The minimalist guide to winter feeding

In the past, I have cooked for my winter bees. I have made fondant, slurry, semi-hard sugar cakes, hard as rock sugar cakes, candy boards, and pollen-laced patties. I have stood over a witches’ cauldron of bubbling, boiling syrup, stirring and measuring and timing. I have used thermometers and cool water tests. I have added Honey-B-Healthy, essential oils, vinegar, lemon juice, and pollen substitutes.

I have burned myself, created massive stickiness throughout the kitchen, ruined pans, bent spoons, and smelled up the house with all manner of strange oils. But not any more. Not on your life.

Every year I’ve made it simpler and simpler, and every year the bees thrive on it. So far, this has been the simplest year ever.

Now, if I absolutely need to feed my bees, I take a bag of sugar and place it on the top brood box. I slice it open with a knife. I surround it with an empty super and cover it with a moisture quilt and lid. I’m done. It’s quick; it’s easy; it doesn’t chill the bees and they like it just fine.

Oh, yes, I hear lots of opposition:

Objection: The bees will cart it out like trash.

Truth: Not in the winter and not when they need it. I’ve seen bees remove granulated sugar when they have other food choices, but you wouldn’t be feeding if they had other choices.



Objection: They need pollen substitute in addition to plain sugar.

Truth: If they need pollen substitute, you can sprinkle it on top of the sugar after you slit the bag.



Objection: They need moisture to dissolve the sugar.

Truth: There is plenty of moisture in a winter hive. Moisture from the bees’ respiration will collect and be used to dissolve the sugar.



Objection: Granulated sugar is too big for the bees to dissolve easily.

Truth: You can buy fine-granulated baker’s sugar which is designed to dissolve quickly and easily. I’ve tried it, but I didn’t see much difference in how fast it gets eaten. Now I just use regular granulated.



Objection: Bees can’t find granulated sugar because they can’t smell it (or because it smells bad).

Truth: Sprinkle the outside of the bag with a few drops of essential oil, if you want, and the bees will investigate.



Objection: “You are just plain lazy.”

Truth: By embracing a quick and easy method, I am more apt to get the job done on time instead of putting it off. Granulated sugar on time will save a lot more bees than designer sugar cakes a day late.

The longer I keep bees, the more important simplicity has become. I certainly can’t fault anyone for going through all the stages of complexity—I certainly did—but there is a lot to be said for the KISS method of beekeeping and even more to be said for doing things on time.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Jeannie Saum
Reply

Have heard other “lazy beekeepers” talk about just dumping sugar on newspaper and spraying with water. I love the simplicity of just setting the whole bag on top of the frames!! Sometimes, I think we beekeepers over think and over care for the bees. Feral hives manage to survive without our help in the wild! We need to just care for the problems we create by putting them in man-made hives, and leave the rest to the bees!

Rusty
Reply

Jeannie,

Yes, I agree.

Jeff
Reply

Since then we have had a break in temperatures, while wet, it has reached 7-8 °C a couple of times over the last few days. While still a little low it may be enough for the bees to poop.

Last year I added pollen substitute to candy boards on some colonies, I lost half my colonies to dysentery by late February/early March. It cut my colonies in half. I have learned that anything laced with pollen will remain out of the hives until temperatures reach 10°C. This year’s bees look much healthier than last year’s bees for the same point in the winter even though it has been much colder.

Thanks Rusty. It is nice to get an opinion from someone else.

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

Yesterday and today may bees have been out flying. I was so surprised. Yesterday, I walked into what I thought was a spider on an invisible thread. But when I looked up, there was nothing overhead but sky–nothing to hang a thread from. On closer look, it was a honey bee carrying a dead bee. It must have been really hard for her because she was almost still in the air, hovering with a dead body bigger than she was.

I digress, but it sure helps the dysentery thing if you get a couple warm days. I’m always happy to see them.

Frank Thomas
Reply

Checked my 2 hives today (1/18/14). The wood shavings of the moisture quilt above the stronger colony have been consistently warm and moist. I just stir them up a bit to help them dry out. Today they were cold and frosty. I looked through the screen bottom and most of the sugar block was eaten. So I tilted the moisture quilt up quickly and placed another sugar block in there. And I saw no signs of life. I didn’t want to leave the top open long enough to really peer down between the frames to see if there was a small cluster down there. So just hope for the best.

The weaker colony’s moisture quilt shavings have always been dry. I peeked through their screen and it does not look like the sugar disk has been touched. I’ve suspected this colony succumbed to the Michigan cold a couple weeks ago. There was a cluster a month ago.

HOWEVER, we got 1/2″ of snow 2 days ago and there were 5 or 6 bees on top of the fresh snow in front of this hive. What? One poor girl fell into the snow and left a 6″ path through the fresh snow back towards the hive before she couldn’t go any further.

So there were still bees in there a couple days ago. In the hive I thought dead. Who knows? I’ll check the sugar blocks periodically and maybe they’ll surprise me. If they do, I should have some good survivor stock after this winter. Whewwww!

Rusty
Reply

Frank,

On several occasions I’ve had colonies that I was sure were dead, only to have them surprise me. You are right not to disturb them to much, feed, and hope for the best at this point.

Sherry
Reply

I love your blog. I am bee obsessed right now, but due to some life set backs I haven’t been able to start keeping them yet.

You give so much great information that I can’t wait until my first chance at it next year.

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