feeding bees

A hive population wake-up call

Overwintered colonies that starve usually do so in early spring, just before the first nectar flows. In the northern climates, colonies may starve as late as April, even though everything appears green and lush.

Part of the reason is that many pollen plants bloom before nectar plants. Here in the Pacific Northwest, red alders flower early and sprinkle butter-hued drifts of pollen on car windshields and picnic tables. But pollen isn’t nectar and it doesn’t provide the sugar fix the honey bees need. Nectar-producing flowers may not appear for several weeks after those first dustings of pollen.

Then too, some of the earliest nectar supplies may be unavailable to honey bees due to inclement weather. To use another local example, big-leaf maples provide buckets of early nectar (and to-die-for honey) but in most years it is lost to spring rains that keep the honey bees inside. They can only look out their windows and sigh.

Consumption goes up while supplies go down

Aside from the weather, the annual life cycle of a honey bee colony puts it at risk of spring starvation. In the northern hemisphere, most colonies have plenty of food from the end of summer through December. During that period, the colony continues to shrink, brood rearing slows or stops altogether, and without brood, the colony keeps the nest cooler, at around 68°F (20°C). All of these factors reduce the daily food requirement.

But in the weeks following the winter solstice, the colony slowly reverses itself. Brood rearing begins again, and with brood rearing comes the need to keep the nest warmer, at around 93°F (34°C), give or take. On warmish days, the bees may venture out for cleansing flights, and flying bees use more fuel than clustering bees. On really warm days, they may actually attempt foraging, an activity that expends even more fuel.

Slowly at first, the hive population increases. Within weeks, the population gains momentum, and before you know it, there are many more mouths to feed. The food supply gets used up faster and faster as the supply gets lower and lower. It is easy to breathe a sigh of relief on that first April morning when you see your bees flowing out of the hive and playing in the sunshine. But depending on your local area, some of those colonies may not live to see May Day.

This year I took the unusual step of providing candy boards to all my colonies. Normally, I only supply them to colonies that lack sufficient honey stores. But after our unusually long, dry summer and parched autumn, I decided it was safer to feed everyone. With the candy boards in place, I relaxed. Bad move.

The population problem

It turns out that last Monday was a wake-up call for me. The weather was a balmy 55°F (13°C) with no rain, so I inspected every hive. What I found floored me.

My colonies are out of control. If I didn’t know it was January, I would have guessed it was May. My doubles have bees covering all twenty frames. My triples have bees covering 25 frames. Bees oozed from every seam, even along the sides. A few of the candy boards have golf ball-sized lumps of sugar remaining.

At first blush, you may think this is a good thing, but my immediate thought was, “How the heck can I keep these bees alive till spring?” In truth, I don’t know if I can. We still have two or maybe three months to get through and I’ve got about three times more bees than I had in October. Although I’ve seen this happen in the past, it was always an isolated hive or two, never an entire apiary.

Bad weather or bad management?

My first thought was to blame the weather. Okay, the weather is weird. Early in the winter we had a cold-snap that lasted about two weeks, but since then it has been warm—lots of days in the forties and even the fifties. The warm days could easily cause an early population increase.

On the other hand, I put pollen supplement in the candy boards. Normally, if I use pollen supplement at all, I don’t offer it until after the solstice. But this year, due to a poor foraging season, I put the boards on a month early. That may have been my big mistake: too much pollen too soon. I had buried the pollen patty inside the sugar, thinking that they wouldn’t get to it right away, but they excavated passages to it immediately.

Considering the alternatives

So now what? When I knock on the individual boxes, some sound dense, as though they may still contain honey. Since it’s warm, I can go in and rearrange the remaining honey frames, making sure they are above or immediately beside the cluster—except they aren’t in clusters, they are teeming mobs. Or I can go buy a pickup load of sugar, something that doesn’t appeal to me in the least. I’m still undecided.

I have to say, tiny clusters in winter worry me, but this worries me even more. I wonder where to go from here.

Honey Bee Suite

Too early for spring

Spring is still months away. Public domain photo.


  • Holy expletive! I don’t like dealing with that kind of situation even May.

    I’ve been in conversation with a few first-year beekeepers in the USA dealing with exceptionally warm weather, and I don’t know what to tell them. They describe bees that are devouring any sugar that’s put in the hive, bees building comb and flying all over the place, essentially bees behaving like it’s spring time.

