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Feeding Bees in Winter – Emergency Rations

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Winter Bee Feeding

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? Should I feed them again? Keeping honey bees involves some guesswork. Feeding bees in Winter is tricky and can do harm if done incorrectly!

Beehives in snow after feeding for Winter image.

Are 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 degrees F.

In a perfect situation, honey bees work throughout the warm months.  They collect pollen and nectar.  The nectar is converted into honey and stored 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 honey. 

Yet, we often 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.?

There are several reasons that a colony might need help from the beekeeper. One reason is that, in general, our colonies are not as healthy as they were in years past.

Hives that are not healthy and strong do not far as well against the harshness of Winter cold. And especially so, when food stores are running tight.

honey bee feeding on comb - feeding bees winter emergency

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.

Leaving the bees without the food resources to make enough honey before Winter, – disaster. Starving bees do not survive.

While bees do not heat the whole interior of the hive, they do generate some heat. This requires a lot of food if the honey bees survive all Winter.

Insufficient Foods Stores in Beehives

Most beekeepers that love their colonies and strive to develop a successful fall feeding plan. The goal is to have hives filled with enough honey suitable for your region.

However, even the best preparations can fall short. Weather is very unpredictable.

When Winter seems to linger for a month longer than normal, beekeepers must keep an eye on their colonies.

In my region, we do not have long, bitter cold Winters.  But, I keep a close eye on my colonies 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 me with no honey in sight?

Colonies With Small Populations Most as Risk

As a beekeeper,  I get worried when I hear weather forecasts calling for record cold. My worse fear is for my marginal colonies.

These honey bee colonies have smaller clusters and might survive a mild winter.  But, even though they are healthy – they may not have enough bees to survive low temperatures.

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, beekeeper splits. It does not always mean that the bees themselves are inferior.

Winter Feeding Inside the Hive

Of course, the best situation for your hives is to avoid an emergency. These strategies can be put in place in late Fall.

When the days are still warm, with colder nights – its a good time to do end of season hive inspections and check food reserves. But even the best plans fail sometimes.

Here are some other ideas just in case – your feeding plans have not proven to be adequate. And, you find colonies with very low food stores. Maybe you can prevent finding dead bees in your Winter hives.

Feeding Pollen Patties

One method of feeding bees in Winter is with the use of pre-made pollen patties.  Most of these patties are carbohydrate based with added protein.

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

This technique is better suited for early Spring buildup than Winter survival in my opinion. But they do provide some necessary calories and have been known to save more than 1 hungry hive.

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

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.

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.

Other Winter Feeding Options

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. (I will touch on this a bit more shortly.)

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.

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.

An Emergency Winter Feeding Strategy

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.

Soft Sugar Cakes for Bees

This emergency winter feeding for bees 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)

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 Bee Food in the Hive

It is better to not open beehives during Winter.  You run the risk of chilling bees. And, the hard work done by the bees to seal cracks with propolis are undone. 

My region is blessed with some warmer Winter days, I choose one of these to help colonies at risk. (Unless – I have already given this to all of them earlier – sometimes I do that.)

On a “somewhat” mild day, quickly open the colony (not removing any frames and trying to minimize the time with the colony open.)

Notice where the bees are clustered – place a piece of newspaper on top of the cluster – give it a light spray of sugar water .  

Then, I spoon a large clump of the bee candy mix on the newspaper and close up the hive quickly. 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.  However, it is only 1 – 2 inches tall. )

I am convinced that 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.

In fact, I have been so pleased with this method that I now do it every Fall – to every colony.  Just before Winter cold really sets in (mid-November for me), I put a candy/sugar mixture on each hive.

It does no harm and may save a colony of bees that is in transition moving from one box to another during bitter cold. I prefer using wet sugar with a bit of feeding supplement instead of dry sugar. 

Can you just pour dry sugar into the hive? 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.

Final Thoughts on Feeding Bees in Winter

It is important to remember that this is an “emergency winter feeding” option, or a little bit of extra insurance.

It does not replace the need for proper hive management. It is always best to be sure to leave honey for the bees in the hive. And, feed sugar water earlier in the Fall if needed – this should be accomplished long before Winter cold arrives.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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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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