How to feed syrup in winter

The following method of feeding syrup in winter was sent to me by Wayne Davidson of St Charles, Idaho. Although his climate is cold and the winters long, Wayne has been using this method successfully for three years.

The reason it works, I believe, is that the syrup is kept in an insulated compartment right above the cluster. The syrup is surrounded by wood chip insulation on three sides and foam insulation above. We know from experimentation (and logic) that the warmest part of the hive (aside from the cluster itself) is the area just above the cluster. The insulation traps the heat from the cluster and keeps the syrup warm enough for the bees to drink.

Here is a description of Wayne’s set-up in his own words:

  • I tried to capitalize on everything I could since our winters are long. First, I moved the hives to the south side of the house and set them close to benefit from radiant heat when the sun shines. I got this idea from the dog; he always napped here even in the winter months.

  • Some years we can have nighttime temps in the teens clear until April 21, and nothing growing until late May. So I wanted to feed the bees without causing stress. That’s when I started putting the top feeder on in the fall at the last inspection. It serves as a nice lid with a ventilation opening. I added wood chips/shavings, the type you get at the feed store for livestock, for a little insulation, but also to catch whatever moisture might be in the box.

  • I filled the pan with syrup and put the inner cover on followed by the foam insulation, and then the outer cover.

  • I fully realize that I am leaving a pan of water on top of the hive. My reasoning is, “So what if it freezes?” it can’t break anything, and when it thaws out it’s still there. Second, the bees don’t have to mess with it until it’s warm enough to explore.

  • Moisture was a worry at first, but not any more. If water evaporates it has a way out though the hole in the foam, and out the outer cover. I went to the pitched roof for the telescoping cover just for this reason. It provides an attic space that is always venting, winter and summer. (When I tried this set up with flat tops, they didn’t vent as well and some mold formed on the underside of the inner cover. Still, if any water condensed it would be on the inner cover and right above the pan or the shavings, and any drips still won’t fall on the bees.)

The results

  • The syrup never appeared to freeze. I admit I only checked the feeders on sunny days when the ambient temperature could be 10-15 F, but next to the house considerably warmer. If the syrup froze in the night it was thawed when I checked. Still opening the lid had little effect on the bees since they never were exposed directly to the cold air.

  • Last year I fed every two or three weeks weather permitting. While some colonies ate everything I gave them, and were often begging for more when I opened the lid, some didn’t touch it until spring when they started laying again.

  • While there was some mold on the inner covers that didn’t vent well as I mentioned, I saw no evidence of mold, or dampness of any kind in the hive just below the feeder in the spring on the first inspection.

  • In the photos you will notice something different in the pan. This year I thought I would warm some honey that had crystallized and feed it in the feeder. Well this colony didn’t eat it very fast and now it is setting up again. When I took this picture the honey was soft enough I could easily scoop it with my finger, but it wouldn’t flow. I will go back to just syrup in the pans.

  • This is my third winter doing this and I still like the results. I have used a commercial top feeder, but I only fill half of it since they are so big and then fill the other half with shavings.

For years I’ve said you can’t feed syrup in winter, but now I see that is not entirely true. Wayne’s system takes advantage of a number of factors: he uses good in-hive insulation, he positions the hives in the sun with a wind break, and he sets the syrup directly above the bees.

Good job. Thank you, Wayne.


Wayne’s hives are on the sunny side of the house, which provides warmth and a wind break. © Wayne Davidson.
The feeder is in the purple box below the inner cover. © Wayne Davidson.
A thick layer of foam insulation is placed above the inner cover. © Wayne Davidson.
The gabled roof provided the best ventilation. I love that the vent closure is hinged. © Wayne Davidson.
The feeder tray is surrounded by wood chips which trap warm air and absorb excess moisture. In this photo, partially crystallized honey is in the tray. © Wayne Davidson.
The feeder can be refilled without chilling the bees: just pour in the syrup and replace the top pieces. © Wayne Davidson.

A song of the bees

Be prepared for a feel-good moment. I first met Mark Luterra and his partner, Liz, two years ago in Corvallis, Oregon. At the time, Mark took me through his apiary and prepared a list of beekeepers I should meet on my visit to the Willamette Valley. I could see Mark was intelligent and passionate about his work, but I was clueless about his hidden talents until this morning when I played this video.

