Winter feeding of honey bees

Ideally, honey bees should not have to be fed in the winter. But sometimes nature conspires against us, and our colonies are plunged into winter with insufficient stores of honey. How much honey they need depends on the local climate and weather conditions, the size of the winter cluster, and the variety of bee.

Even with plenty of honey in the hive, bees sometimes starve because they can’t get to it. I’ve seen clusters starve with full frames of honey on both sides of them. I have also seen them survive on nothing more than sugar cakes for many months—and flourish the following spring.

Many colonies make it through a long, hard winter only to die in the early spring. If a hive makes it past the coldest part of the winter, it is easy to relax and not worry about the early spring—after all they made it through the worse part. But the fact is, they often use up their stores during the coldest months and starve after the weather starts to warm but before the nectar starts to flow. It is important to be vigilant about feeding during that “in-between” season.

What not to feed:

  • Never feed bees honey that comes from an unknown source. Honey can contain the spores of diseases such as American Foul Brood.
  • Never feed bees sugar with additives. Brown sugar contains molasses. Powdered sugar often contains cornstarch. Commercial fondant may contain flavorings and/or colorings. Any of these “extras” could cause honey bee dysentery.
  • Although many commercial beekeepers use high-fructose corn syrup, be aware that it may contain hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF)—especially if it is old or has gotten warm. HMF is poisonous to bees.

The best feed:

  • If you don’t have extra honey from your own apiary to feed the bees, the next best thing is sugar syrup made from white table sugar.[1] The syrup used in fall and winter should be in the proportion of two parts sugar to one part water by either weight or volume.
  • If the temperatures in your area are going to be below 50°F (10°C), it is best to use fondant, sugar cakes (see candy boards), or granulated sugar rather than syrup.
  • Because table sugar lacks the micronutrients found in honey, you can add a feeding stimulant with essential oils such as Honey-B-Healthy or Pro Health to give them some added nourishment.

How to feed:

  • If your temperatures are warm (above 50°F) you can use liquid feed and one of the internal feeders so your bees don’t have to go outside to eat. Also, you may want to add a mold inhibitor.
  • If your temperatures are going to be cold, you can use a candy board, a mountain camp rim, or an empty shallow super filled with sugar cakes.

When to feed:

  • If a hive feels light in the fall, you should start feeding liquid sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to one part water) as soon as possible. When the temperature starts dipping below 50°F, switch to one of the cold-weather methods.
  • It doesn’t hurt to feed sugar proactively. I sometimes give sugar cakes as soon as the weather gets cold. In this way, they eat both honey and sugar simultaneously throughout the winter, and the honey supply lasts longer. I think this is better than having them eat only honey, and then only sugar because honey contains essential nutrients.
  • In any case, check the hives on the occasional dry and sunny day. Move frames of honey closer to the cluster, if possible, or add feed if necessary. Do not be lulled into thinking that they have “made it” just because the temperatures are warming in the spring.

[1] Whether the sugar comes from cane or beets really doesn’t matter unless you are opposed to supporting genetically modified organisms. Sugar beets may be modified to be “Round-Up Ready.”

Comments

Uncle Ernie
Reply

“Although many commercial beekeepers use high-fructose corn syrup” That just put honey out of my diet! They had to go and f*ck that up too!

Rusty
Reply

Before you delete honey from your diet, please understand that sugar syrup and high-fructose corn syrup are for winter feeding of honey bees that are low on winter stores. Neither the sugar or the HFCS are given to bees that are storing honey for human food.

Also, not all bees, commercially raised or otherwise, are fed syrups. These are used for “emergency rations” only, but beekeepers have to know how to feed syrup and sugar in case they get in a situation where they might lose their colonies. In fact, bees won’t even eat the syrups if there is “real food” like good quality nectar available to them.

Please trust your local beekeeper and enjoy eating honey: it’s an excellent high-quality food with many nutrients.

Sarah
Reply

Doesn’t Honey-B-Healthy contain SLS?

Rusty
Reply

Unfortunately, yes. So does Pro Health.

Ed
Reply

According to the Mann Lake website, Pro Health does NOT contain SLS.

Rusty
Reply

Ed,

Okay, I just ran out to my shed to get my newest bottle of Pro Health. It’s brand new this year, never been opened. It says, “Ingredients: Sucrose, Water, Spearmint Oil, Lemongrass Oil, Lecithin and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.” So if they are advertising that it doesn’t contain it, they must have changed their recipe within the last month. Do you want a photo of the label? Nevermind, I’ll e-mail it to you.

