By Susan Emerson Nutter
In Northeast Ohio, most beekeepers strive to have their hives ready for colder months by the end of October. For me, fall is the most stressful season as a beekeeper. So many variables can affect whether a hive will survive the winter, and all of these come to a head in the fall with one of those aspects being the nectar flow.
Prepping hives for winter in my area usually begins around the end of August which might seem odd. Yes, the temperatures still can hit the high 80s. Yes, it seems flowers are in abundance, but as the goldenrod blooms, and the asters show signs of doing the same, beekeepers know this last nectar flow is vital to a hive’s survival until spring.
The fall nectar flow is dictated by rain. In my area of Ohio this year, we might have had significant blooms, but we had little rain. Just because flowers are on display, does not mean that food source is offering up nectar for the bees. No rain means no nectar. No nectar coming to the hive will trigger the queen to stop laying. Her instincts tell her, if no food is coming in, the baby bees will have nothing to eat so I better not lay too many eggs. If no laying is taking place, the hive can think their queen is failing. Beekeepers, when inspecting a hive and seeing no eggs, might think their hive is queenless.
Fall nectar flow is everything. Lack of it means foragers might begin robbing weaker hives. Beekeepers might have to make syrup and feed their bees to try to get some weight on the hives before the snow flies.
On the flip side, if the fall nectar flow is strong, beekeepers have to be sure their hives do not become honey-bound. In the spring, one just needs to add a honey super to a hive to resolve this problem. The bees produce an abundance of beeswax in the spring and go about filling up any box given with drawn comb and honey while the queen continues to lay in the brood boxes below.
In late summer and throughout fall, however, bees are no longer the wax-producing fiends they were during early spring and summer. With a heavy fall nectar flow, foragers can and will fill every cell of comb in their hive with nectar; brood boxes included. If that happens, the queen has nowhere to lay. Since the life span of a worker bee is short-lived – being four to six weeks give or take – the queen must continue to lay to guarantee a continual “work force”. A queen has nowhere to lay in honey-bound hive which could affect the number of bees to be born.
So, either too little or too much honey in a hive prior to colder weather can be a problem. A hive needs about 100 pounds of honey to get through a solid winter – meaning four cold months; and then through spring before flowers bloom.
If there is not enough nectar available in the fall; I have to feed. If there is too much nectar coming in, I have to get into hives and spin honey and return those frames back to the hives so the bees can repair and clean the comb, so the queen has somewhere to lay. I’ve even taken to pulling uncapped frames of nectar from a possibly honey-bound hive and shaking the nectar onto the ground so the queen can lay eggs.
Since beekeepers cannot control the nectar flow, we are at the mercy of what Mother Nature provides and have to act accordingly.
Since my nectar flow was light, you’ll find me at the store with my shopping cart loaded with bags of sugar. I’ve had people question whether I was going on a baking spree. Nope. Just feeding my bees.
Hopefully, I will be able to get the proper weight on my hives needed before the first frost. And hopefully, after the first frost, it gets cold and stays cold. We’ve experienced some very warm weather in November and into December these past couple years in my area of Ohio. Warm winter months add yet another layer of challenges to my beekeeping which I’ll address in my next column.
Never assume beekeepers are only active during certain months of the year. Adventures in the apiary happen year-round!