    The best I could come up with is go ahead as if it IS spring. Feed them, manipulate the frames — whatever you would normally do in the spring, do it now. And hope for the best. I don’t know if that’s good advice, but what the hell can you do?

    I feel for you. What are you going do?

  • This is so timely! Here in the central coast of California, I am nursing my first two top bar hives along. I was worried one was going to fail due to lack of enough bees, but now both of them are thriving and buzzing with activity and lots of bees. I thought I had succeeded, but now I realize that there is still danger of starvation! They are carrying lots of pollen in, but I don’t yet know how to see if they are full of nectar. We have some nectar plants around here, eucalyptus, manzanita, and acacia (ahchoo!), but I don’t know if it will be enough. Thanks so much for the early warning. I’m going to keep feeding to try to keep them alive for their first year!

  • I can only quote one of my Bee Wizards, Snohomish County’s Dave Pehling: the problems you get with big, boomer colonies are much, much better than the ones presented by small, struggling colonies! Your scenario is exactly what is needed to fuel spring nuc sales in breeding operations: yes, you will have to feed, but you will be able to split early, probably in early April. Your splits will be strong, and you can price them to sell fast if you are in a crunch for bee tending time. Feeding here ends when the maples bloom, with lots of nectar to supplement that tasty alder pollen.

  • Hi Rusty, I am in Northern California and last weekend I went out to check my hive and noticed my bees were coming back loaded with pollen. I am very new to beekeeping and so I don’t know yet what is normal but I remember thinking to myself “isn’t this a bit early to see the bees finding so much pollen?”. I’m kind of concerned I may be in the same situation where the hive may start expanding before there are any nectar sources. I attended my first meeting of the local beekeeping group last week and there were quite a few folks who lost their hives that were still full of honey. Would it make sense to try to buy their full frames of honey from them to keep my hives going? If I did would I potentially be introducing problems (Varroa, etc) into my hive? Any chance you could sell your bees as part of a package?

    • Paul,

      Beekeepers usually shy away from using honey from another beekeeper unless you are 100% sure their bees don’t have American foulbrood and that they are not suppressing American foulbrood with antibiotics. It’s best just to feed them sugar.

      I could sell bees if I had queens, but as yet there are no drones to mate with.

  • Very interesting. I hope that you will post your further thoughts about this. I, too, had something incredibly unexpected happen here in central Colorado this year. I got into my hive, for the last time, on October 16th. We were in the middle of an unusual “Indian Summer” with average temps through September and October running in the mid 40s overnight and the mid 60s during the day, with spikes into the 80s. Anyway, the queen was still going great guns – there were several frames of capped brood. The bees had also stored a lot of honey – all of which I left for them. But, long story short, sometime after October 16th they swarmed. All the evidence is there, including the swarm cell where the first queen emerged and the damaged swarm cells where she tore open the sides of the cells and killed the other queens. Sadly, however, that late in the year the new queen failed for some reason. I discovered all this on a relatively warm day a couple of weeks ago. There were even a couple of bees still alive but the rest were dead. And they numbered about what I would expect to be left after a swarm. It had never occurred to me to watch for swarming in late October. Next year, I’ll keep a closer watch and have some bait hives set up.

  • Rusty

    I think I may have the same problem with at lest one of my hives in west Portland. I made and placed fondant in 4 hives a couple of weeks ago. Bees are collecting pollen from hazel brush on mild clear days and seem to be doing well. One hive, my strongest, in particular is just full of bees which makes me think of your situation. I was trying be sure no one starved this spring but I’m now concerned.

    Keep us posted with what you are seeing as we move into spring.


    Keep us posted with

  • I saw the first bumble bee queen out a few days ago. Maybe she is telling us we’ll have a very early spring? I have two remaining hives out of six this year. I fed neither, and both had very good honey stores going into winter. One hive dwindled to a tiny cluster that is still hanging on. The other hive is behaving like yours: packed with bees to the rafters. Last year, the mother of this hive began swarming in March. Looks like her girls may follow in her footsteps. My honeysuckle is sprouted, borage is up, and the dandelions are all getting ready. A friend saw a mason bee out a few days ago. Maybe you won’t need that sugar truck!

