Feeding Bees in Fall – {Beekeeper’s Guide}

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The changing colors of Fall leaves provide a sign that the long hot Summer is over. It is also a time for beekeepers to consider if their hives are on track for the cold months ahead. Depending on the condition of each hive and/or location, you may find yourself feeding bees in Fall as part of your apiary management. Well before cold weather arrives to stay (or that killing frost hits) we want our honey bees to be prepared. Fall bee feeding should not be necessary for each hive every year.

Beekeeper inspecting beehive and feeding in Fall image.

To provide extra nutrition for colonies or not is a subject of debate among some beekeepers. Should only the strongest survive – even when it is not their fault that food stores are low? Perhaps, the area suffered a severe drought – no fault of the bees that nectar was not available. This is where the importance of feeding bees comes into play. The beekeeper has to monitor and decide when to step in and help.

Why Fall Bee Feeding is Necessary

Healthy honey bee colonies are usually more than capable of getting ready for the cold season-all on their own. However, our colonies face many challenges and those without enough food stored will not survive.

Hives without enough Food Stores:

  • can not generate heat to keep warm and survive
  • are not able to keep developing bee brood warm and alive
  • do not have enough workers to begin Spring population buildup

Ideally, your hives need to be stocked with abundant honey and pollen (in the form of bee bread) weeks before cold weather arrives to stay. If not, the hive is in trouble.

Why Hives are Low on Food Stores

Why does your colony not having a lot of honey stored by the time fall arrives? Are bees lazy? No, actually we use numerous bee quotes to praise their work ethic.

Often, the lack of honey is in no part the fault of the honey bees. There are many things that can cause a lack sufficient food stores.

  • lack of forage
  • bad weather
  • late swarms
  • unhealthy colonies
  • greedy beekeepers

Plants may bloom and still not provide nectar or pollen. A lack of natural forage is called a nectar dearth. If dry conditions persist in your area, flowers may not have nectar.

Poor weather conditions with weeks of rain that prevent foraging affects production. Honey bees will not fly on rainy days – or at least not as well.

This causes a delay stocking all the resources bees collect for the colony (nectar, pollen, propolis etc.)

It is not only weather conditions that can create a need for feed bees in Fall. Has the colony swarmed lately?

Late Fall swarming can leave a healthy colony with low food reserves. Those leaving fill up first and the reduced work force left behind means too few foragers.

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Health affects colony vitality too. If the beekeeper has failed to control varroa mites (by not performing mite treatments when needed) a colony suffers in many ways. Not having healthy foragers to work is one symptom.

Varroa mite counts should be low and any colony in need has been treated successfully for mite infestations.

Signs Your Bee Colonies Need Fall Feedings

If the cool winds of Fall are here and your bees have very little stored honey – you need to feed them. In reality, you need to check way before Fall to make sure they are gathering nectar and storing honey.

There are 2 situations that you may observe in the late Summer that are cause concern.

  • low population with little brood
  • little stored honey

Feeding bees sugar water is the most common method of providing fast nutrition and each situation calls for a different sugar syrup ratio.

White feeder for feeding colony in late summer or fall inside the hive.

Encourage Brood Rearing with 1:1 Sugar Syrup

Some regions experience a late Summer drought with few blooming plants. With no fresh food coming in, the colony may reduce or temporarily stop rearing brood.

This does not mean that you have a problem with your queen bee. The bees are simply adjusting their operation plan to fit the resources available. If this continues for too long, colony population can seem rather sparse.

With cold weather still weeks away and at least a moderate amount of honey stores in the hive, I may feed 1:1 sugar syrup (half sugar – half water) for a few weeks.

This gets those queens laying again. I can usually see results in a week of feeding. By then, may some of the nectar rich Fall flowers for bees can help feed the hives.

This is generally a strategy for Spring buildup rather than Fall feeding. If you start – don’t stop, the bees are depending on you.

Once the Fall flow begins, your bees will not take the syrup as readily. Continue to provide food if they need it until it is time to switch to 2:1.

Fall Bee Feeding Sugar Water Ratio 2:1

Any hives without enough boxes of honey to last until Spring (or well on track to be ready) should be fed 2:1 sugar water. This is 2 parts sugar to 1 part water.

It is best to feed inside the hive if possible as everyone is hungry this time of year. Be sure to reduce hive entrances to discourage robbing bees from other hives.

