In an ideal world, your bees have a productive spring and summer and head into the cold seasons with massive amounts of glorious, honey-filled bars. But even new beekeepers know that the perfect, self-sufficient, endlessly resilient colony doesn’t always exist. You have to carefully watch the weather, the forage availability, the brood cycle, and for the presence of pests and disease to make sure your bees have the best chance of making it through the winter to see another spring. Sometimes, you have to feed your bees because, without that extra help, they will starve. These are our top tips for cold weather feeding.
Your first step for successful winter feeding is to make sure you’re keeping tabs on the honey supply. Ideally, your colony should head into November with 60-90 pounds of honey, or, approximately 12 frames. Even if your bees are in good shape, you need to continue keeping an eye on the stores. If your bees start plowing through all that honey, they could be in a pickle come spring.
If you have a Beepods Beekeeping Complete System, you can look through the Bee Viewer to see what’s going on in the hive. With a Langstroth, a quick tilt-and-feel technique can give you a sense of how much honey is still in the hive.
If you notice your bees are lacking in honey, it’s time to feed.
If your colony is small in numbers heading into winter, you need to be extra diligent in making sure they are well-fed. How do you know your colony is weak? There will be fewer adult bees, insufficient capped brood, low honey stores, and you may have been battling pests or disease for some time before winter even hits. Make sure you’re feeding weak colonies fall syrup, and when winter does hit, transition to sugar derivatives. More on that below.
Here are the facts. If you live anywhere that experiences anything resembling winter (cold temperatures, freezing rain, ice, snow, etc.) you need to feed the right types of sugar. Essentially, if it dips below 50°F, you need to swap the syrups for the sugar candy, boards, and fondant. If you don’t, you could freeze your bees and exhaust them.
If your climate warrants it, make sure you’re feeding sugar with low moisture content. You have lots of options in this regard, and you’ll need to figure out what works best for your lifestyle and your bees. Consider a candy board, which you can reuse year after year. You can also make fondant, which you can store in gallon Ziploc bags in the freezer and pull out whenever you need them. Also, if you make sugar patties, you can place them on sheets of old newspaper on top of your bars. The bees don’t have to work hard to find them and its minimal prep work for you.
Bonus tip: You can add vinegar to your sugar concoctions to break the sucrose into glucose or fructose before it even gets to your bees. Some beekeepers deem this unnecessary, but you can always try it out if you’re particularly concerned about stressing your colony.
If you put your sugar patties, candies, or fondant in your hive, place it close to the cluster. Remember, you want your bees to have quick access to nutrition and to be able to preserve as much energy as possible to heat the cluster. With a Beepods Top Bar Hive, place the feed directly above the cluster on top of the bars. This ensures they don’t have to go far to eat and they go up to get to it, where it’s warmer in the hive. Remember, heat rises.
Moisture is the silent killer of colonies in winter. While you don’t want too much air to get into your hive when it’s cold out, you may need to open your vents a small amount if you notice mold on your bars. Excess moisture in the hive can drip onto the cluster and freeze your bees. If you make the mistake of feeding syrup, moisture can cause the growth of mold, making your solution inedible. However, you do want a small amount of moisture in your patties or fondant. If they look too dry, a quick spritz with a spray bottle of water usually does the trick.
If you know what to do and what to avoid when it comes to cold weather feeding, you will be in the best position possible to ensure their survival. Remember, keep it simple when it comes to feeding. Feed thinner syrup in the spring, thicker in the fall, and feed dry sugar preparations in winter. Use only pure cane sugar and avoid sweeteners that could make your bees ill (high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar). If you feed honey, do it from a known source, namely, their own colony. Follow these tips, and be confident you did right by your bees.