  • I am having the same problem here in North Arkansas. It has been unseasonably warm. I went in to check on everyone and either they kept going from hive to hive or every hive is bursting with bees. I don’t know what to do with them either.

  • Rusty,

    It’s bad here too. The weather has been too warm for too long. I am in NE Oklahoma where we should be hovering around freezing but tomorrow is supposed to reach 70F. The low is only 39F. We haven’t seen any precipitation to speak of for 6 weeks. We had a little fall flow but the spring was washed out so most hives started lighter than usual to begin with. The 6 small hives got hardened sugar in late fall.

    I found 9 of 11 hives needing sugar by Christmas and the populations were ridiculous. The bees were busy bringing in a cream colored pollen. I later found the silver maples were blooming way early. In the past I saw them start blooming around mid February.

    Today tiny bees are doing their orientation flights while the older bees bring in more cream pollen. Tomorrow they all get checked again.

    I usually do everything I can not to feed but got backed into a corner this time. It sounds you already decided to remove whats left of the pollen patties, if there is anything, for now. I have no idea what to do about the population other than keep feeding.

    My hives are going to grow as long as they can get fresh pollen. I came to the realization today that many of my hives will need to be split very early in the spring to prevent them from swarming. Its going to be a mess and it isn’t what I want to do.

    Best of luck.

  • Well, the Northern Hemisphere is a big place.

    Where I live in Manchester, England, we have loads of Himalyan Balsam ( see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impatiens_glandulifera ). This plant is responsible for arguments between river and forestry management people and beekeepers, since it provides a reliable, large nectar flow from around 1st August right through to early October but is considered by some to be an invasive weed. The consequence of this is that really there is no need for autumn or winter feeding if you don’t take too much honey in the autumn. Actually, if I do take honey in the Autumn, I take it quite early, around 1st September. Then the bees can easily replenish what I have taken from the strong nectar flow which will continue throughout September. But this strong autumn flow also means I also have the choice of harvesting in the Spring rather than the Autumn. Basically in the Spring I am harvesting the left overs of the Himilayan Balsam honey that was stored the previous Autumn.

    I may have scandalised you by saying I am treatment free. But I will now scandalize you further by saying not only am I treatment free but I am feed free as well. It just didn’t seem worthwhile feeding when I had this massive autumn flow. I am not feed-free in principle, it just never seemed necessary in the ordinary run of things. [ My only exception to this is the first week or so if I get a shaken swarm ]. I have certainly never had any winter or early spring colony deaths. My colony deaths tend to be in the summer or late autumn, from one or more of queen mating problems, varroa, robbing, and excessive swarming.

    Your post was titled “A hive population wake-up call”. But from my perspective, it could also have been titled “The Dangers of Feeding”. The danger of feeding, at any time of year, is that the population expands beyond what it should be, leading to an unsustainable burden in a time of dearth, whether that dearth be early spring, mid summer, or late autumn. If you are a commericial beefarmer, this will be a deliberate strategy, because you want to artificially build up the population before the main flow starts so that the colony is ready to capitalise on the main flow when it arrives. The danger of course is that the main flow does not arrive, or does not arrive when you think it will, or is uncollectable because of more rain than usual. I am certainly not opposed to feeding in principle, but often it is presented as a cost free thing to do. Your post shows in practice that it is not. The cost of feeding is something that is rarely mentioned to new beekeepers.

  • Thanks, Rusty – you just set my priority, singular, for what promises to be a lovely first of February, sixty and sunny! I could be tilling, spreading manure, sifting compost, tidying the woodpile, or even hiking the woods taking pictures of tree buds. Nope, I’ll be inspecting hives. And right now I’ll be reminding the rest of our beekeeper community to do so.

    Best wishes to you and all your readers for a prosperous season!


  • Well, in spite of your effort to discourage this comment, it is nice problem to have :). I’d rearrange honey on either side of the clusters—assuming that’s an available option. I think seams like you described can use 3-4 pounds of honey per week to stay warm and maybe more if they fly. The good part is that your winter bees still have lots of vitellogenin to carry the protein needs forward so I’d back off supplements. Since they’re probably raising brood, if they need more protein they can cannibalize larvae and start over. It may sound cruel but to a bee colony, larvae also functions as a protein reserve—it’s a efficient hive function that can normalize the growth curve. Then I’d keep the sugar cakes coming until they don’t need them. And I’d send me one of those queens this spring.

