglect my hives though. But I consider that treatments and feedings are not acceptable ways and means of taking care of them.

September in the apiaries

Much of the colonies’ success in reaching next spring will depend on tasks executed by the bees around the fall equinox. After a brief increase in brood production at the end of summer, the queens will reduce their egg production while hive bees rearrange their stores. Finally, the long-lasting winter bees will be raised inside brood chambers that will have been substantially, yet methodically reconfigured. The survival of the winter clusters and the future development of the colonies in mid-winter depend on this shuffling work.

During this vitally important process, the bees fill the upper part of the brood chambers with nectar and uncapped honey they relocate from distant combs. As this happens, the brood nests are driven downward on the combs, into parts of the hives where stores have been deposited during the past weeks. The contents of the brood nests, brood and stores, are mixed and become more and more compact. The honey-bound conditions that result are desirable, because they lead the queens to reduce their egg-laying. Altogether, this gradual closure of the brood nests will save the winter bees from having to perform brood-rearing duties too early in their lives, and it can end with a beneficial period of broodlessness in late fall.

With the exception of the queens, the early-fall adult bees will not be part of the winter cluster. Their short and intensely busy lives are committed to helping their colonies by preparing their nests and by nurturing the winter bees.

Although the beekeeper may be tempted to alleviate the congestion of the brood nests, doing so in the fall could hurt the bees by causing an increase in brood production at a time when the opposite would be normal. It is good to keep in mind that hive space management at this time of year is very different from what is usually done earlier: Instead of augmenting the volume of the hives, we need to reduce it. Every opportunity we have to remove unused combs, frames or supers is taken. This can be accomplished by harvesting a little surplus honey, or by eliminating old and misshapen combs, for example. The balance of the surplus honey will be removed in mid-fall, when the needs of the individual colonies can be accurately assessed. The capping of small patches of honey that the bees have left untouched in the supers may be scratched or depressed slightly. The bees will then relocate this exposed honey and the emptied combs will be removed a few days later.

Around Labor Day, the hives are inspected to assess the condition of the colonies. The quantity and organization of their stores, their health and their queens are key factors. Should it be necessary to requeen or combine hives that visibly cannot make it through the winter, this has to be executed without delay, as the window of time to implement this sort of decision is closing rapidly. However, these measures are exceptional. I prefer giving bees a chance instead of “taking the winter losses in the fall”, as is often recommended. To do this, I adjust the volume of the hives to match the strength of the colonies they hold, keeping their contents snug and well proportioned. Small fall colonies are therefore overwintered like nucs. The double-deep brood chamber configuration seems to be doing wonders in this approach, and the colonies bounce back out of winter remarkably well.

Harvesting some honey is a good way to help balance the contents of excessively stocked hives. Still, it is safer not to withdraw too much, too early. It will be easier to evaluate what is really surplus honey in mid-fall, when the hives are being buttoned up for winter. The key indicator will be the size of the brood nests.

As the varroa mite populations reach their maximum for the year, the signs of infestation may become more evident now than they were earlier in the summer. These observations are added to the results of the tests that were performed during the summer to assess the resistance of the colonies to the pest. Unfortunately, other health problems may occasionally occur. Removing all the contaminated combs while shrinking the volume of the affected hives should not be delayed at all.

The hive entrances are kept just large enough not to hinder the work of the foragers while remaining defensible against robber bees and yellow jackets, which can present a real danger in the fall.

The colonies have maintained rather large drone populations late into the summer this year. Certainly, they will be eliminated in early fall.

Late-season swarms are frequently absconding swarms that flee untenable or unhealthy hive conditions. They may carry pests and pathogens. When they come my way, I give them a nest and wish them well, but I do not combine them with other colonies. If they had moved into a tree hollow, they would also have had to fend for themselves.

Bees that are well adapted to their local conditions respond to the clues of the season and spontaneously prepare their nests for winter. Although the preparation of the hives for winter is a task that is primarily done by the bees, the beekeeper, too, can have a determining influence on the outcome by managing the volume of the hives. Good results come from respecting the work of the bees.

In summary, this month:

  • Assess the colonies, their health, queens, brood nests and stores.
  • Monitor the progress of the colonies in their preparations for fall and winter.
  • Requeen or combine hives that are not performing satisfactorily and those that have failed or failing queens. Only healthy hives should be combined.
  • Reduce the unused volume of the hives (Follower boards greatly facilitate this.)
  • Manage frames in preparation for fall culling of the old and misshapen ones.
  • Beware of yellowjackets and of the risks of robbing. If necessary, reduce the entrances of developing colonies and of those that are under attack. Make sure the hives have no secondary entrances.
  • Avoid hive manipulations that can trigger robbing.
  • Keep sources of water provisioned.
  • Provide some afternoon shade, if possible.
  • Ensure that hives are adequately and safely ventilated.
  • Harvest, extract and bottle surplus honey, if there is any, and in moderation.
  • Return wet frames and wax to the bees for cleaning by placing them inside hive top feeders or above inner covers. This is more safely done during the evening.
  • Render wax.
  • Beware of the fire danger when using the smoker in dry grass areas.
  • Routinely clean and scorch tools and equipment.

Serge Labesque © 2019