feeding bees

How to feed stacked nucs in winter

Vince Poulin, a beekeeper in Vancouver, British Columbia, sent me an idea he had for feeding nucs that were stacked one atop another during the winter. This is a problem I’ve wondered about but never actually solved.

It’s nice to be able to stack nucs or small colonies with a double-screen board (Snelgrove board) so that warm air can be shared between them. The problem comes when you try to add feed. Not only are the boxes heavy, but feeding means you have to unstack them, which allows cold air or rain to enter the hives.

Vince came up with a system that looks good to me, and I’m eager to give it try. He was kind enough to detail his method and provide the photos.

Many thanks to Vince for sharing his ideas.

Feeding stacked nucs in winter

Rusty suggested I write a post on a method I came up with for feeding hard candy to stacked nucs this winter. In summer I reared four walkaway nucs. I have three remaining that I want to try over-wintering. None had sufficient time to build a supply of winter honey. Two of the colonies fill single brood boxes while the third fills a good portion of a second box.

As a strategy to help get them through winter Iʼve stacked the two smaller colonies so they can share heat. This raised the question of how to feed them without unduly disturbing the colonies when it is cold. I could have provided each candy boards but those looked to me to inhibit air flow between boxes.

Whatever method I came up with had to be so easy to do that a family member can check and feed the bees as necessary. To get them to do that while I was away, it needed to be easy and take little time.

Lots of people feed hard candy to bees as a supplemental winter diet. This looked like the answer: hard lumps of sugar inserted into hives as needed. The only problem I could see was, in order to slip a candy cake or brick into a hive, it required lifting boxes high enough to get the brick inside. This breaks seals, allows cold air to get in, and would be by no means an easy task for someone less interested in the bees than the beekeeper himself.

The frame feeder

An added problem was how to do this on stacked nucs. Lifting boxes was out of the question. So how to do it? It did not take long, but the idea of a “Feeder Frame” came to mind, a simple frame that could be opened to allow a candy cake or brick to be inserted.

I built it as conceived, and sugar bricks can be easily slid into place without disturbing the hive. They go directly on the tops of brood frames. Bees donʼt have to travel far to reach them and the candy can be eaten from below.

In all fairness I have not put this idea through winter yet but have installed Feeder Frames on all my hives for this winter (2019/20). They work well. Bricks slide in with ease and require no lifting of boxes. You can monitor sugar consumption by just looking inside. Anyone in the family can do this.


The frames I made are 2” in height with a width and length that matches the boxes. Three sides are solid and one side has an opening. The opening is fitted with a wooden plug that sits between two rails about 1/4” thick. The plug is sized to fill the opening and faced with a 1/2” piece of wood 2” in height to match the height of the feeder frame.

I extended the facing 3/4” beyond the frame so that a hammer and wedge can be used to pry the plug from the frame should the wood swell to a point where the plug is hard to remove or has been sealed in by bees. I drilled a 3/4” hole in each plug so it can be used as a top hive entrance once all wasps are gone.

Below are several images to help explain how the frame works and its placement on the hives:

Feed stacked nucs (right). Double box nuc (left). All with feeder frames above the brood boxes. Separating the stacked nucs is a screened Snelgrove board.
Stacked nucs (right). Double box nuc (left). All with feeder frames above the brood boxes. Separating the stacked nucs is a screened Snelgrove board. The stack is set up as follows (bottom to top): 1: Base with varroa board and vapourization slot. 2: Slatted rack, 3: Blue nuc. 4: Blue feeder frame with opening closed. 5: Snelgrove board (yellow) with entrance for above nuc (unseen on opposite side). 6: Slatted rack. 7: Nuc brood box. 8: Yellow feeder frame. 9: Quilt. 10: Additional ventilation screen above quilt. And finally, 11: Roof with inside layer of 1/2” closed-cell foam. I think winter ready. © Vince Poulin.
Green hive with open feeder frame. The entrance “plug” is on top of hive. Opening allows a <1.5” hard candy brick inserted directly on the tops of the brood frames. No disturbance to the hive.
Green hive with open feeder frame. The entrance “plug” is on top of hive. Opening allows a <1.5” hard candy brick inserted directly on the tops of the brood frames. No disturbance to the hive. © Vince Poulin.
Stacked nucs showing reverse side. Yellow nuc with Snelgrove board entrance opposite that of the blue nuc. Entrance covered with wasp excluder. Grey rims are feeder frames.
Stacked nucs showing reverse side. Yellow nuc with Snelgrove board entrance opposite that of the blue nuc. Entrance covered with wasp excluder. Grey rims are feeder frames. © Vince Poulin.
Snelgrove board that separates stacked nucs, originally made with a single hole and screened only on one side. To increase heat transfer an additional 4-holes were drilled in the board and screen placed on both sides.
Snelgrove board that separates stacked nucs, originally made with a single hole and screened only on one side. To increase heat transfer an additional 4-holes were drilled in the board and screen placed on both sides. © Vince Poulin.
Bottom of Snelgrove board: holes are screened top and bottom preventing direct contact.
Bottom of Snelgrove board: holes are screened top and bottom preventing direct contact.
© Vince Poulin.