    • Bill,

      That makes sense to me. If the workers trim the brood nest to conserve and recycle protein, the explosive growth would be curtailed. Out of all those bees, I only saw one carrying pollen, so they’re not getting it from the outside. And yes, they are nice (local to here) queens. I did several random alcohol washes and found two mites total. Keeping my fingers crossed . . . I so want to try those double-queen hives.

      • This is complete brainstorming on my part, so sorry if it makes no sense!

        What impression prevails, is it of too large populations or of too little food? If it is of too large populations (meaning that feeding doesnt feel like a stand alone option and that even feeding they will hit trouble) would it help to cull, by freezing brood frames and stopping the expansion and gaining time until Spring? Real culling would be to kill part of the worker population, would that be too radical? I imagine that would be a painful solution, but could it save the colonies? Is it ever done in beekeeping?

        If the sense is that they will be allright as long as they have food than feeding would be the solution?

        In the end your knowledge and experience during individual evaluation of the hives will probably result in different solutions for each hive.

        You could choose to play for time. Its an El Nino winter, it might stay mild until Spring over there. Can you consult registers for the winter of 1998-99 (i think it was the largest El Nino before this one) or of other El Nino winters to get a sense of the long term weather prediction over there until Spring? It could help make an informed solution.

        Thank you for sharing your dilema. Over here in Portugal the same is happening. My 2 hives were full of brood the last time I checked, 4 weeks or so ago. In my area it should be freezing in the evening but its 10C, 17C during the day. Just crazy. I expected some brood but not 4 or 5 frames of it. One of the hives was so full I added an extra frame to give them space and try to discourage swarming (enough drones around, I got scared!). So, crazy weather all around. The question is, how will it play out over there the next few months? Keep us informed, very interesting question.

  • In Buffalo, New York the current 2:30 PM temp is 21 with light snow. While checking on the hives, I brushed some snow from the entrance. My bees are still snug in their beds. This weekend is suppose to get up to 49. I might take a peek. My polystyrene hives I hear bees humming all the time by just putting my ear to the hive. I’m waiting for the ground hog to give his opinion on winter.

    About the situation of an early warm spell, we are only one month away from March when some queens will be available. Maybe the hives can wait:)

  • When I checked my bees around Thanksgiving, they still had brood. I plan to check them this coming week when we have very warm days. Though communal feeding can be controversial for some people, I put out a few quart jars of sugar syrup (or left over honey) on those warm days in mid-winter when I know bees will be flying. I hate them expending all that energy to find NOTHING. So I at least put out a little something. How much it helps or hurts…I can’t say. But at least I know all their exploring is not for naught.

  • I’ve also noticed my hives’ populations remaining large and tearing through their honey stores. Oddly, I’ve seen a few drones already, too. Not feeding them any protein supplements though because I think it will keep a brake on them until they start collecting from the natural sources. If we stay warm through the rest of our PNW winter, very early swarm management will be in order. I’ll be watching for unusually early queen-raising opportunities to make nucs to sell.

  • I see no option but to keep feeding to keep them alive. The Winter here in SW England has also been warm and wet with only about four overnight frosts. My two colonies were all over their feed paste with also more bees than I expected to see. What would be good is that there could be a greater number of nucs available for beekeepers, starting out this year. Perhaps provided free through local associations? Also perhaps this year will see lots of swarms? Interesting times.

  • Checked mine today as it was warm enough they were outside. They over flowed when I cracked the candy board open. Candy is gone but the hives are heavy. Doesn’t seem like it but is it possible they either ate the candy first or moved it and stored it in the comb? Don’t they sometimes convert sugar syrup to ” honey”? If this happened could I tell so as to not extract surplus this spring if there is in fact any? Also should I probably make more candy and put in hives just in case even tho they seem heavy? It’s too cold to open hives and check frames for honey and a long way to spring here in northern Indiana.

    • Bruce,

      It’s impossible to tell the food situation without looking. Bees will store syrup in the fall, in fact, that’s what you want them to do. But if they are taking hard candy in winter, they are just eating it. Oftentimes they prefer sugar over honey, so they could be eating it even with ample stores available.

