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Feeding Bees in Fall with Success

Healthy honey bee colonies are sometimes more than capable of getting ready for Winter-all on their own. However, feeding bees in Fall is very important for the beekeeper whose hives are not ready. 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 may not survive without help.

Round bee feeder to be used feeding bees inside the hive image.

Fall Bee Feeding for Winter Preparation

A common question that comes up in beekeeping circles is “How much food do my bees need for Winter”. Sadly that is 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.

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

Open beehive being fed in the Fall in preparation for winter image.

Why do You Feed Bees in Fall?

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

This is in no part due to the bees being unwilling to work for themselves. Many things can cause a colony to lack sufficient food stores. A lack of natural forage due to a nectar dearth.

Poor weather conditions with weeks of rain that prevent foraging can cause a delay in stored food.

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.

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

Sometimes things happen due to weather conditions or late Fall swarming that leaves a healthy colony little food reserves. Some colonies will benefit from being fed sugar water -usually a 2:1 ratio for Winter stores.

Plan on having a “food box” for the bees that is 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.

Fall Hive Inspections in the Bee Yard

Hopefully, all colonies have been inspected and found to have a good queen. They are “queen right”. She may not be laying a lot right now but she is present and seems healthy and capable.

Hives are often “requeened” in the Fall if you feel she may not be up to snuff. Pests should be under control.

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

You should not have to feed bees year-round, though in some years it sure feels like we do.

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.

Feeding Sugar Water in Late Summer/Fall

Feeding of sugar water must be completed well before cold weather arrives. Once it begins to get colder (highs in the 50’s F), the colony will not be able to make the best use of the liquid feed.

Do not feed bees sugar water in late Fall or Winter. 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.

Feeding 2:1 in the Fall

Any hives that are not full of stores in the food super 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.

Yellow jacket wasp feeding on nectar image.

Honey Storage and Placement in the Hive

Living in Upstate South Carolina near the mountains, our Winters are relatively mild. Freezing temps are common with a few nights of single digits. 

A strong, 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.

Fall colonies of marginal size have a chance to survive in regions with mild Winter. This is true “if” they have food stores constantly within reach. 

Beekeeper with bowl of sugar cake to feed bees image.

Special Mix for Feeding Fall Colonies

After doing everything I can in late Summer in regards to feeding 2:1 sugar water to the hives in need – I have 1 more strategy.

The large yellow bowl contains sugar – just pure cane sugar that has been dampened enough (with sugar water (1/2 cane sugar-1/2 water) to make it start to cling together. 

You can store it in the frig for a while if you need to. When the Winter stays warm, I sometime add a bit more to the hives?

To prepare your mix, use a large mixing bowl – one with a lid can be handy as well so you can store the extras in the refrigerator.

Caution:  this can get a bit messy. Ok, it’s darn messy so be prepared.  And don’t do it outside! You may have a “honey bee” audience that you don’t want.

Bowl of sugar candy to feed fall beehives image.

Pour a 5# bag of pure cane sugar into the bowl.  I suggest you use only white pure cane sugar for this recipe of  Fall prep feeding.   Bees find it more digestible than generic sugars that are made with beets.

Have a sugar syrup mixture of 1:1 sugar water in another container.   It’s not necessary but if you have some, mix a little Honey B Healthy into the 1:1 sugar water in your spray bottle.

Using a big spoon, slowly add sugar water until the dry sugar just begins to mold together.  You do not want it to get too loose but remain firm and mold-able.

This mix also works well for emergency late Winter/early Spring feeding.  If you live in a climate where the weather warms enough to be able to open the hive briefly, it can save colonies.

Place the Bee Feeding Mixture in the Hive

Before going to the bee yard, cut half size pieces of newspaper.  You can use a single layer or double to hold the sugar in the hive. Once cold weather arrives the threat of having ants in the hive are less.

My standard hive configuration is one deep box and one shallow (I call this top box a food super).  To apply the mixture, remove hive top, inner cover and top box (the shallow) and gently smoke the bees down from the tops of the deep super frames.

Sugar spray bottle and newspaper to feed bees image.
1 or 2 sheets of newspaper, dampened with sugar water spray will hold my fall feeding mixture. This works on full sized colonies or nucs.

Place a piece of newspaper on the top bars. Then, the sugar mixture is spooned onto the newspaper. How much to use? That depends on the size of the colony.

In general, use the amount of 3 large canning spoonfuls – spread out into a thick patty. Now, the shallow super is set back on. 

The top super is slowly wiggled into place. This allows the wet sugar mixture to squeeze up between the frames.  The boxes must fit back together tightly.

I often have 2 sugar cakes – one between my deep and shallow and one between the top box and under the inner cover. This helps the bees transition from one box to the next.

Sugar cake spread on newspaper inside hive image.
Feeding Fall Bee Colonies with sugar cakes helps survival rates. You can decide how much of the mixture you want to use. It is important that the boxes fit back together tightly.

When I am finished, each cluster of bees has “emergency” feed right above the cluster.  Is this necessary? No it shouldn’t be and it might be wasteful too.

However, maybe this will provide some much needed help if an extended period of cold days prevents the cluster from moving to more stored honey.

This will not prevent the death of bee colonies that may be too small to generate enough heat to survive.  It is merely an attempt to provide sugar right where it may be most needed.

Final Thoughts on Feeding Fall Bee Colonies

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.

Taking the extra steps of properly feeding bees in Fall, when needed, results in fewer dead beehives.

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.

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.

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