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Emergency Feeding for Winter Beehives

Your honey bees hives are all snuggled down for Winter. Then a snow storm or arctic cold temps are in the forecast. You begin to fret about your beehives? Do they still have enough to eat? Is this a food shortage emergency for my hives? Thankfully, there are a couple of options for emergency feeding for Winter beehives.

Sugar cake mixture for emergency feeding of bees in winter image.

Are Your Hives Prepared for Winter?

Ideally, you would never feed bees in cold weather. In most cases, it is a bad idea to open a hive when the temps are below 60°F.

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In a perfect situation, honey bees work hard throughout the warm months. This gives them a chance to store plenty of needed food before cold weather arrives.

Worker bees collect pollen to use a a protein source. It is converted to bee bread and stored in honeycomb cells. Plant nectar is converted into honey and stored in capped cells for Winter.

A healthy honey bee colony in a region with plenty of nectar sources should be able to sustain the cold months with their stores of food.  But this does not always happen.

Why Bee Colonies Lack Sufficient Stored Food

It is common to hear of beekeepers needing to feed their bees in Winter months.  Why is it necessary to assist the bees or offer additional hive management tasks due to low food reserves?

There are several reasons why your hive might need extra help:

  • bee colonies are not as healthy as in years past
  • weather extremes are more common
  • pest contribute to weaker- shorter lived foragers

Colony heath has been on the decline for many year. Our bees just do not seem to be as hardy today as they were 40 years ago.

Today, honey bee colonies are under constant assault from various pests and viruses.  A colony with unhealthy bees will not be efficient at food storage.

Another reason to consider, is the strange weather we experience.  This is true for my region.  We seem to experience wild swings in temperatures and rainfall.

Never quite having optimal weather that would promote good pollen and nectar sources.  Or, if the bees have access to food, the weather sometimes prevents collection.

And sometimes, sad to say, it is the fault of the beekeeper.  Through greed or inexperience, a beekeeper may collect too much honey.

Feeding Bees Late in the Season

Honey bees generate heat – thought they do not heat the whole interior of the hive. The cluster of bees gather close together and stay in constant contact with honey. This is how honey bees survive Winter.

The wise beekeeper strives to develop a successful fall feeding plan for their hives. The goal is to have hives filled with enough honey suitable for your region.

But, even with good Fall preparation, your hives can get into trouble. It is difficult to know exactly how much stored food is enough as hive requirements can differ from one year to another.

When Winter seems to linger for a month longer than normal, beekeepers must keep an eye on their colonies. I watch the food reserves of my hives closely as we move through January – February and March.

Without truly opening the hive, a quick peek under the inner cover can tell me a lot. Are a lot of hungry bees looking at you with no honey in sight? If so, it is time to take action.

Colonies With Small Populations Most as Risk

Beekeepers grow more concerned when weather forecasts call for record cold. Those honey bee colonies with smaller clusters (fewer bees) might survive a mild winter. 

Bitter cold temperatures require a large bee population to maintain proper temperatures inside the bee cluster. Yet, even large clusters will die (and quickly) if the cluster loses contact with food. 

Smaller clusters happen for various reasons: genetics, disease issues, late swarms, aggressive beekeeper splits – especially late in the season. It does not always mean that the bees themselves are inferior.

Free secrets of beekeeping link image.

Winter Feeding Inside the Hive

Of course, the best situation for your hives is to avoid an emergency. A little extra effort may prevent having dead Winter hives. These strategies can be put in place in late Fall.

As you feed your beehives for winter, some last minute strategies may tip the odds in your favor. These include :

  • pollen patties with sugar
  • candy boards
  • fondant
  • dry sugar

You can purchase pre-made pollen patties. And, you can even make your own homemade pollen patties.

The focus of most patties is more on giving the bees protein (pollen) that they may be lacking – rather than carbs (sugar) needed to generate heat. Winter patties are often formulated a bit different.

You must be very careful if you live in an area with Small Hive Beetles (who also love patties). In this case, do not put the Winter patties in the hives until very late Fall.

Honey bee trying to remove pollen patties feeding bees in winter hive image.

The internet abounds with ways of provide needed food for your bees. One strategy is the use of candy boards.  

Candy boards can be made with hardened sugar in every configuration and size. Rolls of candy fondant, purchased or homemade are often used as well. 

And, even the method of directly pouring sugar in the hive may save a starving colony. This is often called the “mountain-camp method.” Granualted sugar is poured onto a sheet of newspaper laying right on the top bars of the hive.

Or, it may be added around the hole in the inner cover – bees can break cluster on warmer days to reach the sugar. Of course, if you put a lot you must use a wooden shim to allow closing the hive completely.

Beekeeper putting sugar candy in a beehive image.

Emergency Winter Feeding Strategy – Sugar Cakes

Despite good fall feeding of colonies, I am always concerned that small clusters wont be able to reach food when it is needed. My method of feeding soft sugar cakes combines ideas from several other feeding methods.

This emergency feeding method has been used in my bee yard for years.  I call it “emergency”, but it can be used any time during Winter. Put it in place right before cold arrives.

First, I mix pure cane sugar in a large bowl with just enough warm water stirred in to make it start to stick together. (Normally, I am using 1:1 sugar water for the mixing)

Sugar, supplement and water to make emergency bee food image.