Sugar cakes without cooking

Many people feed cooked sugar to bees, but I agree with Rusty. Why take a chance if a sugar brick can be made hard enough without cooking. The trick I think is getting get the right moisture content in dry sugar for it to harden well and be used for my purposes without breaking.

I have done several batches and think Iʼm on the right path. My first “no-cook” bricks broke apart — too dry — not enough moisture. The last batch was just removed from furnace closet and have hardened nicely. I think they will work fine. For me the trick was adding more moisture so as to get a good set.

Candy cakes. Shown are first my attempt at cooked cakes, hard as rocks and easy to make. Later posts by Rusty raised concerns with HMF and toxicity brought on by high heat.
Candy cakes. Shown are first my attempt at cooked cakes, hard as rocks and easy to make. Later posts by Rusty raised concerns with HMF and toxicity brought on by high heat. © Vince Poulin.

Editor’s Note: I think this is a cool idea that could be used not only for feeding stacked nucs, but for feeding colonies that are not stacked. With a feeder that opens from the side, you could add candy cakes all winter long without cracking open the lid. Cool right? Let us know if you give it a try.

Feeder frame designed by Vince Poulin.

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  • I built some 1.5″ high 8-frame sized boxes for my hives. They have a solid bottom board. Looks like these could be called ekes. I was following advice, from one of our speakers. He was talking about winterization, and cold weather feeding. He takes the sugar, pours it dry, into the eke, sprays it with water, from a spray bottle, and tamps it in place. He said not to soak it, just give it enough moisture to get hard. Then, let it dry.

    He said that you could go out, in the coldest weather, pop the cover off, and have this in place, inverted, in 15 seconds. Then just put the cover back on. The bees, will bore into it, from underneath.

    Hey! 15 seconds of chilly breeze, is better than starving.

    Another speaker suggested foam insulation board, on the outside. I’ve been doing this, for several years. Last year it didn’t make much difference. My bees were in decline, heading into winter. I had to start over, this spring. But, the years prior, seemed to help. I was using 1/2″. He suggested using 1.5″. With a piece under the inner cover. Create a small vent, for air flow.

    It makes sense. When you insulate your house, your utility bills are supposed to go down. If you insulate your hives, your honey bill should go down. Make sure you use a solid bottom board, of some type. I use a screened bottom board, and just use that foam filled project board, stuck underneath. It still lets the mites drop through the hardware cloth. Put a few drops of vegetable oil on it, and they stick.

  • Just to say Rusty’s Editor’s note is right on. I did mention it in the post – but I have them on all of the hives. They are working perfectly – especially nice to use. They keep things personal without removing tops, quilts, screen boards – etc.

  • Hi bee people,

    When you open the plug, you then slide the bricks on top of the frames top bars, or is that a picture of the frame upside down on top the white box? Good pictures of everything except the frame.

    • Sorry, I re-read the post and saw where it said it was placed on the top of frames. What had me fooled was that picture that had screen in it on top of the white box in pic #5.

  • re: When you insulate your house, your utility bills are supposed to go down. If you insulate your hives, your honey bill should go down.

    comment: Big mistake to compare a hive to a human dwelling. The bees do not attempt to heat the hive, only themselves. In fact, they need fresh air in the hive. One would not try to heat a room with an open window, you would put on more clothing. That’s what they do: they insulate the cluster. If heat is coming off the cluster, it’s because they are not efficiently retaining it. Studies in Pennsylvania showed that the best predictor of winter success was the size of the cluster. Bigger being better. Pete

  • Great idea! I wanted to stack a couple of small colonies last year and didn’t only because I didn’t know how I would feed the bottom one if their supply ran out. If I have time (unlikely) I will try this this year but definitely on the books to build side entrance spacers in 2020. Thanks so much for sharing, VInce.