      But you don’t want to make a mistake. The boxes could be heavy with brood instead of honey. And remember, it is never too cold to check for food stores. Sure, cold air might kill some of your bees when you open the hive, but if you don’t open the hive you can lose all of them to starvation. The alternative to checking is to just feed some more: no harm done and they won’t starve.

  • Rusty,

    I am a new beekeeper just finishing my first year, and although we had a very successful summer (40 pounds of honey) and buttoned up the hive knowing that the food box was literally stuffed with honey, I have become concerned of late with the large numbers of dead bees clogging the entrance and landing board. I have actually removed the mouse guard several times to scrape away the sheer numbers of them. Yet, today here in Connecticut (January 31), the front of the hive is alive with clouds of bees looking much like orientation flights. It’s like the middle of summer all over again. My question is, why so many dead bees (hundreds) and yet so much activity now? I did add a pollen patty infused with Honey-B-Healthy in December, but they don’t seem to have touched it. Is this a healthy colony or just a very stressed one? Are the girls trying to tell me something I should be doing?


    • Phil,

      I see nothing unusual in your description. According to sources cited in The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), the average northern colony loses 42-58% of its population from November to April. Most of these fall to the bottom board. In the summer months, you lose about 1000 per day in a normal colony. The difference is you don’t see them because they die in the field. The summer bees are rapidly replaced by a queen who lays 1500 to 2000 eggs a day, while only a few are replaced during the winter.

      If you want to play with numbers, you can assume you go into winter with about 30,000 bees. If you lose half, that’s 15,000. If you divide 15,000 by 120 days (November-April) you get 125. So you expect to lose about 125 bees per day in winter.

      I usually scrape them out once or twice in the winter if I think they need it. Some colonies are better than others at removing the winter dead.

      If they are not taking the pollen patty, they probably still have stored pollen which they prefer.

  • Hello Rusty,

    First time overwintering my first beehive.

    We have had a very warm December and January also in Switzerland, except for a couple of cold spells.

    Saturday the bees were not clustered anymore (I have little windows at the back), they expanded the brood nest, and had stopped removing dead bees. It seems they have a new priority now, and that could be brood rearing. It is way too early for pollen and nectar in enough amount to sustain an expanding colony.

    I don’t think I have enough honey stores. I run two Zander stories (similar to Langstroth), ventilated bottom board and a Chalet-type roof. There is 1/4 to 1/5 of the surface of the top-frames left with honey. There is brood on the two stories. I check them weekly (windows behind, and entrance). I had the feeling that in one week there were suddenly way more bees!
    After reading your post and all the comments, and asking my bee-teacher, I will try to give them tomorrow (last possible warm day before it gets cold again) a pollen patty and some sugar cake.

    I sent you an E-Mail on 24th December with pictures titled “Quilt and Feeder – your advice please”. Shortly after I read that you do not reply to E-Mails, so I left that be. Also, I write too long messages. Sorry.

    Now the present conditions may require some emergency feeding. If you have the time, could you please let me know what you think about my Quilt/Feeder setup? I intend to use it tomorrow.

    What have you decided? Will you continue feeding yours pollen supplements?

    Thank you very much.
    Best regards, Diego.

    • Diego,

      So sorry for missing your wonderful photos. Just now I found them. That’s the problem with e-mail—there are so many that they just get buried. Anyway, I don’t see a problem with your set-up, if I understand it correctly. I have been using different variations of quilts and feeders for about 10 years, and they completely turned around my overwintering ability. People who don’t use them often don’t understand the huge difference they can make.

      Yours is different from others I’ve seen, but I think you should try it and report back when you know how things are going. I think it will work. As for me, I don’t want to lose the bees I have, so I’m going to continue with both sugar and pollen and hope for an early spring.

      • Hello Rusty, Thank you for your reply.
        We are now fairly advanced in the season, so I can report back.
        The Quilt/Feeder was extremely useful to replace the candy I set in the feeder Module. I gave 4 times 2.5 kg candy since early February. They needed it for keeping warm and then for comb building.
        The feeding never disturbed the bees nor cause warmth loss (temp sensor built in the middle).
        Condensation was reduced and kept at an acceptable level.
        Bees are doing great right now! 😉
        I am very happy with the module, and will make some changes for next winter. You and others inspired me for this.
        Best regards and thank you for all you do.

