It's important to open the hive and get a good last look before winter settles in. There might be a sunny warm afternoon in December or January to check on the bees before spring, but since that cannot be counted on, we chose this past weekend to really get in there and have a long session and clean everything up.
Our hive checks have been cursory at best in the last six to eight months, and those were mainly for keeping on top of varroa mite infestations. We noticed, early on in spring, that the bees had really built up a lot of comb around the bars and at the bottom of each curve of comb, attaching each bar to the floor of the hive. We weren't sure why they did this, but what it meant for us was that every time we tried to remove a bar to inspect it, the bar would tear, and we'd have a mess of comb and honey to clean up. This led to a lot more honey harvesting than we expected to do this year (it turned out to be fine because the bees had plenty). Still, bees get pissed off when you break their comb, and with good reason. What with my new allergy to stings (which brings with it a certain, well, gingerness) and Tom learning to take point on our hive inspections, plus a very large amount of bees this year (even after the swarm!), this meant that we just weren't as thorough as we should have been.
So, in preparation for a good long inspection, Tom made a tool, kind of like a long bar with a 90 degree angle at the bottom, like the letter 'L.' In theory, this tool would allow us to detach the comb from underneath each bar without putting our clumsy, large hands deep down into the hive. We knew that we were going to be in there for a long time, and removing almost every comb, so we got the smoker going real good. November really is the ideal time for a leisurely look, because the bee population is down quite a bit from the summer highs; the drones have all been thrown out, and the queen has altered her laying pattern to fit the diminished daylight so there is less brood. In fact, she might be laying her last eggs of the season and won't start again until after the solstice. And we chose a nice sunny afternoon for it, which meant that a lot of the bees were out foraging, and we wouldn't disrupt the temperature of the hive too much. (Though I'm sure the bees would say differently, if they could.)
The bottom line is that everything looked good. There is plenty of honey for the bees for winter; we removed three full bars and three more that were half-full. We did this because it is important to reduce the physical size of the hive during the cold months. Less bees means less body heat. I've honestly been thinking that we probably should have removed even more, but I also want to err on the side of leaving the bees with plenty of food. The experts say 30 lbs and I'd estimate the bees have at least twice that. So they'll be well-fed this winter, and they can even get out and forage in the garden if the weather is sunny and above 50 degrees. (They are super busy right now, in fact, bringing in lots of nectar and a very pale, yellow pollen.)
Not everything was rosy. We did notice some problems. I saw one small hive beetle.
These guys can be a terrible menace to a weak hive. Our hive is strong, so it appears that the beetles haven't gained the upper hand, but the beetles are hard for the bees to attack and remove and their shells resist stings. One plus is that they must go back into the dirt to pupate, so I've ordered some beneficial nematodes to apply in the earth around the hive - those nematodes will feed on the larvae of the hive beetle. I bought these from Arbico Organics. I've never seen small hive beetles here before, and I'm hoping that this method will eradicate them before they become a nuisance.
Another thing we found was some evidence of wax moths. Nothing big, nothing terrible, but some of the webby stuff that is the sign that they've been there.
A strong hive can fight these off too, and it looks like our bees have defended themselves well, but we cleaned up anything we found relating to wax moths and got rid of it. They are primarily a warm-weather problem, so I don't anticipate them overtaking the hive during winter.
I also added a prophylactic treatment for varroa mite, as I had seen a little bit of bee larvae on the landing board a few days ago (the bees often remove larvae that is compromised). There is no drone larvae at the moment, which is good, as that usually harbors the most varroa; but I want to eradicate any possibility as the hive goes into winter, so that they are still strong when it is cold. I don't want nosema, which is a fungal pathogen that causes dysentery in bees, which often appears when colonies are weakened. They don't need that when it's cold and wet. I used Apiguard, which is thymol, which is made of the herb thyme. It's an organic treatment which kills mites on bees but not the bees.
One thing that has NOT been a problem this year is ants. I've never seen any on or in the hive, so my diatomaceous earth around the hive legs has been effective.
Both Tom and I feel good about this hive cleanup and preparation for winter; the funky comb has been bothering us for months, and it feels great to have it dealt with. Tom has become really good at hive inspections - this is one of those things that you can only learn by doing, I think.
And a good side benefit of it is that we have lots of honey to give away as teacher gifts this year, which is great.
One last interesting thing regarding bees - my friend in Orange County sent me this picture from her garage. I guess this was recently revealed when they were doing work. I advised her to call her local beekeeping association, which she did - and it turns out, most of the feral hives found in Southern CA are Africanized, or aggressive. So beekeepers don't want to keep them (understandably) and these colonies are often destroyed. As was this one. Very sad! It also makes me think that the aggressive bees will slowly be moving north and we'll have to deal with them more often here. I think, in many ways, aggressive bees probably survive better - studies seem to show they have less pest pressure - and that could be an answer for the total bee population going forward, but it would be very hard to manage aggressive bees in an urban situation! I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this as they become more common.