If you must practice open feeding (bucket feeder, etc) have the station far away from your hives. If a lot of fighting is present, you may need more than 1 feeding station.

This is not the most economical strategy, as you will be feeding every wasp and yellow jacket in the area too-but it is better than having colonies starving.

Beekeeper inspecting full frame of honey in a Fall beehive.

When to Start Fall Feeding

First, let’s consider the term “Fall.” For humans, this term denotes the time beginning in the month of September. On the honey bee calendar, they begin to prepare for Fall much sooner.

Living in an area that does not see a heavy Fall nectar flow, my autumn bee feeding begins in late August – early September. Normally, the colonies may only need a little boost with 2:1 sugar water to top off their own food stores.

In South Carolina, if the colonies do not have enough honey stored by the second week of September I feed. This gives me about 1 month before our average first frost date to help them get ready.

Honey Placement in the Hive

My climate is relatively mild. Freezing temps are common with a few nights of single digits.  A healthy bee colony can survive cold temperatures with ease as long as they have honey stores within reach.

That term “within reach” is very important. Your colonies can starve to death with a full box of honey on top of the hive. If the bee cluster is in the box below and unable to move up, the will freeze on the comb.

This is an extremely frustrating situation that thankfully does not occur often – but it can happen. While we can not completely control what the bees choose to do, we can make sure they have the resources needed.

Monitoring and Adjusting

Feeding is a good tool in honey bee management but it is not always the answer. It should not be done blindly. The beekeeper can not assume – you have to check the food reserves of your colonies.

What about once the cold is here and your bees are not ready? Feeding bees in winter requires different feeding strategies and should not be the norm. Hopefully, you do such a good job early on that winterizing your beehives will be easy.

Precautions & Considerations

Do not feed bees sugar water in very late Fall or once cold truly arrives to stay. Liquid feeding at this time is not the best option.

The bees will probably not be able to use it and you will cause more problems inside the hive with excess moisture etc.

If you feel that your hives may be low on stored pollen – consider making some pollen patties for your bees. But, don’t put them in there too early as Small Hive Beetles love them. You should see a few frames of pollen stored in the comb during those last inspections.

How Much is Enough – When to Stop

A common question that comes up in beekeeping circles (or at local beekeeping association meetings) – “How much food do my bees need ?”. Sadly, this is difficult to answer – every hive and location is different.

This is the time you have to check with local agriculture agencies or bee clubs to find out the recommendations for your region.

Bees living in Washington state may be the same as bees living in Florida – but the climate they live in is very different.

How many super boxes does your hive need? In most locations, a hive consists of at least 2 boxes. The “food box” for the bees should be full of honey before cold weather arrives.

The size of that food box : shallow, medium or deep will depend on your local climate and how much your colony needs.

Unless you live in the deep South, one deep hive body (brood chamber) is not enough room for bees, brood nest and food storage.

FAQs

Is there any benefit to feeding a Fall colony beyond stored food?

Feed bees in Fall and late Summer can encourage them to raise healthy fat bees for the long cold months – and then to store food.

How late in the season can I wait to feed my bees?

Maybe you won’t have to feed the colony. But, if you do – it is best to finish feeding liquids – such as sugar water – a couple of weeks before true cold temperatures arrives.

My queen is not laying any eggs and it is Fall, should I feed my hive?

A lack of fresh bee eggs can be a sign of reduced available nectar but there are other possibilities too. Feeding the colony 1:1 sugar water for about 7 days should encourage her to start laying-if lack of food is the problem.

Should I feed the Fall beehive if I plan to requeen?

Absolutely, feeding while requeening a hive is often a good strategy no matter the season.

A Final Word

Most beekeepers will find themselves needing to feed bee colonies in the Fall at some point in their beekeeping adventure. Some people say you should never feed your hives. I feel it is wrong to let them starve.

Perhaps you choose to not feed at all-no matter the circumstances. That is your choice. But, if they starve due to a lack of food that may not have been their fault. It’s on you.

Hopefully, all of your hives will be healthy and right on track to have enough food in storage. In that case, fall bee feeding will be one less thing for you to worry about. That’s sounds great.

Resources

  • The Hive & The Honey Bee : Dadant & Sons, Hamilton, Illinois 2015

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