Mark writes:

“We finally got around to finishing this project. It started as a song in February 2012, hoping that our first two beehives would make it through the winter (they didn’t…). The music video idea came in April 2013, and I did most of the video editing in the Denver airport. Then we moved, and the bees moved, and the project was mostly forgotten until now.”

I listened to his song four or fives times this morning and have been humming ever since. The lyrics are printed below, and if you would like to know more about Mark, he writes a blog called Musings from Mark that centers around nature, sustainability, energy, agriculture, and mead.

I hope you enjoy the video as much as I did. Let me know what you think!


A Song of the Bees

by Markael Luterra
Published on Jan 2, 2015


Sing a song of the bees
Thousands as one
Led by a queen

Bees by the thousands they are workin together
Bringin nectar and pollen whatever the weather
Gotta keep the queen fed layin two eggs a minute
For the next generation, the sky’s the limit

Coevolution we see
Flowers and bees
Nectar for fertile seeds

We pop off the top to inspect the brood
White larvae and eggs mean that things are all good
We try to avoid the end with the stinger
But every now and then we still get stung on the finger
Stung on the finger!

Put some ice on that sting
Cool down the burn
Easing the suffering

Got varroa and nosema and now tracheal mites
Its a mess with all these pests we might just give up the fight
But no disease will kill my bees cause I take care of my hives
And through the winter into April they will still be alive
Still be alive
My bees are alive!

(Piano interlude)

In the summer they’ll be haulin in the honey like a beast
And then in August we’ll collect it and we’ll have a great feast
With lots of mead and pie and honeycomb and cookies too
And we’ll still have enough to give honey to you
Honey to you

(Flute interlude)

Sing a song of the bees
Thousands as one
Led by a queen
Coevolution we see
Flowers and bees
Nectar for fertile seeds.

The crocuses are popping

Last fall, after reading my post about planting spring crocuses for bees, David Robertson of western Georgia nearly bought out the local feed store. He took the corms home and, judging from the photos, made his wife and son-in-law do the work while he took pictures. Makes sense.

Now, in mid-January, the crocuses are already popping through the soil and the honey bees are ready. I thought you might enjoy the photos—a sure reminder that spring is coming. And Dave, don’t forget that next time we want to see those flowers with the bees inside.


Planting the crocuses on the sunny side of the barn. © David Robertson.
The leaves are already a few inches tall. © David Robertson.
David’s apiary. © David Robertson.
The honey bees are restless just thinking about all those crocuses. © David Robertson.


Last thoughts on a lost colony

So many responses! And theories galore—everything from tracheal mites to alien abduction. I promised to give my own opinion on the cause of death, but please remember that there is a lot of experience reflected in the posted answers. My own opinion is just that, so you should not discount what others have to say.

Several of you wished you had more information about the history of the colony, its size, mite treatments, last queen sighting, etc. I agree those things would be helpful, but knowing nothing is a common starting place. Detectives in a real crime scene usually begin with no history, and hive detectives often have the same handicap.

The final cause of death

My own conclusion is that the final cause of death—the thing that took out the last tiny cluster—was cold. As you know, a cluster of bees stays warm by vibrating their wing muscles to create heat, and the warm bees on the inside rotate positions with the cold bees on the outside. Aaron’s tiny cluster is too small to have an inside and an outside, so all the bees are going to be cold.

Once the bees become chilled, they can’t move, which renders it impossible to retrieve food even if it is close. So you could argue starvation, but in this case I’d say the two conditions were related: the bee cluster was too small to stay warm or to get stored food.

The real cause of death

Nevertheless, the real cause of death occurred much earlier. The few bees shown in the photos were just the hangers on; they were doomed to die and it was just a matter of time.

Trying to figure out why the colony collapsed in the first place is much more difficult. My thought was that the queen died in fall. I say this because there was a fair amount of honey left in the hive. The colony had to be robust enough to defend itself from robbers and yellowjackets right up until the end of flight season.

If the queen had died (or stopped laying) earlier, the colony may have weakened before cold weather arrived, giving predators a chance to rob the hive. If nothing else, Aaron’s other hive would have cleaned it out. But based on the photos, I didn’t see any ragged comb which would indicate robbers or yellowjackets.

The colony had been fairly vigorous at one point because the brood area was large in some of the frames (based on darkened comb) and because there was a fair bit of honey collected in a year when honey collection was not generally good here in western Washington.

