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Feeding Bees in Fall – {Beekeeper’s Guide}

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Healthy honey bee colonies are often more than capable of getting ready for Winter-all on their own. However, feeding bees in Fall may be a important part of your beekeeping plan. Before cold weather arrives to stay or that killing frost hits, we want our honey bees to be prepared. Those without enough food stored for Winter or populations too small -may not survive.

Fall Feeding of Honey Bee Colonies

Beekeeper inspecting beehive and feeding in Fall image.

A common question that comes up in beekeeping circles is “How much food do my bees need for Winter” Another is “When to start Fall feeding for bees?” Sadly, both are difficult to answer as each hive location is different.

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This is the time you have to check with local agriculture agencies or bee clubs to find out the recommendations for your region. If you live in an extremely cold, wet climate – you might consider making a bee quilt box for your hive. Not everyone needs to do this.

Still, unless you live in the deep South, one deep hive body is not enough room for bees, brood nest and enough food storage.

Why Colonies Are Short on Honey Stores

Most beekeepers will find themselves needing to feed bee colonies in the Fall at some point in their beekeeping adventure. But, this should not be the case every year or for every colony.

The problem is in no part due to the bees being unwilling to work for themselves. Honey bees are quoted for their work ethic. Many things can cause a colony to lack sufficient food stores.

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

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 can cause a delay in stored food. 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.

It is not only weather conditions that slow down colony preparation. Late Fall swarming can leave a healthy colony with few food reserves. The reduced work force means too few foragers.

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

Health affects colony vitality too. If the beekeeper has failed to control varroa mites, a colony suffers in many ways. Not having healthy foragers to work is one symptom.

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As the long hot days of Summer turn cool, the bees know that the end of the season is near. They seem to work at a frenzied pace to gather nectar and pollen for Winter.

How many bee 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.

Hopefully, all of your hives will be healthy and right on track to have enough food stored for Winter. But what if they are not ready?

Fall Hive Inspections in the Bee Yard

Beekeeping in Fall includes several good hive inspections. You are looking for more than just stored food. Colony population should be evaluated and the status of the queen determined.

Being “queen right” means the bees have a present queen that seems to be in good shape. She may not be laying a lot right now. Don’t panic if you see a reduced number of bee eggs. It is common for laying to slow down.

Beekeepers sometimes “requeen beehives” in the Fall. This is a good strategy but you need to plan ahead. As the season draws to a close finding a mated queen to buy becomes more difficult.

Also, you can not let the colony make their own queen if all the drone bees are already gone. She can not be mated and the colony will fail.

These inspections are an important part of your Fall feeding plan. No amount of food will save a mite infested colony with a bad queen. The total condition of the hive must be considered.

Feeding Sugar Water from Late Summer into Early Fall

There are actually 2 reasons that beekeepers often find themselves feeding colonies from late Summer into Fall. Each one calls for a different sugar syrup ratio.

  • declining population
  • not enough honey in hive

First, let’s consider the term “Fall.” For humans, this term denotes the time beginning in September with colorful leaves and headed into the holidays.

For the honey bee colony, Fall activities may begin much sooner. My autumn feeding of beehives begins in August.

Most years we do not see a heavy Fall nectar flow here and I want to make sure my bees are on track for Winter.

White bee feeder for feeding bees inside hive image.

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.

This is generally a strategy for Spring buildup rather than Fall feeding. Most colonies should not need this in Fall and you should be able to help those in need with thicker syrup right away.

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.

Sugar Water Ratio for Late Fall 2:1

Any hives that are not full of stores should be fed 2:1 sugar water. (2 parts sugar to 1 part water). It is best to feed inside the hive as everyone is hungry this time of year.

If you must practice open feeding, 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.

Feeding Bees for Winter requires different feeding strategies and should not be the norm. Hopefully, you do such a good job early on that the Winter prep will be easy.

Do not feed bees sugar water in very late Fall or Winter. Liquid feeding over Winter 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.

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

You should not have to feed bees year-round, though in some years it sure feels like we do. Some people say you should never feed bees. I feel it is wrong to let them starve.

Perhaps you choose to not feed bees 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.

Frame of stored honey from a beehive image.

Honey Storage and Placement in the Hive

My Winters are 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.

While we can not completely control what the bees choose to do, we can make sure they have the resources needed.

If you feel your colonies may be behind schedule in getting ready for Winter – do not delay. Feed those late Summer colonies to encourage them to raise healthy fat bees for Winter – and then to store food.

Outside feeders such as a homemade bucket feeder can get the job done in a hurry. However, it is not the most economical method and should be placed well away from the apiary.

Taking the extra steps of properly feeding bees in Fall, when needed, results in fewer dead beehives. Keep in mind that pollen and sugar are two different things. The colony needs both.

Of course, there are many variations on this method and you can use various Winter patties or purchased bee fondants. And, you can even make your own no cook candy board.

If you feel that your hives may be low on stored pollen – (you should see several frames of pollen during inspections) – consider making some pollen patties for your bees.

No matter which method you use, make sure your fall hive feeding plan is in place for those colonies that need it. And don’t wait until the last few weeks. If you are lucky, perhaps there are some good Fall flowers for bees that will supplement your feeding.