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Feeding Bees in Winter {Quick Tips for Success}

If your beehives are full with plenty of stored honey by mid-Fall, feeding bees in Winter may not be a major concern. Honestly, that is what we all hope for – the best food for them is their own honey. Alas, this is not always the reality. Once cold weather arrives, your choices will be limited. Those hive management strategies that worked so well in Spring and Summer are no longer a good idea.

Best Winter Food for Bee Colonies

Two winter beehives in the snow beekeeper feeding before cold image.

First, let’s consider if you should feed your bee colonies at all? Some beekeepers feel strongly about the issue of feeding hives …or not feeding them. 

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However, Mother Nature can be tough and our colonies are subject to many uncontrollable factors. Lack of nectar or poor foraging conditions take a toll on food storage.

Colonies that fail to store abundant honey resources should be fed before cold arrives or they will be lost. Always, the best winter food for bees is their own stored honey.

Should you feed colonies in need or let them die? Ultimately, that beekeeper decision is yours to make. Most people opt to provide extra food resources for the bees and help them survive.

Beehives Require Food to Keep Warm

The honey bee is an insect . Many insects and other types of bees go into hibernation during Winter. Honey bees do not hibernate.

Instead, they cluster inside the hive during the cold days of Winter and generate heat to survive. Fortunately, this miraculous strategy allows the bee colony to survive Winter on stored honey. Those that run short are subject to death.

Another important issue, they must have honey stored in the right locations. With plenty of resources, they fill their top boxes and backfill to the brood nest. This provides an “avenue” of honey throughout the hive.

Colony Preparation is Key

As outlined in Feeding Bees in Fall, it is a common mistake of new beekeepers to wait too late. When is Fall? September or October perhaps – for man hives that is too little too late. Cold weather arrives and the bees are not ready for Winter.

Feeding bees sugar water is the most common way to provide extra food for bee colonies. But, it is vital to understand the timing – getting your colonies ready weeks before cold arrives.

Most beekeepers can not depend on feeding sugar water all Winter. Cold temperatures will not allow this method in most areas of the country. Also, the added moisture in the hive can cause serious problems without proper hive ventilation.

Reasons Colonies May Not Lack Winter Food

In many areas, long hot summers with little rain can lead to a reduced amount of nectar.  In addition to seasonal dry spells, weather pattern changes can bring drought or flooding rain.  

Late Summer storms can prevent worker bees from harvesting available nectar. All weather issues affect the foraging behavior of our honey bee colonies.

Those beekeepers who experience a Fall honey flow must guard against harvesting too much honey. Sometimes new beekeepers do not understand the patterns of honey production.

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They take too much honey thinking the colony has time to replace it – often that is not the case. If you take all the excess in July and the the hive does make more – you have starving colonies on your hands.

Row of colorful winter beehives in snow image.

How Much Honey do Your Bees Need for Winter?

Do your hives have enough sored honey for winter? How do you know? Three factors determine the desired amount of stored honey for any colony. But, remember there are always variables.

  • where you live (how cold does it get)
  • the duration of Winter in your region (how long Winter lasts)
  • and to a degree the genetics of your bees.

Weather conditions certainly vary from one year to the next in most locations. But, bee colonies in Maine would certainly always need more stored honey than one in Alabama.

Some types of honey bees overwinter with a bigger population, therefore they need to store more food. Italians are known for over-wintering with larger numbers.

In general, any honey bee colony that lives in a region with some Winter cold will need a minimum of 60# (60 pounds) of stored honey.  The equivalent of a packed full shallow super box with some stored in the deep too. Some colonies need much more.

Connect with local beekeepers through your state agricultural departments. Or, find beekeepers online who live in a similar climate.  These are some of your best resources for estimating the amounts needed.

Honey bees inside a hive image.

When to Start Feeding Your Hives for Winter

If you live in a region that does not have a heavy dependable Fall nectar flow, begin feeding 6 weeks before cold weather arrives. Now is the time for 2:1 – 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. A heavy syrup that encourages the bees to store it in their comb.

If you start in time, with warm temperatures, you may be able to get the job done in 3-4 weeks. It depends on how much help your hives need.

I always do a food check on my hives, 4 weeks before the first frost date of Fall. That gives me 4-6 weeks before regular cold arrives to make adjustments.

All of this is assuming, of course, that you have a healthy colony with enough workers to get the job done. Failure to control varroa mites will doom the colony regardless of stored food.

Fall Nectar Flows Affect Timing of Feeding Bees

When I harvest my honey crop, I always leave the bees plenty of their honey.  After years of beekeeping in this location – I know they are not going to make any excess honey after late June.

Also, summer weather conditions may cause the honey already stored for winter to be consumed in July and August!  

Where there is a heavy Fall nectar flow, a colony may be able to make more honey to replenish their stores for winter.  There may even be some excess for you depending on where you live.

Diagram tips for feeding bees for winter image.

What to Feed Bees Low on Winter Stores

Once cold weather arrives, your options will be fewer. Feeding sugar water once cold days arrive is not a good idea.

But, if you have a few weeks of decent weather left, you may try using internal feeders. They do a better job of feeding your hives fast because the bees can access them continuously.

