Karl Colyer

The queen’s egg-laying rate will be reducing as the days start to shorten and forage generally tends to become less available. Followed closely behind this is a steady dwindling of bee numbers in the colony.

August is one of the last months where there may be some flexibility and options for your bees and beekeeping management. Depending upon what forage is available and for how long, it does allow some preparations for next year to happen during this month.

Timing your honey harvest
For most beekeepers, there should be some honey surplus available to the beekeeper. How much you choose to take influences when you should take it and any supplementary actions needed to ensure there are adequate stores to get the bees through the winter. If you are at all unsure about how much honey to crop, you can be considerate to the bees and leave the first box of honey for them and the rest is for the beekeeper. This somewhat conservative approach negates the need to feed the bees any syrup in the autumn and, if the weather continues to be fine, it may even permit another, smaller crop of honey in early September as long as the bees have their needs fulfilled. Usually, around 15kg (or more) of stores is sufficient unless you have prolific bees when you should allow up to around 25kg. Knowing your local forage is also useful. If you have Himalayan balsam in your area, it may continue to provide a steady flow of nectar for the whole of August. Conversely, if you live in cattle country or where there is extensive arable mono-cropping, there may not be much in the way of forage available for the rest of the year. Work with and for your bees, not against them, in preparing their winter resources.

Another option is to leave more honey in the hive for the whole winter. This is useful for two main reasons; it makes the honey extraction process a smaller and more manageable job in the autumn and it allows you to take a honey crop in May from any unused overwintered stores. Another benefit is that there’s less hassle having to move, make moth- and mouse-proof and store supers in sheds etc. over the winter.

Drones are still around and some colonies may choose to supersede their queen at this time of year. It happens from time to time and a key benefit is that the colony can (hopefully!) go into winter with a new queen. The bees will have decided that a new queen is required, so it is best to leave them alone to complete this process. No queen can last forever so they tend to be replaced either after swarming or as a result of supersedure. It is entirely natural and very often completely uneventful. Sometimes, the only way the beekeeper finds out that this has happened is when they notice the queen seems to have ‘lost’ her paint mark on her back. Supersedure cells are few in number when they occur and can often be overlooked in a cursory inspection.

Plan for next year, act now
Queens can sometimes die of old age over the winter. Colonies can sometimes run out of food over the winter, even if it is only inadvertently via isolation starvation, perhaps because the colony was unwilling or unable to break cluster to try to find other patches of stores in the hive.

Rather than replace colonies in the spring, August is the chance to start to replace any winter losses before they even happen! If you have a nuc box or a spare brood box, you can often do a split in early August and create a new colony to overwinter. If a colony does die out, you already have a replacement colony on hand. If they all successfully come through the winter, you have a spare colony for expansion, giving away or selling. A nuc box can, and arguably should, be used for 12 months of the year.

Varroa treatment and disease checks
Late summer Varroa treatments are advisable if you are in any doubt on how to monitor the Varroa count in your hive(s). As the queen’s laying rate reduces, the Varroa end up at a higher density in cells because of the reduced number of occupied cells and because the Varroa is continuing to expand in numbers.

Get to know your bees 

If you choose to make a new colony of bees towards the end of the season, you can help them out tremendously with two supporting interventions:

  1. Put drawn comb into the nuc box, if you have it available. It takes somewhere between six to eight times as much effort to draw out a frame of wax foundation into comb as it does to fill a frame of drawn comb with honey. Drawn comb is a very valuable asset for the bees and for you as a beekeeper.
  2. Move some honey or nectar stores across from another colony into the nuc.

As usual, you will need to check for diseases and Varroa when doing splits and sharing resources within an apiary. It is best not to share resources between apiaries if you can avoid it. You can only rear new queens if the drones are still available to fulfil their mating duties.