Too late for queen replacement

I concluded from this that it was a fairly normal colony that was doing fine until it went queenless in the fall. I assume the queen failed too late in the year for the colony to raise a replacement or, even if they did, it was too late to get her mated.

This leads to the next question: why did the queen die (or stop laying)? Of course, I don’t know. But a lot of queens die in the fall. In my opinion, queens with short lifespans are the result of genetic weakness due to inbreeding. Over and over, I find that queens raised locally outperform and outlive queens shipped from large-scale queen farms. I believe local queens are better adapted and have a more robust gene pool.

But I don’t know the origin of Aaron’s queens, so that is just a blind guess based on seeing lots of production queens die in the fall for no apparent reason.

The Varroa connection

Now, obviously, the bees could have died for other reasons. Based on Aaron’s testimony that he saw no K-wing or deformed wings, at first I thought Varroa was not the primary cause of death. On the other hand, this looks like a classic case of death by Varroa.

Varroa-infected colonies frequently die in the fall as the ratio of mites to bees increases. Also, colonies that collapse from Varroa frequently contain only a few dead bees but lots of honey. The bees that are not infected continue to remove the dead and defend the hive while the colony population dwindles. Although I didn’t see any guanine deposits in the photos, it’s possible they didn’t show up due to the camera angle.

Tracheal mites

I eliminated tracheal mites mostly because they aren’t very common at the moment. In fact, last fall Jerry Bromenshenk did an informal survey of beekeepers from all over North America and found that tracheal mites are rare—even the testing labs are seeing few cases. Many people think that all the miticides used against Varroa may have weakened the tracheal mite population to the point where they aren’t much of a problem.

However, they still occur in certain areas and there is nothing to say that newer, better, stronger tracheal mites will not show up once they develop resistance to all the commonly used miticides. This would not surprise me one bit. If you (Aaron) are worried about your other hive, you can send a sample to a lab for analysis, or I can do it for you.

Mold grows as the bees die

I have to agree with Aaron that I don’t see the mold as cause for concern. Mold is a result of colony death, not a cause of it. Also, there wasn’t much. If ventilation had been a problem, I wouldn’t be surprised to see mold covering every frame. But here, isolated spots of mold are growing on damp pollen and on dead bees. This occurred because once the colony died, the circulation caused by the bees’ wings stopped, and heat generated by the bees’ bodies disappeared. With no heat and no air movement, mold is inevitable.

No “for sure” answer

For what it’s worth, my conclusion is the colony died from a combination of a failed queen and a Varroa mite infestation. It’s very possible that the mite load caused the queen to die, although she could have been offed by poor genetics, injury, or disease. It’s also possible the colony would have died from the mites even if the queen were healthy.

The colony might have been saved by timely Varroa treatments of some type, and a fall brood nest inspection to make sure the queen was present and laying. With today’s queen problems, the fall inspection is imperative.

Again, I want to thank Aaron for allowing me to use his analysis and photos—what a gift! Some of us are reluctant to have our misfortunes pasted all over the internet so, Aaron, you are much appreciated.


CSI: colony postmortem

Here’s an exercise for all you hive detectives out there. Beekeeper Aaron Althouse from here in the Pacific Northwest recently lost one of his two hives. He performed a postmortem, took many photos, and wrote an analysis, all of which is posted below. Your task is to see if you agree with his conclusions or have another idea altogether.

I have my own opinion but I will wait to see what you think. This is a good opportunity, especially for new beekeepers, so see what a dead-out hive might look like. It is also a chance to see how a thorough colony postmortem is done.

Nice job, Aaron. Thanks for sharing!

Colony Postmortem by Aaron Althouse

Olympic Peninsula, Washington


One of my two colonies recently died out. I don’t recall exactly the last time I saw bees flying from the opening, but I’m pretty sure it was about 3 to 4 weeks ago, since I know I checked them after the cold snap we had about mid-December.

Last Wednesday (January 14) we had a brief respite from the rain and wind, and the sun poked its head out for an afternoon. I walked up to my apiary and looked at what was happening, and saw no activity in that hive, while the other hive a had small number of bees flying and moving about its opening. Expecting the worst, I went ahead and took the lid off and lifted up my moisture quilt box. I saw a number of dead bees on top of the frames, many of which seem to be in mid stride. Since I didn’t have a lot of time, I put the quilt box and the lid back on and waited for a dry day to do a more thorough investigation.

