How to feed bees in freezing weather

My husband came home yesterday and said the local postmaster was looking for me. It seems that one of his customers just lost seven out of nine hives and wants someone to explain why. Apparently he is a new beekeeper who took over the colonies from an elderly man and neither of them know why the bees are dying.

If we ever catch up with each other I will take a look, but seven out of nine is not a happy number. Without seeing a thing, my first guess would be starvation. Without a doubt, this was one of the worst years I’ve ever seen for lack of food stores.

Too cold and too hot

Last winter’s cold was interrupted by an unseasonably warm stretch that caused the maples to bloom early. This was immediately followed by drenching rains that kept the bees inside until the bloom was over. Then, just after the fruit trees began to blossom, a deep freeze shattered the flowers.

At that point, everyone was counting on the blackberry bloom to tide them over. But soon after the berries began to open, an extended heat wave dried them up. The arid summer and brown autumn that followed produced little nectar. Robbing bees were everywhere, gathering every drop of untended sweet. A sticky frame I had left on the picnic table soon disappeared under a pulsing mass of wings.

By September I had large, vivacious colonies with virtually no stores. Although I harvested not a single drop of honey, the hives were so light I could pick up the back end of most. I knew it would be a long, hard winter.

Making up for bad weather

I started by giving the colonies syrup while the weather was still warm, something I haven’t done in years. Then I fed them the frames of reserve honey I kept just in case. After that was gone, I started feeding sugar cakes. In spite of all the feeding, I lost one in December due to a clear case of starvation.

As I said, I haven’t yet inspected the seven dead colonies, but since the owner is close by and suffered the same weather patterns, I wouldn’t be surprised if they starved. And since many places in North America had sere summers, I wanted to remind you to check on food stores the first chance you get.

Too cold to feed bees?

Beekeepers often say they want to check for stores but it is too cold to open the hive. In my opinion, if you believe they might be low and the weather is cold, there is no point in waiting for a warm day to go through the frames. Instead, go ahead and give them reserved honey if you have it or at least a sugar supplement—and do it now.

Candy boards are extremely helpful and, this year, my plan was to make candy boards for each hive. I purchased the materials I needed to make the boards, but never got to it.

But the system I use allows me to feed the bees on cold days, even down in the 20s F. This is what I do:

  1. I make no-cook candy cakes by mixing a little water into a lot of sugar. I put the wet sugar in paper plates and let it dry rock hard. (If I’m in a hurry, I dry it in the oven.)
  2. When the cakes are hard I sprinkle each one with a drop or two of essential oil, such as anise. The scent helps the bees find the sugar, if nothing else.
  3. I pop the cakes out of the plate and stack them in a bucket along with my hive tool.
  4. At the hive, I take off the lid. The bees stay warm because the quilt box holds most of the heat in, even with the lid off.
  5. With the hive tool, I crack the quilt from the feeder rim below it, but I don’t remove the quilt.
  6. I take a candy cake in one hand, lift the corner of the quilt with the other, and slide the candy cake into the feeder rim, placing it directly over the cluster.
  7. If you are ready, this takes about one or two seconds. The hive loses very little heat because you never remove the quilt. It’s like opening and closing a window on a cold day: they get a little gush of cold air, then the temperature returns to normal.
  8. Replace the lid and go to the next hive.

The idea that you shouldn’t feed your (possibly) starving bees because they might get cold in the process doesn’t make any sense to me. If they are out of food, they will die whether they are cold or not. So if you think they might be short of food, prepare in advance, and do it as fast as you can. You don’t have to go through every frame and then decide.

Nature isn’t always nice

Naturally, the best possible food for bees is the honey they stored for themselves. But it doesn’t always work out that way even if you didn’t harvest. If you think your bees may be hungry, go ahead and give them some help. Warm weather may come too late.

Remember, too, that the rate of consumption increases as spring approaches. Just when stores are lowest, they use them the fastest. Every year, thousands of colonies die in the last weeks before the first nectar flows. Remember that, and check on your bees early.


A candy board is a good alternative to sugar cakes. © Herb Lester.