I also add in a bit of Honey B Healthy (or other feeding supplement). You can add just a bit of your honey if you wish but I have found it not necessary. Do not use honey from unknown sources.

For the feeding supplement – I really don’t measure.  Just a small spoon of Honey B Healthy (or your own essential oil recipe for bees) – don’t over do it!

Also, I really like to be sure to use pure cane sugar for emergency winter feeding, it is more digestible than white sugar made from beets. If the bag doesn’t say pure cane sugar – it ain’t.

Placing Sugar Cakes in the Hive

On a “somewhat” mild day in late Fall (right before cold weather) briefly open the hive. Do not remove any frames and try to minimize the time with the hive open.)

Place a piece of newspaper on top of the clustered bees, spray it with a little sugar water.  Spoon a large clump of the bee candy mix on the newspaper. Close the hive.

The candy mixture is pliable and molds between the boxes as I reassemble the hive.  It does not require a shim. (A shim is a simple rectangular frame that is the same width and length as a honey super -only 1 – 2 inches tall. )

This practice helps some of my colonies survive. The first time I tried this process, it was a true emergency feeding situation and I hoped it would help some of the smaller clusters survive the record cold.

Upon the next hive inspection, the bees had certainly made good use of my sugar cake emergency winter feed.

Sugar cake on beehive as emergency Winter feeding image.
Emergency winter feeding for bees can help small colonies survive.

It does no harm and may save a colony of bees that is in transition moving from one box to another during bitter cold.

Can you just pour dry sugar into the hive – mountain camp style? Sure, it is okay to use dry sugar but I find that the bees sometimes throw it out of the hive!  They do not seem to do this as much with my soft sugar cakes.

Can You Feed Bees Sugar Water in the Winter?  Well……

Can you give your bees regular sugar water in Winter?   No, in most situations you should not feed bees sugar water in Winter.   

While sugar water would provide food for the bees, it is not the same concentrated resource as honey. And, feeding sugar water tends to introduce increased moisture into the hive.

Beekeepers try to ensure good hive ventilation during Winter. We do not want to add more moisture to the inside.

If you live in a region with very cold temperatures, your sugar water may freeze long before it helps the bees. And, cold bees huddled in a cluster can not leave to go to the feeder.

However, in a region with very mild Winters. A bit of sugar water fed inside may be of some benefit if it is removed before any true cold arrives.

Check your beehive records from the last couple of year if you have them – and you should. Did your colonies fare well with the food stored?

Remember that this is an “emergency winter feeding” option. It does not replace the need for proper hive management earlier in the season. Always leave honey for the bees in the hive. And, feed sugar water earlier in the Fall if needed.

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15 Comments

  1. Sheryl L Simmons says:

    a very interesting and enjoyable article. I never realized that bees were such a needed species. I have a new respect for them. Thank you for your part in the preservation of them.

  2. Thank you Sheryl, Bees are one piece of a pretty big pie! I hope you will share my post with your friends.

  3. Lynn Sipe says:

    Thanks Charlotte. I will definitely give this a go.

  4. Hello, thank you for posting this very helpful information. I lost one of five last winter to starvation and definitely don’t want that to happen again! Thanks to you no more winter starvation. John

  5. robert miller says:

    I have a question i’m looking to move 3 hives to under a over hang of a old barn to get them out of the summer heat last year my wife had me put patio unbrellas over the hives because they were on the outside of the hives by mid morning. i’m just wanting to know if you think this would be a good or bad ideal

  6. Do you live in an area with intense heat? If not, the bees are capable of handling things on their own pretty well. If you have not, you could add screened bottoms boards to increase ventilation, slatted racks between the bottom board and 1st hive body and/or popicle sticks under the top to increase air flow. I dont see a problem with putting them under a shed as long as you still have plenty of room to work them and the ground is dry. (This is for those who live in an area with small hive beetles.)

  7. Hi Charlotte! I’m very concerned about my struggling hives and this cold snap coming in. Tomorrow is supposed to be 60 degrees around 2. Should I “emergency feed” my hives to get through the next couple days? I thought about bringing my hive bodies down to 1 box as well, except for the hives that have brood and higher population of course. I really need some guidance.

  8. Well, that is not easy to say. BUT, if you colonies are small and you are concerned that they do not have enough honey near the cluster.. then yes, I would.

  9. Beekeeper Charlotte,

    I really enjoyed reading your article. What is harsh weather? I am from California and now live in Georgia where I plan to raise honey bees. Georgia is harsh considering Northern California weather. What do you consider harsh and in what temperatures can honey bees fend for themselves without concern from their beekeeper?

    ~Matthew

  10. Hi Matthew, Healthy well prepared honey bee colonies usually do quite well by themselves. However, it’s those marginal colonies that I worry about. For myself, I worry a bit when temps dip into the teens.

  11. I have been feeding wild bees in my yard to keep my humming birds feeders free for the birds. Now that they have left to migrate I still have the bees. When should I stop feeding the bees?

  12. robert du Rivage says:

    How do bees get their water requirement if they’re eating sugar instead of honey?

  13. The heat of the cluster gives off moisture that is absorbed by the dry sugar. And, of course – on warm winter days the bees would gather water if needed.

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