  • I’m a new beekeeper (North Carolina), just finishing my first year. I put a candyboard on my hive. When the temperature made it to 60 °F on January 16, I looked in the hive. The candyboard was completely gone. The bees had built comb in the space where it had been, and had brood there, with drone cells, and I’m seeing bees spread throughout the hive (looks about like your photograph). Just lifting the boxes it feels as if there is still honey–but the size of the population was making me uneasy. I’ll be interested to hear what you decide about feeding because I’m thinking about feeding since the extended forecast seems to be calling for cooler-than-normal temperatures still to come this spring. All these posts have been a big help. Thanks to you, and others posting.

  • I am coming up on my first anniversary of beekeeping here in the NorCal Bay Area. A friend and I decided to set up 2 different hives with 2 different strains of bees. We have the Italians in a Langstroth and the Russians in a Kenya TPH. The Weather today and all this weekend will be beautiful and warmish (60’s) so we did the first full inspection of both hives since the end of November and the differences between the two couldn’t be more stark: The Russians (which kicked the drones out almost a full month before the Italians) are BOOMING and already have a significant population of drones and more on the way and lots of fresh larva (though no queen cells whatsoever). Remarkably they also have a “decent” supply of honey. The Italians still look like they are in full winter-mode: they have essentially abandoned the lower deep, (though there is still 4 full frames of honey) and the mold and dead bee refuse makes the whole thing look the apocalypse. The upper deep has all the activity a good size population of mostly nurse and forager bees and even fresh uncapped honey! But nary a sign of any brood at any stage and no drones evident. Also no queen cells.

    Considering these hives essentially live together, how big of a concern is it to have such a big variant between the two? I’m torn between checking on the Italians frequently or letting them be. Thoughts?

    • Greg,

      It’s not surprising that two different genetic lines behave differently. Still, I’m concerned that the Italians have no brood. You should go through the hive and see if they have a queen. If not, add one, or at least add a frame of young larvae and eggs from the Russian hive and perhaps they can raise one.

  • Rusty

    I believe we lost both my hives to starvation. I had installed fondant and they ate some. The crazy thing is that both hives were flying in late Dec and early Jan. We can’t figure it out>>>>

    Any thoughts? And have you heard any other similar stories.


  • Rusty,

    My comments on the population growing too soon.

    You have several options. You should consider trying more than one option in case you see this again, you will have some data to decide next time.

    1) Continue feeding. Keep in mind that if you input sugar and pollen you will get bees. I would add a super of combs from last year’s extraction, if you have one, for the bees to “not feel crowded.” They could fill the house with bees and swarm one warm February day…

    2)Create a normal fall dearth, taper the feed back 100% to 75% to 50% to 25% over 5 or 6 weeks and see if they go into normal winter mode.

    3) take a few of the best colonies south where they have a better chance at continuing the spring growth phase. Find a crop to pollinate, not the best choice but it may be a break even and you could have hives ready to split early, in case some of them starve out.

    4)Some other idea not yet mentioned.

    My fear would be a population ramp up and a starve out in spring, or a very early swarm leaving the new queen no way to mate as it is too early.

    I guess let us know how it went.

    I tend to agree with someone earlier that maybe the early feeding combined with the warm weather put the bees in a spring mood.

    I feed both pollen and syrup early to houses I want to split some times they have queens cells very early.

    If you add a super make sure there is a drone comb frame in the middle, Drones can help keep the brood nest warm and you may need them early this year, better to have and not need them, than to not have….


  • Just curious what the solution to this problem ended up being? Did the continued feeding work? Did they swarm early?

  • Is it even remotely possible that bees prefer the sugar to their own honey? I’m new at this and did not read all the comments, so I apologize if this has been answered.

  • Very recently discovered my strongest hive has maybe 200-300 bees remaining up in honey super. Does a cluster this small have any chance of making it over winter? I suspect varroa was the factor though was treated with both MQS and Oxalic vapor treatments in August and October.

    A pollen patty was added near their location and they also have easy access to dry sugar.

    Lost cause?

    • Teresa,

      I don’t think there’s any hope with so few bees. Is it possible the queen died? It sounds like you took care of the mites.

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