General Findings

  1. The wood shavings in the quilt box were dry as a bone. I did not see any sign of infestation or anything else that makes me think that some other creatures had moved into the hive.
  2. Looking down into my top deep, I saw what I refer to above, a number of bees on and in between the frames that look normal, except that they are not moving.
  3. I removed the (very heavy) top deep and inspected the bottom deep. I see a little bit of bridge comb as expected, and not much else. There are again a few bees here and there that look normal, but none are moving. I do see some evidence of mold, but that is likely not the cause of the dead out.

I broke down the hive and put in my wheelbarrow and wheeled it down to my garage where I could take a closer look without being rained on.

Frame Inspection

The manner in which I loaded my wheelbarrow meant that I started inspecting the bottom deep 1st.

Bottom Deep

  1. The outer frames have what I am pretty sure is pollen; some of it is starting to mold. It seems a bit wet. The frames are only partially drawn out.
  2. As I move to the next set of frames, I’m finding more wet pollen, this time with more mold, and good amounts of capped honey. I don’t think I see any brood yet, which is expected since this was the bottom deep.
  3. Getting into the 3rd or 4th frame, I see a number of uncapped honey cells, which are bubbling. My assumption is that this is “wet” honey that has gone to fermentation. At this point, I also see some cells filled with white goop that I think may have been brood.
  4. The capped honey is generally found on the section of the frame that would be away from the side of the hive facing the sun. I do not see the classic pattern of brood, pollen, and honey arc.
  5. I removed the rest of the frames and pulled the hive body off of the bottom board. I see what I think is about 1000 dead bees that are now mostly moldy. If I combine them into one group, they would probably cover about one third of the screened bottom board, one layer deep.

Top Deep

  1. The top deep feels like it is loaded with honey. It is heavy and awkward to move.
  2. The 1st 2 frames I pulled are filled with capped honey. There are a few bees on the frames, none are inside the cells.
  3. The 3rd frame shows a bit of cross-comb but nothing dramatic. There is plenty of capped honey and a number of empty cells. There is more of what I think is old brood.
  4. Between the 4th and 5th frames I see what I am pretty sure is the remnants of the cluster. It is about the size of a racquetball; way too small to be effective. It is on the sun-facing side of the deep body. There are bees in the cells and appear to be surrounding something. I’m pretty sure that if I dissect it I will find the queen. That particular frame has almost no brood or pollen, but does have capped honey on the far side. There does appear to be some capped brood right next to the cluster.
  5. On the next frame, I find lots of wet pollen, capped honey, and more of what I think is old, capped brood. I am not sure, because it is tan in color and the capped honey is white, but when I scratch off the capping, it seems hard as if it was animal fat or lard. I did not use grease patties.
  6. The 6th or 7th frame shows only one old supersedure cell, that does not have deep cells in it, so it may just be some burr comb.
  7. The remaining outer frames are filled with normal, capped honey.


  1. My initial thought was that the bees starved. Upon finding bees in and around capped honey, I can’t say that this is a very good likelihood.
  2. There was no significant moisture in the hive; it was dry except for some of the uncapped nectar that drained out as I was moving frames around.
  3. The bees do not show signs of infestation, Nosema/dysentery or foul brood:a. They are not greasy or black.b. They do not have separated wings or K-shaped wings.

    c. They did not die with their heads in the cells; the weather was previously cold.d. There no dead bees seen outside the hive.

    e. There was no discernible smell other than the sweet smell of honey. There was a distinct lack of what I could determine as likely to be brood, capped or uncapped.

    f. There are no brown or yellow stains all over the outside of the hive. It’s true that these could have been washed away by rain, but I have never seen anything like it and I walked by them on a regular basis.

  4. Given the cluster size, I have to assume that during a break in the weather, the bees broke cluster and were caught in a sudden cold snap and were not able to regroup and generate enough heat to stay alive.
  5. One other possibility is that the queen died unbeknownst to me and did not lay any brood, so the majority of bees died of old age and the remaining few that were there clustered around themselves in a feeble attempt to stay warm.

Click on any photo to see slides.

Editor’s Note: My own theory will be in the next post: “Last thoughts on a lost colony.”