Beekeeping with a purpose

When should I treat for mites? When should I reverse my brood boxes? Should I add honey supers in May or June? How much sugar should I feed my bees? Should I replace my queens now or in the fall?

The problem with these questions—and many similar ones—is they can’t be answered without more information, so no one can answer them easily. In fact, you should be suspicious of short answers that come quickly.

Take mites, for example. When you treat for mites has a lot to do with how many mites you have, the method you intend to use, whether you plan to harvest honey from that hive, the general health of the colony, and your local climate.

I am very much opposed to doing anything to a colony of bees unless you know exactly why you are doing it. I am equally opposed to inspecting for the sake of inspecting: if you know what you are looking for, if you know your purpose, that’s fine. If you’re inspecting because the calendar or another beekeeper says you should, you need to discuss it with yourself first.

Every time I advocate limiting inspections, the response is the same, “But doing inspections is how new beekeepers learn! If they didn’t inspect, they wouldn’t know what to look for!”

Okay, I accept that because the purpose can be stated. “I am inspecting my colony to learn what the inside of a beehive looks like.” Or, “I’m inspecting so I can learn the difference between brood comb and honeycomb.” Whatever.

But that doesn’t take all summer. It doesn’t take three years. It takes just a few times. The rest you learn by doing the necessary steps, not the unnecessary ones. Limit your interference and your bees will be better off. As Bill Reynolds showed us in his intriguing hive graphs, it takes a long time for bees to calm down from a disturbance. And his findings were seconded by other seasoned beekeepers.

Now, that’s not to say you should never open your hive. Of course, you must. But you need to know why you are doing it. I’ve written about this before in a post called “Is too much hive inspection a bad thing?” but now I’m going a step further by saying you shouldn’t do anything to a colony unless you know why you are doing it. Know why you are reversing your boxes, why you are feeding sugar, why you are replacing your queen, why you are adding an excluder. If you don’t know why, or if it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t do it.

My philosophy has nothing to do with Langstroth or top bars or Warrés or Nationals. It has nothing to do with treatment free vs conventional. It has nothing to do with Carniolans or Italians or Africanized bees. Seriously, a good beekeeper can keep honey bees in a cardboard box and they will flourish.

Instead, my philosophy has to do with common sense: every time you invade a hive, you are bugging your bees. They like privacy. They like autonomy. They like to be left alone to do bee things and think bee thoughts. To them, you are a pain in the bee-hind. All that business about, “My bees love me” is hogwash. They merely decided to give you a pass this time. That’s all.

Give your bees benefit of the doubt, think before you act, state your purpose, and use a healthy dollop of horse sense. Put the whys before the whens and whats, and you will become a better beekeeper faster.


Honey bees on a frame
Honey bees work even when we’re not looking. Pixabay photo.

New beginnings

Every beekeeper seems to have a different way to mark the beginning of bee season. But to me, the new season begins at the winter solstice—or more accurately—the day after the winter solstice.

Why? Simply because the bee colony is at its smallest in late November and December when the days are shortest. But after the winter solstice, the daylight hours gradually increase and brood rearing begins anew. It’s not a drastic thing, just a slow reversal. Usually, by the end of January, you can actually see the difference (if it’s warm enough to look).

I’ve read various opinions on how the whole thing works. Some say the hours of daylight does not cause the change, after all, the hive is dark regardless. Others say it is most definitely the cause. But for our purposes it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that brood rearing reaches a low point before the solstice, and increases after. That is all we need to remember.

Many beekeepers claim that bee season begins in April with the production and delivery of packages, but that makes no sense. Beekeepers are certainly busier in April than they are in January or February, but the colony work begins a long time before the beekeeper gets involved. It’s egocentric to think the calendar revolves around us!

Many things happen inside the colony to increase brood production. For starters, the workers begin to raise the temperature of the brood nest. These warmer conditions stimulate the queen to lay eggs—just a few at first, but more and more as time goes on.

Keeping the colony warmer requires more food just when food reserves begin to dwindle. For that reason, many beekeepers like to check on their bees on the first warmish day after the solstice. Others don’t bother to dig through the hive, but add candy boards, granulated sugar, or reserve honey to be on the safe side. And because brood-rearing requires well-fed nurses, many beekeepers also add reserve pollen or pollen substitute as well.