Ed
Reply

Hey Rusty,

Sorry I haven’t responded quicker. (I’m not good about checking forums frequently.) I just noticed your post this evening. After reading it, I checked the bottle I ordered around the time I made my original post, and there’s a big note on the front that there’s “No Sodium Lauryl Sulfate!” Also, it doesn’t show up on the ingredient list on the back. So you’re right, they must have changed the recipe between the time you bought it and the time I bought it.

Thanks!

Ed

Michael Rhoads
Reply

We just bought this place in Late February. It has a large oak tree along the edge of property. On the north side of the tree at the trunk is an area the 30” x 36” tall that has bark off and many small holes. It looked like someone tried to put liquid spray foam in the cracks and holes of this area. When spring came I saw why they must have did this. It has a colony of honeybees inside it. I don’t have anything against honeybees at all. Dug out what I could of the spray foam and enjoyed viewing the colony all summer. At times there where hoards of them buzzing in and out of the nest. Should I put them out some kind of feed before winter to be sure there ok by spring? Also been thinking about installing a camera to watch them from my computer for next spring.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Michael,

It sounds like the honey bees were busy and populous—and it sounds like you didn’t take any honey from them—so they should be just fine until spring. I don’t know where you are writing from, so I don’t know how cold it is where you are.

It is possible to put out liquid feed in an open feeder, but there are plusses and minuses to doing it. Sugar feeders attract other animals, such as racoons, skunks, possums, and wasps—none of which you want around your bees. Wasps, especially, can easily raid a honey bee colony and steal the honey and eat the bees.

So, if you do put out food, it shouldn’t be near the oak tree because you don’t want to draw the other critters to it. It should be at least 50-60 feet away at a minimum. Also, if the temperature of the feed is below 50 degrees F, the honey bees can no longer collect it because their core body temperature will drop too low.

If you do feed them something, it should be plain white sugar dissolved in water at the rate of two parts sugar to one part water (by weight or volume). Never give wild bees honey because it can carry bee diseases which could wipe out the colony. Also, bees will drown in syrup unless they have something to stand on. You can float wood chips on the surface of syrup, or you can pile small stones in it.

That said, if it were me I would just leave them alone and enjoy watching. You won’t see much during the winter, but on warm days they will fly outside briefly to relieve themselves and quickly go back inside. The camera sounds like a fun idea.

Fill free to write if you have more questions.

helene fillers
Reply

For few days now I’ve been feeding bees on the picnic table, sugar water, corn syrup and honey I’m in Louisiana and the temperature is about in the 50 at night time. Do you think they have a hive somewhere … they leave at sunset and return the next day looking for food. Should I call someone to pick them up or what can I do… they eat a lot.

Rusty
Reply

Helene,

Unless you know where the hive is there not much point in calling someone. If they are honey bees the hive could be a very long way from where you live–miles even. If you don’t want them to come around any longer just stop feeding them. In a few days they will give up and go elsewhere.

Nancy
Reply

Hi, Rusty!

Back on December 13, it was 50 and sunny here so I checked all 7 hives and gave everyone a sugar cake. Since then the weather has, to borrow the young folks’ expressive phrase, sucked. Rain, lots of snow, cold enough to slip the drawers all the way in, a few daytime freezing temps.

Two of the new (May) splits were really going after their sugar cake. The third was like, Ho-hum, so they must have had enough honey. The mature hives were taking varying amounts. I would really like to check everybody and refill sugar cakes, but the best we’re looking at for the next 2 weeks is 40 and partly sunny, Thursday.

How cold is too cold, just to lift the moisture quilt & slip a cake on bars in the feeder rim?

I also left baggies in because it was a warm weekend and I guess I oughta get those out, whether or not they’re empty. Thanks! This information about temperature and feeding has been truly useful. Thanks!
Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, KY

PS – where do you get the snowflakes effect?

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

I will slip a sugar cake into the hive with the temperature in the 40s, as long as I’m quick about it. It’s one reason I like the quilt-over-feeder-rim arrangement.

The snow is a WordPress option, under settings. It will continue until January 4 . . . or so it says.

