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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
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.
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.
Stored Honey Helps Keep Bees 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 a little heat to survive. Fortunately, this miraculous strategy allows the colony to survive Winter. Those that run short of frames of honey 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 with honey and backfill to the brood nest a bit. This provides an “avenue” of honey throughout the hive.
Colony Preparation is Key
As you work on feeding bees in Fall, don’t make the common mistake of waiting too late. When is Fall? Humans view Fall as September or October perhaps . But for hives low on food-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. Sugar water should not be fed to Winter colonies in general.
In fact, 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.
Sometimes new beekeepers do not understand the patterns of honey production. 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.
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.
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
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.
If you capture any late season Fall swarms, these new colonies will require extra help if they have any chance of surviving until Spring.
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.
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.
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.
What to Feed Bees in Winter
Once cold weather arrives to stay your option for Winter feeding of honey bees will be fewer. Before cold arrives, you may have a few weeks of decent weather left, to squeeze in a little sugar water feeding.
- 2:1 sugar water (2 parts sugar/1 part water) if in a warm climate
- Winter Patties – Sugar Cakes – Fondant
- Candy Boards
- Frames of Honey
Winter Patties – Fondant
For those hives that are in need a little extra insurance, some beekeepers make use of purchased bee fondant. If the weather turns cold before your hive is ready, this type of feeding method can prevent starvation.
Others prefer to use a winter bee patty on their colonies. These are available commercially and are a mixture of sugar and protein in the form of pollen substitutes. They are placed in the hive during late Fall and hopefully last all season.
They are sometimes called “pollen patties” but these generally contain more protein and less sugar. You can make diy pollen patties for your hives in later Winter/early Spring.
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. Beetle larvae love patties.
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.
A basic emergency sugar cake method can be morphed into a homemade candy board – I’ve been trying that in recent years. They are a bit messy to make but I have had great results with overwintering bees.
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 late Fall.
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 during the coldest months of 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
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.
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.
Honey bee colonies start to cluster at about 57 degrees F. Liquid feeding should be stopped well before that temperature.