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September has arrived and wasps are out in force. Those beekeepers unfortunate enough to have hives situated near nests have had colonies under attack for some time as these predators took meat (bees) to feed their larvae. You may have noticed wasps attacking bees on the ground outside the hive and the debris of bee parts, this is because wasps only want the protein-rich thorax of a bee and will discard the rest. However, now wasp queens have stopped laying, the hordes of workers she has produced, will search out sweet food (as no longer being provided with the sugary substance from their own larvae) and hives are a ready source! I am usually tolerant of wasps and our native hornets but, despite multiple wasp traps and wire over the reduced hive entrances, smaller colonies are easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of wasps at this time of year. In our apiaries, I am checking and replenishing wasp traps at least twice a week.

Added to this don’t be fooled into thinking the threat of Asian Hornet is over for this year, as the life cycle of AH colonies extends on into November. Hornets are members of the wasp family, with a similar but longer active season. The BBKA have designated the 7th – 13thth September as Asian Hornet Week this year. Its aim is to inform the public and all new beekeepers about how devastating this pest could be to all UK pollinators. So far this year, I have not heard of any confirmed sightings – this may be due to last year’s successful eradication of nests by our teams of Bee Inspectors and the lack of travel due to Covid-19. Equally it might be that during lockdown people were not out and about enough to notice nests. Now is the time for trapping or setting up a bait station and spending a little more time watching to see if hornets are hawking your hives in your apiary. During Asian Hornet week, try to put aside an hour to watch each day for hornets.

Take Stock Now!

Autumnal changes seem to have started early and September’s actions are crucial to ensuring colony survival through to next spring. If you haven’t already done so, early this month is your last chance to assess the health and strength of your colonies. Shake the bees off each brood frame and check the larvae for any cell that looks suspicious – get a second opinion if unsure. Also ensure your winter bees are protected against varroa and remain strong and virus free. If you have considered uniting to create strong colonies going into winter, do it now so the bees have time to adjust before the weather changes.

Don’t Give Varroa a Chance!

If varroa treatments are still underway, it is most important to complete this as early in September as possible so that supplementary feeding can happen before the weather turns. Both of these actions are temperature dependent but cannot be carried out simultaneously. This is the most important time of year to ensure varroa levels are kept under control as the mite numbers continue to increase under the capped brood while the bee population is decreasing. This results in several mites breeding in the same cell, so that any bees that manage to survive pupation, have shortened life-spans, poor immune systems and are prone to viruses. If left untreated the ‘winter bees’ are likely to be infested with varroa and may succumb to colony collapse. New products are constantly coming on the market and the latest APHA Booklet ‘Managing Varroa’ describes how to manage this ever-present problem, avoid building resistance and which products are currently legal in the UK.

Winter Stores

Another essential task is to carry out a final thorough check to estimate the amount of stores each colony has. Different sources quote slightly different amounts needed for overwintering because it depends on the strain of bee, the size of the colony and the type of winter weather in your part of the country. Some Italian strains often keep flying during winter thus consuming more stores, while darker Northern bees tend to be more frugal. Also, the size of the colony needs to be considered and during our usual mild winters the queen will continue to lay so there will be brood to feed and keep warm. In general, aim for each colony to start with a minimum between 40 – 60lbs

(18-27Kg). While it is still warm enough to look through the hive, you can calculate the weight of stores in the brood boxes by counting frames. A fully capped National brood frame weighs about 5lbs (2.5kg) so each colony will need the equivalent of 10-12 National DN4 frames to allow for the sides not being filled. Remember that although the colony size will be diminishing, the bees bred in September will be consuming stores to build up their fat bodies in order to extend their lives, thus allowing them to heat the cluster when it turns cold, as well as care for the brood when the queen increases her laying pattern again in the New Year. Also, start hefting towards the end of the month, to get a feel for the weight of each hive.

To help colonies process the autumn feed rapidly, use a thick syrup made in the ratio 1kg of white refined sugar to 600ml of hot water (as this is close to the consistency of honey). Use a large rapid feeder and apply late evening to avoid robbing. Rapid feeders are safer in autumn, as the change from day time temperatures to cold nights can create a pressure change in contact feeders causing the bees to be drenched in cold syrup! Never use extremely hot or boiling water for making syrup, as this produces HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural) which is toxic to bees. Make sure you finish autumn feeding well ahead of any frosts to allow time for the bees to process it, thus avoiding fermentation taking place and causing bee dysentery. However, apparently if you purchase Ambrosia inverted sugar, you can go on feeding it into October as the bees do not need to process it.