Every beekeeping situation is different, and there is no magic recipe to follow. But it’s important to realize that change is taking place inside your hive. The beekeeper’s job is to assess the situation and decide whether something should be done.

Down in the southern hemisphere, the longest day has just passed and the hours of daylight will soon shorten and brood rearing will slow down. In either hemisphere, it is six months of growing and six months of slowing, and the further you are from the equator, the more drastic the difference. And then—six months from now—the whole thing will reverse.


Your bees will begin to raise brood regardless of the weather. Pixabay photo.
Your bees will begin to raise brood regardless of the weather. Pixabay photo.

AFB-fortified pollen

­­­Oops. Unfortunately, bee-collected pollen can transmit the spores of American foulbrood just like honey. It works like this:

A colony of bees has become infected with the bacterium that causes AFB. The disease only affects young larvae less than 48 hours old, but adult bees can inadvertently carry the spores throughout the hive.

When a diseased larva dies in its cell, it can release as many as 2.5 billion spores. A nurse bee attends to the mess, cleaning up the dead larva and polishing the cell. But as she works, many of those spores stick to her body and she swallows even more.

In the cramped confines of the hive, she rubs against other bees including a forager who is unloading her pollen into an empty cell. Millions of spores are transferred to the hairs on the forager’s body. Once her pollen is unloaded, she heads back out into the field and begins to collect more.

As the forager sweeps the pollen off her body and into her pollen baskets, spores of AFB are whisked along with it. The spores adhere to the sticky pollen and become embedded in the pellet. These are not wimpy spores—they can survive in bee equipment for forty years or more.

When her pollen baskets are fully loaded, the forager returns to the hive where Beekeeper A has installed a pollen trap. She squeezes though the trap and loses one of her pellets. It drops into the collection drawer below. Damn.

Undaunted, the forager unloads the remaining pellet, gets some food from one of the nurses, rubs against a few others, and is out the door again.

Towards evening, Beekeeper A unloads the pollen trap, dumps the pollen in a plastic bag, and sticks it in the freezer. But freezing is no match for those AFB spores; they are still completely viable when Beekeeper A sells his pellets to the health food store where they are repackaged and dropped in another freezer.

Next month, along comes Beekeeper B. Beekeeper B wants the very best for his bees, so he buys pure, natural, bee-collected pollen to supplement his colony. Ouch. Spendy. But he buys it anyway. He takes it home, crushes the pellets with a mortar and pestle, and feeds them to his bees.

The bees love the stuff, frolic in it, and carry back to their hive along with a few million spores of AFB. By spring the colony is dead, smelling rotten, and the hive needs to be burned. Beekeeper B can’t figure out what he did wrong. . . .

Bee-collected pollen. Photo by Lamiot.
Fortunately, bee-collected pollen can be irradiated to neutralize the AFB spores. Once irradiated, it may be fed directly to bees or mixed into pollen substitutes.

In addition to AFB, pollen may also carry chalkbrood spores. To be on the safe side, never feed pollen to your bees unless you know the source of the pollen is disease free. The best way to do that, of course, is to trap pollen from your own disease-free hives.

Commercial pollen packaged to feed bees is usually irradiated, but pollen from health food stores and similar establishments probably is not, so be a careful consumer, read the label, and ask questions. In most cases, your bees didn’t need the extra pollen anyway, so it is a sad mistake to make.


A shortage of pollen

Bee Brief bee

Many bees, including honey bees, collect multiple kinds of pollen and can adapt when a particular type becomes scarce. However, many native bees are completely dependent on a single plant species and cannot survive without it.

In addition, native bees feed their larvae in a different way. In most bee species, pollen is collected, moistened with nectar, and formed into a ball inside the nest. The female bee lays an egg atop the ball so that when the egg hatches, the larva can eat the sweetened pollen—the equivalent of bee bread—and the royal jelly step is skipped altogether.