It may only be warm enough for good outside foraging for a few hours but the inside feeder is accessible 24/7.

To encourage Winter food storage use a 2:1 mixture (2 parts sugar/1 part water). Take care to avoid spilling sugar water around the hives and place any outside feeders well away from your hives.

Avoid Open Feeding if Possible

Open feeding is often used by a beekeeper with a lot of hives. It is quick and easy to do but can cause bigger problems without care. Open feeders are usually large (at least 3-5 gallons) and can be made in several different ways. They are not as economical as inside feeders and can cause bee robbing if placed close to your hives.

Bucket feeder providing sugar water for winter stores to honey bees image.

You can make your own bucket feeder – for out yard feeding. If you use this method, place the feeding station well away from the bee yard. I suggest 100 feet or more from the hive.

This method becomes less useful as the weather cools due to fewer hours of the day that are warm. It is not a good method for last minute situations – use it earlier in the season unless you live in a warm climate.

When to Stop Feeding Bees for Winter

Once your hive has enough stored honey for a normal Winter in your region, stop feeding them. Hopefully, you complete this by mid-late Fall.

Adding a winter patty or fondant is great as extra insurance against starvation. This sugar cake feeding recipe for Winter beehives is also easy to use.

In fact, that basic emergency sugar cake method can be morphed into a homemade candy board – I’ve been trying that in recent years.

You should not plan on feeding bees sugar syrup in cold weather. If you live in a cold region, it is best to remove any sugar water feeders from the hive when the daily temperatures are below 60 degrees F.

Winter Patties and Sugar Cakes

Another last minute solution is the use of candy boards or purchased bee fondant. If the weather turns cold before your hive is ready, this type of feeding method can prevent starvation.

Some beekeepers prefer to use a winter bee patty on their colonies. These are available commercially and often contain sugar and protein.

Do not place them in the hive while the weather is still warm. And, be sure to get it out by Spring if you live in a region with Small Hive Beetles

A valuable resource for bees, they are not a replacement for good honey stores or good feeding of liquid before cold arrives. No, you can not slap a Winter patty on at the last moment and have the same results you would have had with proper feeding.

Winter Feeding of Beehives

Feeding honey bees in winter involves …well… feeding them well before it gets cold !! You should not have to feed in Winter in most situations.  Beekeepers who fail to plan and start feeding the hives weeks in advance of cold weather may lose colonies-that didn’t have to die.

No beekeeper wants to let their bees starve – yet that is exactly what many do. By procrastinating late season inspections,  when they finally do open the hive right before Winter – it may be too late. With proper preparation, your hives will be ready when the other bees come out in Spring to look for food.

FAQs about Feeding Bees in Winter

Do you need to feed every colony before Winter?

No, not every colony will need to be fed.  If your honey bee hives are heavy with stored honey, great ! That is the condition that we beekeepers strive to achieve.  If you are having to feed sugar water year round, something in wrong in your hive management.

How do you feed wild bees in Winter?

Actually it is likely best to avoid trying to feed wild bees in cold weather. Each type of insect has its own survival plan – you may do more harm than good.

When is it too cold to feed bees?

Honey bee colonies start to cluster at about 57 degrees F. Liquid feeding should be stopped well before that temperature.

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8 Comments

  1. jesse stephens says:

    i live in central texas we have very short winters here i have seen temps at christmas at 70% as well as 18% yeste day it was 28% in the morning and 50% at noon today it was 40% and 69 at two in the afternoon 70% next day we are haveing an early winter. i am hopeing to split my hives in march or april as the honey flow starts then jesse s.

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Perhaps you will be able to if you can keep a good sized cluster over Winter.

  3. Pamela HUdson says:

    I am new to beekeeping, I have two hives, one weak hive and one strong hive. I live in Merrillville, Indiana and right now the nights are in the low to mid 40’s and 50’s, my question is when do I wrap and insulate my hives. I was thinking to do it just be the morning and day temp are constantly in the low fifties.
    Oct 15, 2019

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Pamela, You are in a colder area and I think it will depend alot of your specific location. The bigger questions is why is your weak hive – weak? I would ask a local beekeeper about the wrapping issue – though hives cant stand temps well below freezing without wrap. Also, check out my Facebook group, we have some northern beekeeping in there. https://www.facebook.com/groups/carolinahoneybees

  5. In the fall could you feed your bees some of their own honey instead of sugar water .? I’m thinking it would save them work and would be better for them .

  6. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Absolutely, the best way is with honey in the comb that perhaps you can kept frozen. You can use liquid honey too but you have to be careful as this can set off robbing.

  7. Rebecca Kress-Ives says:

    Hi Charlotte. I love your website. I’m new to bee keeping and I just have a few hives.
    I left them with sugar on paper for the winter. They also had a pollen patty. Do I leave them alone now and just hope for the best? It’s been very cold in Ontario, where I live. I would assume no opening them up to check and see if they still have enough food. The thing I’m finding hard about beekeeping is that there are so many opinions about what is best.

  8. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Yes, it is maddening sometimes trying to decide what to do. In a very cold climate I don’t think opening the hive would be a good idea, I have heard of people pouring dry sugar down through the hole in the inner cover. That way you are not breaking any seals – a couple of cups could make the difference. Thank you and best of luck!

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