Feeding Bees in Winter

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If your beehives are full of stored honey, 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. It is more difficult to provide nutrition during the cold months. However, if you need to think about bee food in winter – all is not lost – you do have a few options.

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

Some beekeepers are against the idea of feeding hives …let the strongest survive. But, nature can be tough and our colonies are subject to many uncontrollable factors. Providing food when needed can be part of good seasonal hive management.

Understanding the Need for Winter Feeding

Honey bees are insects-cold blooded insects that do not hibernate. They cluster inside the hive during the cold days of Winter.

Consuming stored honey and producing a little heat, the honey bee colony can survive Winter. Those that run short of honey die.

Reasons for Winter Food Shortages

There are several factors that can lead to our hives not having enough food stored for Winter. Some of them are not the fault of the bees.

  • lack of nectar brought into the hive
  • beekeeper harvests too much honey
  • late season swarms or splits
Row of colorful winter beehives in snow image.

Long, hot summers with little rain can lead to a nectar dearth. Plants that do not receive enough water may produce little or no 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. Normally, bees do not fly in rain.

Those beekeepers who do not experience a good Fall honey flow must guard against overharvesting. Harvesting honey and leaving the bees to starve is not good beekeeping.

Sometimes beginning 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.

Also, late season swarm – especially Fall swarm or late season splits just may not have enough time to get ready. These bee colonies need feeding in winter to increase their chances to survive.

Three images of way to feed bees in winter, frame of honey, fondant and bag of sugar.

Types of Winter Feeding

There are several feeding methods available for beekeepers. All have pros and cons and which one you choose will depend on your preference and to a degree your climate.

None of them take the place of good Fall feeding of bee colonies (if needed). But, some of these strategies may just tip the odds in your favor, especially in regards to those colonies you are unsure of.

  • sugar water – only in very warm climates
  • frames of honey
  • pollen patties with sugar – winter patties
  • candy boards & fondant
  • sugar cakes
  • dry sugar

Why Not Sugar Syrup?

Feeding bees sugar water is the most common way to provide extra food for bee colonies. But, most beekeepers can not depend on liquid feeding during the cold months.

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.

In general, sugar water should not be fed to Winter colonies unless you are in a very warm climate.

Frames of Honey

Do you have any frames of honey from another hive? Perhaps your stored some honey in the freezer.

If you know the honey is not from a diseased colony (American Foulbrood), giving them to a hungry hive before cold weather is one of the best ways to feed Winter beehives.

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Special Winter 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.

But, commercially prepared winter patties are formulated a bit different. Read the description closely to confirm the type you are buying.

Honey bee trying to remove pollen patties.

As for protein supplements (used more often in Spring) – there are a couple of options. You can purchase pre-made pollen patties. And, you can even make your own homemade pollen patties.

One word of caution – If you live in an area with Small Hive Beetles (who also love patties) do not put the pollen patties in the hives until very late Fall – or better – use them in very early Spring.

Beekeeper putting sugar candy in a beehive image.

Candy Boards and Fondant

Another way to introduce sugar into the Winter beehive is the use of candy boards. You can make homemade candy boards with hardened sugar in every configuration and size. Rolls of candy fondant, purchased or homemade are often used as well. 

These are usually placed directly on the top bars over the cluster of bees. Hard candy boards have a small wooden frame to contain them (and allow closing the hive.)

Fondants are soft and slowly ooze down between the frames a bit once you put the hive back together – a box or shim is usually not necessary.

Small cake of wet sugar on top bars of beehive.

Wet Sugar Cakes

I like making wet sugar cakes for emergency feeding of bees in cold weather. They are basically just sugar with enough water to clump it together – placed on a piece of newspaper. These can be slid quickly between boxes in colder weather.

They work so well, I often put them on all my hives in early Winter. It helps the bees transition from one box to the next to stay in contact with food.

This is an 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.

Dry Sugar

Even the simple method of directly pouring sugar in the hive may save a starving colony. This is often called the “mountain-camp method.” Granulated 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.

It is perfectly okay to use dry sugar in your beehives. But, I find that the bees sometimes carry it right back out as trash if the weather is warm. For that reason, I prefer fondant, candy boards or sugar cakes.

Diagram tips for feeding bees for winter image.

Timing and Frequency of Feeding

Unlike feeding during the warm season, feeding bees in winter is more of a supply and monitor task. You should not open the hive constantly – though a quick peek through the inner cover hole won’t hurt.

Monitoring bee food stores throughout the Winter – perhaps at monthly intervals is a good practice. For most hives, late Winter into early Spring will be the most dangerous time of year in regards to starvation.

When to Start Winter Feeding

For most colonies, doing a good job of winterizing your hives – will result in no Winter feeding.

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 combs.

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.

Honey bees inside a hive image.

How Much Honey do Your Bees Need for Winter?

Do your hives have enough stored 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.

FAQs

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. 

How do you feed wild bees in Winter?

Actually, it is 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° F. Liquid feeding should be stopped well before that temperature.

When should you stop feeding bees for Winter?

Once your hive has enough stored honey for a normal Winter in your region, stop feeding them and monitor food stores throughout the season.

What is the best food for Winter bee feeding?

The best method for winter bee feeding depends on your hive and local climate. Fondant, candy boards or even dry sugar are popular options.

A Final Word

Feeding honey bees in winter involves …well… feeding them well before it gets too cold !! If you have hives in need, get those candy boards, sugar cakes or slabs of fondant on the hives before it is too late.

Beekeepers who fail to plan 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.