A shortage of pollen is a relatively new concern for beekeepers. Once upon a time, pollen was taken for granted. But today, a bountiful and diverse supply of pollen is sometimes lacking. Habitat loss, invasive plants, monoculture farming, and herbicides are just some of the reasons.

A pollen grain is simply a small package containing the male genetic material of a plant, so a frame of bee-collected pollen is like a gigantic sperm bank, except the sperm is lost to the plants forever. Instead, it becomes food for bee larvae . . . kind of an odd menu item, when you think about it.

Help wanted: move pollen

Since plants can’t walk, jump, swim, fly, or bar-hop, they need a way of moving their pollen around. The most significant mover of pollen is the wind. The grasses—the family of plants that includes wheat, rice, maize, millet, sorghum, barley, oats, and rye—are wind pollinated, as well as most conifers and ferns.

But plants with showy flowers are often pollinated by animals. At least they once were, before mankind began tinkering with them. Today, some of the showiest blooms have little or no usable pollen—another reason for the shortage of bee food.

How to nurse a larva

Not all pollen is created equal, not even close. Just as human food varies in nutritional content, so does pollen. Some are higher in protein or amino acids, some have more lipids, some have a greater variety of vitamins or micronutrients. Go to a farmer’s market at the height of the season and admire the produce—all the colors, textures, shapes, and sizes. Just as you can identify a plant based on its fruit, you can also identify a plant based on a single grain of pollen. Each is unique.

As beekeepers, we know that pollen is necessary for brood rearing. But the youngest honey bee larvae do not eat pollen directly. Instead, the nurse bees eat the pollen in the form of bee bread. Such a protein-rich diet stimulates their hypopharyngeal glands to secrete royal jelly, which is then fed to the young larvae. After about three days, the worker and drone larvae are switched to a diet of pollen and diluted honey.

As older adults, honey bee foragers eat energy-rich honey almost exclusively. Because foragers don’t eat bee bread or pollen directly, when they need protein, they beg the nurse bees for it. That’s right, nurse bees feed both larvae and foragers.

Don’t ask me, I just work here

So the foragers that collect pollen don’t eat it, they just pack it home. Sometimes foragers will bring home other stuff—sawdust or coffee grounds, for example—that have a powdery consistency and the right particle size. This has led some researchers to believe that honey bees cannot determine the food value of pollen.

However, other research has shown that although foragers may collect inferior pollen or non-pollen, the nurses—the ones that actually have to eat the stuff—are much more selective. Think of mom coming home from the market with parsnips and rutabagas. The kids sneer: “Really? Where’s the food?” In the hive, the nurses may discard some of the treasures their sisters brought home from the field, including pollen with questionable food value and sometimes that pricey pollen substitute.

The need varies with brood rearing

When you understand how pollen is used in the hive, you can see why a colony doesn’t need a large supply during winter. In late autumn through mid-winter, when there is little brood production, a colony can get by with very little. However, heaps of good quality pollen are needed throughout the major brood-rearing periods, especially in late winter and early spring.

In highly built-up areas, or in places with lots of agriculture and herbicide use, pollen may be especially scarce in early spring and again in late summer or early autumn. Pollen substitute is often used at these times.

It’s a shame we spray roadside weeds with herbicides and then feed our bees soybean meal. In fact, we humans do so much stupid stuff, you have to wonder how we survive. I know, I know. You say that if we don’t spray for invasive weeds, they will overrun the landscape. I say, if we hadn’t sprayed the native weeds in the first place, the invasives wouldn’t have had an opportunity to start. Oh well, too late now.

Natural pollen is the best

If you are not a commercial beekeeper, if you are a hobbyist with just a few hives, you should seriously consider trapping pollen from your hives and feeding it back in times of pollen dearth. Natural pollen is superior to substitutes and trapping is fairly easy to do.

Some beekeepers don’t like to trap pollen because they fear that extra pollen foraging will cut into their honey production. Maybe yes, maybe no. But you have to ask yourself: Do you want healthy bees or do you want that extra jar of honey? Considering how difficult it is to keep bees healthy, and considering the price of replacement, a trap may be the answer.


Honey bee with pollen. Pixabay photo.
Honey bee with pollen. Pixabay photo.