Lindsay's Apiaries

    About the Apiary

  An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
  The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal

  Advice for overwintering hives  

   About the Apiary - April - 2015

In the Wellington area, the last of the nectar sources are flowering, although some of the later-flowering species in suburban gardens are taking off again after a period of drought. Lancewood, korimako and Eucalyptus ficifolia (Scarlet Gum) are the main tree/scrub sources flowering. Clover, dandelion and some clovers are making a show after the rain, giving the bees an extra boost to stimulate them into producing winter bees. Some of these bees won’t need to feed brood—the queen closes down brood rearing for winter, so these bees live long enough to take the hive through to the early spring before they expire.

Hives should now be packed down with brood in the centre bottom frames, with at least a full super of honey on top. Some commercial beekeepers will be wintering their bees in singles with a minimum of six frames of honey, but they will be feeding the hives with sugar syrup starting August/September to provide feed and to stimulate the bees into brood production.

The only problem we face in the autumn is that some of the new queens can be stimulated by these late nectar flows and take off into full brood production, which will use most of the honey stores we left on the hives. This happens particularly in our warmer coastal areas. Hives located inland where it’s cooler, as well as those down south, will just close down for winter.

If your hives go on a growth spurt, restrict the queen to the bottom super by inserting a queen excluder above the first brood super. Make sure the queen is in the bottom super by either checking physically or heavily smoking the bees from the top, driving her down.

Check a week later to see that there are no eggs in the second super and rub out any queen cells that have developed due to the absence of the queen.

If there are still plenty of drones in the hives, you could perhaps use some of the later-developing queen cells to make up a four-frame mating nuc, although in most areas it’s now too late to get decent matings. But it may be easier to get queens mated now rather than trying during our often wet, cool spring.

If your queens have laid out a full box, start feeding a two-to-one sugar/water mix to fill up most of the combs with winter stores again.

Varroa treatments

Some will by now be completing their varroa treatments. In the North Island we perhaps shouldn’t rely on just one treatment, as mite resistance is developing to some of the strips. I still use strips for a long, sustained treatment but also use a flash treatment monthly of 40–50 millilitres of 65% formic acid on a paper towel in the top super (two or three high) as an extra knockdown to get rid of some of the mites that may be tolerant to the acaricide in the strips.

I have also found that formic acid will help to control robbing in an apiary. Recently I was looking for a replacement queen and left some honey boxes exposed. It didn’t take long before 50 or more bees were excitedly buzzing around the supers, trying to steal the honey. I should have put hive mats over them to stop the odour of exposed honey being given off, so was left with a robbing problem when closing up. A quick squirt of 10 millilitres of formic acid into each hive entrance quickly disrupted the hive’s communication and changed a robbing scenario to one of the bees trying to get away from the acid fumes: it stopped the robbing dead. (In the old days we used a light spray of diluted Jeyes fluid on the hive box to do the same thing. The odour given off by the tar dissuaded the bees from robbing but this product, being a S4 poison, has been discontinued for good reason.)

Regardless of the treatment you use, don’t just treat and tick it off as being done. It’s essential to monitor some (if not all) of the hives in an apiary, as each seems to handle the treatment differently. Bees have to come into contact with most of the strip treatments to be effective; however, some bees just don’t like the smell (or perhaps the reaction they get in contacting the strips) so will move away from them, thus nullifying part of the treatment. Apivar® is one of these products, so reposition the strips against the brood after a month to make sure the bees are in contact with the strips.

You also need to consider that if you lost a swarm from your hives, it will be out there breeding varroa. At some time in the next two to three months it may collapse, at which time your bees will take the opportunity to rob it, bringing back more mites. Monitor mite levels going into winter, as you may need to treat again because of re-invasion.

Taking hives through the winter

All hives going into winter should be full of bees so they can thermoregulate efficiently. There must be a sufficient number of bees so that during a winter’s day, those on the outside of the cluster can move into the middle and those inside move out to replace them several times. Small hives can have follower boards inserted on the outside, which give more insulation at the sides and confine the bees to some degree. Top insulation can also make a difference to honey consumption, but you need to provide a little top airflow to allow moisture given off by the bees to escape. Most of my nucs will have reflective bubble wrap under the roof for additional insulation.

Honey boxes should also be heavy, indicating they are full of winter stores. You need to know what two full honey boxes weigh. They should be hard to lift from the handhold with your arm straight standing adjacent to the end of the hive. This is called hefting. We generally go through the apiary to test that we can’t easily lift the back of the hive off the stand by hefting it. Top up the light ones with more syrup, or give them frames of honey if your hives are totally clear of AFB.

Inside a hive of Italian bees, from July onwards, the bees will heat the centre of the cluster up to brood temperature and start raising replacement bees. This means the cluster should cover six to seven frames in the cold so they can easily access honey and pollen frames.

During warm spells, the cluster expands and moves upwards (in the case of a two-storey hive) on to more honey. Nucs are easily wintered, provided the box they are in is full of bees and honey. Nucs can also be wintered on top of production hives. Tape two together so they sit evenly on a super. Heat from the hive below makes them easier to winter.

