Fall is here and hopefully you have had a good honey harvest from your hives. As everyone knows winter will be here shortly. Winter will make short work of any weak hive. Although it goes against a good beekeeper’s instincts now is the time to eliminate any weak hives. Whether or not bees feel pain, why put them through the trauma of death in winter.
First you should do a post harvest hive inspection where you are looking at four criteria.
1) How big is the bee population?
2) Are the honey stores adequate to get through a Wisconsin winter?
3) Is the queen present?
4) Has the hive been an under performing all summer?
The hive should have eight to twelve (8-12) fully covered frames of bees. To determine hive strength simply tilt the upper brood chamber up slightly. Count the frames covered on the now exposed lower brood chamber. Then peek at the bottom of the upper chamber and again count the covered frames. The total of the two should be eight minimum. This critical mass of bees is needed to ensure the winter cluster is large enough to accommodate normal winter attrition and maintain cluster heat to raise brood later in the winter. Hives that do not have the eight minimum frames should be combined with another hive. It is better to have one strong hive than two weak hives.
Are the honey stores adequate for a Wisconsin winter? The total hive weight should be about 160 lbs. Experienced beekeepers can get a good idea of the honey stores by the heft of the upper brood chamber without actually having to weigh the hive. Alternately, you can look at the honey coverage. The outside four (4) frames should be solid honey. The inner frames should be at least partially covered in capped honey. If you are not meeting these criteria there is still time for fall feeding with sugar water (two parts sugar to one part water). Compared to the price of a new package of bees next spring, the $22 cost of a 50 lb bag of sugar seems cheap. Do not wait too long to begin feeding. As the air temperature drops the bees will go into cluster and not actively move the sugar water from the feeder into the comb.
If there is no queen you have a simple decision to make. If there are laying workers (usually evidenced by random drone brood distributed around the brood chamber) then the hive is a write off. It is very difficult if not impossible to re-queen a hive with laying workers. You are better off to move the bees into a hive with a strong population. If there is no evidence of laying workers then you could try re-queening, but you need to do it quickly because the hive needs time to raise “winter” bees.
Another reason to replace a queen is if the hive was under performing or was overly aggressive.
Of course, always remember to perform your choice of mite control. Experts recommend to do a mite count afterwards to see if you control effort was successful and repeat the process if it was not.