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. 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.
 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.”