In this short summary article we discuss 3 ways to feed bees and make sure honey bee colonies have the best nutrition heading into the winter.
We typically think of bees as being fairly self-sufficient. They just buzz around and eat nectar and pollen, right? Nope! They use that pollen and nectar to create honey – that delicious golden substance that we all enjoy, and bee bread – which is their main source of protein. Sometimes, though, when fall is drawing to a close, and the nectar sources run out, the bees’ stock of honey isn’t enough to get them through the winter. Maybe they didn’t make enough throughout the year. Maybe the beekeeper took too much away from the hive so that they could sell it or enjoy it themselves. Whatever the cause, it needs to be remedied, or they won’t make it through the cold winter months. Here are three ways that you can feed your bees when they don’t have enough stored for the winter.
The best thing to feed bees in the colder months is what they would feed themselves – their own honey. There are many methods of serving it to them, but we have narrowed it down to the way that we have found the highest success.
One is by simply removing honey-filled bars of comb during the summer and storing them in a harvest box, then returning them to the hive right before the bees go into winter mode. When you take honey away from them, the bees will assume it’s lost forever, and will work hard to replace it, thus ending up with even more than they would have had if you left the bar in the hive.
The other way is a bit more work, but not by much. If you don’t have any complete bars of honey stored, you can use any honey you have – whether it’s all strained and gorgeous, or still in messy chunks of comb (let’s be honest, all of us beekeepers have stockpiles of honey that’s been waiting months to be strained). Once it’s time to start preparing the bees for the winter, put the stored comb into a Ziploc baggie and simply crush the comb like you would before straining it. Then, all you need to do is place the baggie flat on one side on top of the bars. Cut a large X into the face of the baggie so that the bees will be able to get into the bag and eat the honey as they need it. Bonus: You’ll be left with perfectly cleaned out wax!
Some people may worry that this way of feeding will harbor bacteria and cause disease within the hive. We have found that there are too many factors in nature that work against us in preventing cross-contaminating hives. Even if we changed gloves, tools, and equipment between hives and washed everything with boiling water, we still wouldn’t be able to control the bees instinctively robbing honey from surrounding hives. We just do our best to keep each of our hives healthy, and let nature run its course!
Sometimes, if our bees need a little extra boost, we feed them a few different recipes of honey tea. This is a mixture of honey and water, along with some herbs and a few other ingredients like salt or sugar. Each recipe has a different purpose, whether it’s for boosting their productivity, or their immune systems! See some of our great recipes for honey bee tea here. Once you have chosen your recipe and have gotten your tea all prepared, pour it into a jar and place it within the hive. The bees will be able to get into the jar and drink the tea as they need it.
The third and final way we’re going to discuss is to feed the bees sugar water. This is only to be used as a last resort, and NEVER because you took too much honey from the hive. This is only to be given to your bees if they were not strong enough in the spring and summer to make enough honey to last them through the winter. This is the method that many commercial beekeepers use to feed their bees in the winter, since they often take too much or all of the honey to sell. As a result, their bees are much less healthy than bees that are able to eat honey.
According to the Beekeeper’s Guild, the time of year that you’re giving your bees sugar syrup determines what ratio of sugar to water to use. Since the focus of this article is preparing honey bees for the winter, we’re going to concentrate on the fall ratio, which is 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Make the syrup by bringing water to a boil, then adding the sugar and stirring until all of it has dissolved. Then, remove the mixture from the heat and allow it to cool completely before serving it to your bees.
There are other ways to ensure that your bees have plenty of sustenance through the winter, too. By planting flowers that bloom in the autumn, you can help your bees to have a source of nectar and pollen to continue to make honey through the fall. You can read more about planting fall-blooming plants here.
You can also help by harvesting honey only in the spring, when flowers are blooming and there is an ample supply of nectar and pollen for the bees to make more honey. Harvesting in the spring also gives the bees plenty of time to rebuild their supply.
All this being said, the main goal to keep in mind is to help your bees to survive. If you can do that by leaving honey in the hive, great! If you need to give them a bit of extra help by feeding them sugar water, though it’s less ideal, sometimes it is necessary. There’s no shame in doing what you’ve gotta do!