    • Alice – you’re welcome. As others have suggested there are alternatives ways to do this but I tend to work things out by myself and sorted this out in the manner you see in the images. The hardest part of the Feeder Frame to make is the plug for the opening. It takes a bit of fussing around for a nice fit and then to adjust the fit as wood swells with humidity. But for people with a few tools – a nice project. Let’s see how they do this winter. So far – all I can say is they are easy to use and a great way to check on hives without disturbing them. People mentioned wrapping. If hives are wrapped it would complicate things and likely render what I have here not useful for them. I live in the Banana-Belt of western Canada where many people do not wrap. As Rusty noted issues here are mostly with rain and condensation. Wait – how about wasps? They top the list.

  • I am a beginner and need advice. I live in on the coast, Pacific Northwest, Oregon. The winters are mild. Mostly 40-50 in the winter, rarely gets down to freezing, but very wet. Lots of rain.
    How do I keep my beehive dry? And keep the moisture out of my beehive?

    I have a two brood boxes, and my plastic feed box sits on top filled with dry sugar and pollen. I have treated for mites. I have around 30,000 bees. The reducer is in place and the bees are still busy during the day when the temperature rises.

    Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

    • I use a tarp or 6mm plastic around 3 sides held in place by bungies. I put the plastic over the rigid insulation, under the cover. I also use follower boards inside the hive in a chimney shape so that there is air flow on the outside of the follower board and the inside of the side of the hive body throughout all the boxes. I have higher than most survival rates.

    • We use a cedar box on top of our hives. Take a deep box and cut it in half so it’s about 5″high. Put screen on the bottom. Fill it with cedar shavings and put a couple of 2″ pvc tubes in it for ventilation. When the cedar shavings (by the way, cedar keeps out pests as well) get wet just change them out for dry ones. We rotate the shavings so one batch can dry out while the other is on the hive. We live in the PNW just south of Oregon on the coast.

    • Emilie,

      Yes on quilts. I leave the screened bottom open, but you can close it off if you like. It depends on local conditions. With lots of wind, I would probably close it.

  • Good idea, but too much work to have all them boxes made, especially if one does not do their own woodworking! Why not just make a thick candy board, put it on the bottom nuc, stack the top nuc, give them a candy board and a moisture box and that should carry them thru the winter months. Wrap them well with insulation or a cozy. Leave a small opening in the bottom candy board for the warmth to rise up. If the bees have lots of honey in frames and the candy board, that should offer them more than enough for a nuc to get thru the winter. On the bottom feed box you can also put a small window and cover it with wood or newspaper and then peek inside come February/March and see how the candy board is doing.

    How do you keep from squishing bees if you are just sliding the sugar brick onto the top brood frames that are usually filled with bees? Also, you can take a regular ten frame, make a nice double screen to fit the center of the box and put one nuc on each side, that way they also share warmth, put a candy board on top of each with moisture box and that should also hold them thru March. You can put the brood frames close to the middle as usual and fill the ends with honey/pollen frames. It is my experience that the bees go through the candy bricks fast whereas a candy board lasts longer and will absorb the excess moisture better than the sugar bricks. Also, how would one wrap the above photoed hive it has so many ‘ins and outs’ on the outside? The thing I don’t like about stacking nucs is they are vulnerable to high winds blowing them over.

    I like the concept and idea, though. Always nice to see other’s way of doing things to help their bees out. But this hive is too cumbersome for my tastes. Why have the Snelgrove board? Why not just a regular double screen which would permit more heat to rise? Plus, opening the entrance to put the sugar bricks in releases the heat from right above the brood nest, so you lose heat anyway.

    • Hi Debbie,

      Good thoughts, but I’m going to add my two cents. I agree that if you’re not a woodworker, this type of project seems out of reach. But an enormous number of beekeepers do their own woodworking, so there is usually quite a bit of interest in seeing what other people do. Often people use an idea as a jumping off point and then come up with their own tweaks.

      As for squishing bees, I find that if you slide in a brick or feeder slowly the “sea will part.” I can even lay a baggy feeder down on top of bees by doing it slowly. The bees just walk out of the way. Actually, it’s kind of fun to watch. But yes, slow means the loss of more heat.

      When it comes to candy boards vs bricks, I start out with candy boards then, as spring approaches, I add bricks to those that need it. Usually there will be a couple colonies that need some extra. I can imagine one of these side doors built right into my candy boards so I could replenish them. Just a thought.

      As for wrapping, I don’t know what Vince does, but in our Pacific Northwest coastal environment, most of us don’t wrap because it doesn’t get as cold as it does further inland. The Pacific coastal climate usually keeps the temps in the mid-40s F. I think your concern about wrapping is valid, but the local climate would drive the wrapping decision.