Top-bar hives are a little different. The bees can’t move up and are often reluctant to move sideways. Check these every few weeks during the winter and move capped honey frames in so they touch the cluster. Hopefully your hive will come through healthy and strong.

Different bee species exhibit different behaviours. Carniolans, for instance, reduce their bee numbers right down to half that of Italians in the autumn, and do not start raising brood until the first spring flow when they expand like mad. The queen will often lay eggs outside the heated cluster area and if there isn’t a cold snap to chill the brood, the hive will expand far quicker than Italians. Because of this late brood rearing they consume less honey during winter, but must be supered earlier to accommodate that explosion in bee numbers.

Each breed has its advantages. A cold spring could see Carniolans building up slower than Italians, making them less suited for early pollination, whereas slow and steady Italians will have eaten most of their honey reserves but will have brood and bees ready for pollination. Carniolans are good at defending against wasps, whereas Italians tend to give up the fight.

Only take good prosperous hives into winter. Poor producers (those that just didn’t build up in the spring) are unlikely to overwinter successfully so should be scrapped. Uniting two poor producers together means you still have a hive headed by a poor-producing queen. Unite a good producer on top of a poor producer using two sheets of newsprint. This provides a slow introduction mechanism—reducing the chances of the two colonies fighting—and the bees from the top colony going down will usually kill the queen below.

If you haven’t requeened your hive(s) with cells or mated queens in the last couple of months, some will have requeened themselves by supersedure. A few will lose their way home and the hive will have become queenless. No brood and lots of drones in a hive can suggest that it’s perhaps queenless. If you are not sure, mark the hive with a question mark and check in a week or so when the robbing has finished.

That final check before the first frost is important to ensure that you have disease-free hives with a queen. Drones will have been driven down on to the bottom board or chased out the front to die as soon as the last dribble of nectar stops completely. Those not undertaking autumn requeening shouldn’t be surprised if a few hives go queenless during the winter.

Tips on requeening

I purchase and read a lot of bee books. You only need one good idea from each to pay dividends. For example, quite often new queens are either killed or are superseded within a month of introduction perhaps being injured, like the bees chewing off their foot pads. Thanks to the book Honey Farming by R. O. B. Manley (who developed the Manley honey frame), I now requeen using a push-in cage and leave it for a week to make sure the new queen is laying before releasing her into the full colony.

I prefer to set up new queens in nucleus hives because they have a better acceptance rate, as there are no older bees in a nuc who will challenge the new queen. When the queen has matured and is laying at the same rate as an old queen, they can be swapped between hives just by putting the new queen down on the frame where the old queen was removed from a minute or so before. If the pheromone levels are the same, she will carry on searching for cells to lay in as if nothing had happened. If, however, some bees immediately climb on her and try to sting her, shake the bees from an emerging frame of bees and put the new queen under the push-in cage so the emerging bees will look after her. The queen will lay in the now-empty cells.

Once she has laid for a few days (or during the next round of inspections), remove the cage to release her into the full hive. Reducing the amount of brood available to mites makes their control easier.

Things to do this month

Winter down hives. Check feed and the effectiveness of mite treatments. Make sure top-bar hives have 10 frames with honey in them.

Carry out an AFB check. Slope bottom boards to the front so rain runs out of the hive. Fit mouse guards or reduce entrances to 400 mm x 7 mm. Replace rotten or damaged supers and bottom boards. Attend to fences, check for wasps and control grass.

During extraction, go through the honey supers and reject any old, dark frames you cannot see light through. Store frames with foundation or light frames on the outside with darker ones towards the middle. Freeze stored supers to kill wax moth eggs and larvae or store in a shed that is open, well lit and provides a good airflow through the supers. (Fit queen excluders top and bottom to prevent mouse damage.)

Those in the North Island (and perhaps top of the South) will have to watch more closely for wax moth infestation. Those in the southern parts of the South Island can smile, as they do not have wax moth problems.

Drought means possible tutin problems. If you have tutu bushes within five kilometres and high passion vine hopper (Scolypopa australis) numbers, test your honey, as their numbers are high this year. Any honey sold or bartered has to be tested for tutin. Clubs can have their members’ samples composite tested to save money. Send the results to MPI.


Lindsay, F. (2015, March). Droughts and pests. The New Zealand BeeKeeper, (23)2, 27–30.

Manley, R. O. B. (1946). Honey Farming. Faber & Faber Ltd.


In my report on the Eastern Apicultural Society Conference in the USA (see March 2015 journal, page 15), I left an important step out of the explanation in making up nucs.

• The hives are generally two high in the spring, with a queen excluder restricting the brood to the bottom super. Go through the hive and find two frames of emerging brood, one or two frames of honey and one of pollen. Take a quick look for the queen on the frames so that she can be moved if found before shaking all the bees off these frames and putting them in a new super above a queen excluder. Replace the missing frames with drawn frames after centring the brood into the middle of the bottom super.
• Leave for three to four hours (depending upon temperature) to allow the attendant bees to move back up on to the brood frames. Then split the hive, moving the lower half with the queen to a new hive site. Add a protected queen cell to the new nuc. The field bees will return to the old hive location and strengthen the nuc. I trust this now makes sense. Thanks to the beekeeper who phoned to alert me to my omission in the March journal.

Frank Lindsay