C B
Reply

In the paragraph below, is that 50°F,day or night? My nights are close 30’s right now, but the days are 60’s, with a warm day or 2, up into the low 80’s…

“If a hive feels light in the fall, you should start feeding liquid sugar syrup (2 parts sugar to one part water) as soon as possible. When the temperature starts dipping below 50°F, switch to one of the cold-weather methods.”
Thanks, C B

C B
Reply

Loved the sugar syrup temp. and conversion into simple sugars articles. My first year/ caught swarm has put up at least 10 Lbs of sugar comb since the disastrous robbing/ bee war with another local hive more than a month ago cost about that much honey. They should be done then, and need to huddle up now, I gather. And some sages and mint/nettles are doing a second bloom right now because our spring was so unusually dry. And short to keep them busy on the nice but short afternoon fly time. Robbing was the topic here last month. THANKS!

Monica
Reply

Hello Rusty,

I need to make sugar candy for the first time this year.
I was pondering the idea of mold inhibitors.
It struck me that I use a couple of inhibitors in the all natural lotion I make – one of the inhibitors is cinnamon. At a ratio of 1% per volume.
Is cinnamon safe to use in the sugar candy for the bees? I don’t think I would use the oil – may be too hot for them. However a controlled tincture would be far milder.
I don’t have the experience behind me to know if it is safe to try on them.
Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Monica,

I do not know if cinnamon is safe for bees; I’ve never read about it being one way or the other. But if you are referring to hard candy, it doesn’t need a mold inhibitor.

Monica
Reply

Am going for the slurry mix – not candy – not syrup. The in between stuff.
I have read a couple case study reports where scientists where studying the effects of essential oils and the varying degree of protection given by certain oils (ie. HBH or any of its counterparts.)
However I am looking for a practical application with cinnamon not a scientific application.
Guess I will let the girls tell me if they like it or not – 1 baggie regular and 1 with cinnamon.

The other idea for the pollen patties in the early spring was to mix them with a organic non GMO, pure vegetable glycerin. Do you have any info on the use of VG and honey bees?
VG is a all natural humidicant – so the idea would be it would keep the pollen from becoming hockey pucks, and it is really sweet so the bees may like it.

Thank you

Rusty
Reply

Monica,

As much as possible, I try to feed my bees their natural diet of honey and pollen. Sometimes I add sugar if I think they may fall short of honey, and to the sugar I add a drop of essential oil to help them find the sugar in a dark hive. Other than that, I let them fend for themselves, something they are very good at. They can deal with the hockey pucks. Sometimes bees will eat things that aren’t so good for them, so just because they eat it doesn’t mean they should. If I were doing research it would be different, but I’m just a small-time beekeeper and I don’t have enough hives to do controlled studies.

Jason burke
Reply

So what’s the best way to feed honey back to your bees? Straight or watered down?
Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Jason,

I like to take clues from nature: straight up is fine.

Robbin
Reply

I have lots of honey I harvested but not using for myself because it’s from swarm hives I was building up. They were being fed sugar syrup/Honey-B-Healthy. Well it’s fall and I’m making candy boards for winter for the hives. I won’t give to them till November. I want to feed back their honey. Oh the reason I took super off, I winter in only 2 deeps. Before it gets freezing is this the best time to feed them back their honey? Or wait till later in winter, and how should I give it to them in winter? It”s not in frames. I was thinking I could put in jar feeder this way they won’t drown in honey as they would in an open pan in the hive. Any ideas on how to use jar? Or any gravity feeder? Taking into the fact its 38-45 degrees at night, 71 in the day right now here in northeastern Maryland. Or I could save till spring and give it to them?

Thanks Robbin

Rusty
Reply

Robbin,

I always leave the honey in the frames so I don’t have much experience feeding liquid honey back to the bees. When honey granulates in the jar, I just take off the lid and put the jar on its side above the frames. But if it’s liquid, I imagine I would put it in a jar or pail feeder, surround it with an empty super and add the telescoping cover. Anyone else have advice?

Paul
Reply

Rusty,

I have noticed that there are some honey bees eating the food I have in the humming bird feeders. Is that type of food okay? It’s the bottled kind from the hardware store (Lowe’s/Home Depot). I want to make sure I’m helping the colony not destroying it.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

It is usually made of sugar, minerals, and food coloring. It won’t hurt the bees, especially in the small quantities they can get from a hummingbird feeder. Based on my mail, I’d say much more hummingbird food goes into the mouths of bees than birds.

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