If your Fall hives are full with plenty of stored honey, feeding bees for 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. Don’t wait too late to get your hives ready for Winter.
Best Winter Food for Honey 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.
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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 food for a colony 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.
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 before cold arrives.
Importance of Winter Food for Honey Bees
The honey bee is an insect but unlike some other bees – they do not hibernate. Honey bees cluster inside the hive during the cold days of Winter and generate heat.
Fortunately, this miraculous strategy allows the bee colony to survive Winter on stored honey made from plant nectar.
The reason stored food is so important is temperature and food availability. Bees are cold blooded insects. They can not fly well in cold temperatures.
Also, few blooming plants would be available for foraging. Therefore, the colony must have enough food stored to last during the cold months. Life goes on inside the hive, though at a slower pace than in Summer.
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.
Reasons Colonies May Not Be Ready for Winter
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.
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.
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.
Strangely, 1 colony can be vastly different from the hive sitting right beside it. This is because even though these 2 hives share a foraging region, they are still different genetically. Some bees thrive more than others.
How Much Honey do Your Bees Need for Winter?
Do your hives have enough sored honey for winter? Three factors determine the desired amount of stored honey for a colony.
- 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.
Though weather conditions certainly vary from one year to the next. A colony of honey bees 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. Some colonies need much more.
Connect with local beekeepers through your state agricultural departments. Or, find beekeepers online who live in a similar climate.
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.
This is plenty of time to get the hives ready. 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.
Successful Fall feeding of colonies in need must begin well before Winter cold arrives. This is especially important if the colony is low in population.
What to Feed Bees Low on Winter Stores
Large commercial beekeepers often feed High Fructose Corn Syrup (yeah, I know). This is because of the prohibitive cost of feeding thousands of colonies.
Any type of food that keeps the bees alive is better than letting them starve. Luckily for me, I am a small-scale beekeeper and can take a gentler approach. Pure cane sugar mixed with water (sugar water) is the food of choice for honey bees.
Bee feeders that can be placed inside the hive are easy to use. Internal feeders do a better job of feeding your hives fast because those in the hive get all the food.
Also, bees can access those feeders better as the days begin to grow cool. Bees only forage outside during the warmer hours of Fall days.
It may only be warm enough for good outside foraging for a few hours but the inside feeder is accessible 24/7.
For Fall feeding in prep for Winter, feed a 2:1 mixture. This is 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. This bee syrup recipe is thick and encourages the colony to store it for Winter.
Take care to avoid spilling sugar water around the hives and place any outside feeders well away from your hives.
Open Feeding of Hives
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.
If you really get behind, you may consider using a winter bee patty on your colony. This is not the best solution but it may prevent starvation.
Just be sure to get it out by Spring if you live in a region with Small Hive Beetles. Another last minute solution is the use of candy boards or purchased bee fondant. Again, these are most a replacement for good sugar water feeding methods but they do prevent starvation.
When to Stop Feeding Bees for Winter
Once your hive has enough stored honey for a normal Winter in your region, stop feeding them.
Yes, you may decide to put on a winter patty or fondant as extra insurance or use my emergency sugar cake feeding recipe.
In fact, that basic emergency sugar cake method can be morphed into a homemade candy board – I’ve been trying that in recent years.
What about sugar water? 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.
No beekeepers want 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.
Feeding honey bees for winter involves …well… feeding them well before it gets cold !! 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.