Leave it for the Bees

If you have honey in the supers that is still not fully ripened and capped, it is best to leave it for the bees and top up their stores by feeding syrup. A full super frame to fit a National Hive will hold up to 3 lbs so calculate by adding partially capped amounts together. Remove the queen excluder until next spring to avoid the queen getting separated from the cluster and dying, then rearrange any frames of unripe honey into one super. Place this underneath the brood boxes, directly on the floor of the hive, before replacing the brood boxes, crown board and roof. Once the weather turns cold, the cluster will form at the bottom of the hive and gradually work its way to the top as the stores are consumed, so the queen is less likely to lay in the empty super below, which can be removed at your first quick inspection next March or April. Still ensure the colony is up to weight with enough stores as already explained.

Viable Colonies for Winter Survival

Studies show that small colonies are less able to maintain the temperature of the cluster as the ratio of its surface area to the volume is proportionally greater, hence the bees lose more heat and are more likely to die out. In this area, there is still time in early September to unite and create bigger, stronger colonies; retaining the queen who has displayed the better traits. Just be sure disease is not the reason a colony is small; uniting a colony with disease on to a healthy colony will probably result in the loss of both over winter or failure to develop next spring.

It is considered good practice, if possible, to overwinter a nuc with a strong, spare queen so you are able to requeen a colony that becomes queenless before queens are available next year. With the strange weather we have had this season you may well have a strong nucleus colony with a young, virile queen, which is still building. You might want to consider housing a smaller colony in a polynuc as these provide good insulation plus the smaller internal space makes it easier for the bees to maintain the ambient temperature, as long as they have enough stores. Polynucs can be purchased with a double brood box plus top feeder. We have used this configuration with success, the nuc colonies going on to build up really quickly the following spring, once rehoused in a conventional hive.

Storage of Equipment

Good husbandry also relies on managing equipment effectively. As you check through each colony for sufficient winter stores, move older or damaged frames to the outside of the lower brood box, ready for replacement in early spring. As hive parts are removed, before storing securely, they should be scraped of wax and propolis as pathogens can survive underneath. Scorch all wooden and metal parts but polystyrene/plastic parts need cleaning in hot washing soda and then soaking in a bleach solution for about 20 minutes (5 parts water to 1 part strength for both). Wet supers that have been returned to the same hive they came from to be gleaned out, should be removed and each frame cleaned by scraping the propolis and brace comb off the wooden bars, plus lug ends. Also, queen excluders should be removed and thoroughly cleaned, a wire brush and scorching are best for this. Make sure hives are weather proof, with no holes or damaged corners, watertight roofs are particularly important. Check stands are strong enough to support hives during strong winds and in exposed areas, strap hives to stands.

Protect against wax moth, so that any good drawn comb can be used again next spring. Freezing kills all stages of the wax moth life cycle so frames can either spend time in the freezer or stacked securely outside to allow the frost to do the job but be careful to prevent creatures such as mice taking up residence or wax moth getting back in before the frosts arrive.

Wax moth has had a good year and may already have laid eggs in your frames ready to hatch into the larvae. In the wild, this is a good thing as it destroys the empty nests of diseased feral colonies but equally can destroy a beekeeper’s much needed drawn comb.

As the month ends, do not open the brood boxes unnecessarily, as the bees like to block up any small gaps with propolis to make their home draught proof. Also keep a ‘weather-eye’ open and be sure to remove all syrup feeders well before the first frosts occur. Hopefully, with all this accomplished your colonies will settle down for winter and will still be strong when the new active season returns.

Check List for September:

  • Bait or trap wasps and hornets
  • Keep entrances reduced & protect against robbing
  • Control Varroa to aid colony survival but remember to remove treatments
  • Record chemical treatments on a Medicines’ Record
  • Assess each colony’s stores,
  • Feed heavy sugar syrup till mid-September
  • Feed Ambrosia inverted sugar syrup till mid-October
  • Unite small colonies
  • Remove queen excluders until next spring
  • Clean, sterilize & store all hive parts removed
  • Check stands are strong & hives are weather proof

Lynn Cox