      And last I want to mention that Snelgrove boards give you a choice of entrances that you wouldn’t have with a plain double-screen board. With a Snelgrove board, you can put the entrances of stacked nucs on any side you want, and having them on different sides lessens the amount of drift between hives.

  • Piece of Insulation, Bottom board, slat rack, nuc, candy board (3 inch full), double screen (has entrance/exit), second nuc, candy board, moisture box, inner cover, piece of insulation, lid. Viola, done. Wrap and leave till March. Easy as pie. No opening in winter. Dry happy bees. You can see if the bees are doing well by their flying on nice days or hearing the buzz when putting your ear to the hive. The nice hummmmmm of wintering bees.

    • Debbie – I looked at building double screens but then realized I had two Snelgrove boards that were ready to go so I simply modified them to improve heat transfer. I could have cut out more screen area but felt the additional holes would be adequate. As Rusty said – Snelgrove boards are very useful and can be put to work in the same manner as your double screens.

      So you don’t like all the “stuff” hanging off my hives, eh? (just kidding). I agree – they are a bit over-the-top but they are urban “garden-hives” built from recycled wood that are purposefully made to look fun and attractive. The wasp excluders stuck on fronts are an absolute necessity here in Vancouver. Sad to say I have lost every hive to wasps and why this year excluders are staying on through to end of wasp season. Handles on the boxes add more “stuff” but these are home-built hives where external handles are easiest to make. Commercial Langstroth boxes come with slots cut in the sides for lifting – cheaper to make. This gives Langstroth hives a “cleaner” more simplified look – and yes, would be far easier to wrap.

  • Thank you, so much! Especially with all the photos. The photos really help!
    I hope to build some quilt boards and add some plywood to the top of my hive.

  • Feeder Frame Update: December 22, 2019 – and a very Merry Christmas to all following this thread.

    We are now into our 3rd month of having feeder frames on 4-hives (1-two brood box hive, 2-stacked NUC’s and a single double box NUC). To sum it up frames have worked brilliantly. We topped-up each hive with sugar cakes twice since fall and now waiting for the current cakes to clear somewhat before adding another. Our most populous hive will get a new cake either tomorrow or sometime close to Christmas. We have bees in all the hives and can see well enough into the hives to get a sense of winter is progressing inside. In this hive bees like to cluster inside the feeder frame extending upward from the frame tops to the base of the quilt. In the smaller NUC hives the bees access the cakes from below as well as the sides of the cakes. It is not possible to see fully as to how clusters are positioned but safe to say as viewed from a feeder frame we know we have surviving winter colonies to this point in time. Inspecting the hives and adding cakes is easy – we slowly work the opening plug out and look inside. With a mobile phone light you get nice views of the bees inside. The frames could not work better. At the start of winter getting a good fit in the opening takes a bit of time due to wood swelling. I haven’t modified the opening plugs yet but intend to change them slightly. Rather than fitting the opening with wood I try using a shaped piece of hard foam insulation and gluing it to the face board. This will eliminate the need to alter the fit as the wood used swells. Make a few and see what you think. No more lifting hive boxes to increase winter feed when using hard candy cakes. I’ve given Rusty a few images.

  • Was reading this “new” post with interest- as I read all the post! It is Christmas day and I am in Afghanistan. Got a few hours off to catch up on sleep, and pursue interests. I read Rick Cheverton’s post. I liked his bottom board, and then read this article. Got to thinking if I made Rick’s bottom board, screened one side with #8 hardware cloth and the other with #4, I could use it as a bottom board or feeder by just flipping it over for it’s purpose! Instead of a magnetic cover, I could use the “foam plug” Vince is using. Think I will try that if I ever see my Missouri bees again.

    Peace on Earth, Good will to men is a soldiers sincere prayer.

  • New to beekeeping so my question is how often should I feed sugar water and when should I stop? I live in the San Francisco Bay area thanks and happy new year.

    • Paulo,

      The real answer is you should begin to feed if and when your colony start to run low on stored honey. If they have plenty, you have no need to feed. If they are running low, start to feed before they run out. You can stop when your bees are once again bringing in nectar on their own. There is no magic number or secret date. Every colony will be different and every year will be different. The only way to determine these things is to open the colony and look.

  • Overwintering Success Update: 100%. Thought useful to let people interested in trying a feeder frame how well the colonies pulled through over-winter. These are PNW hives (SW Coastal BC). We had a somewhat mild winter, but sufficient long stretches of sub-zero weather to create a reasonable set of criteria for judging the value of feeder frames. Test is N=4, 3-NUCs, 1-two brood box hive (Warre = 1 Lang). 2-NUCs stacked 1-NUC a two box hive but much smaller colony than the larger 2-box hive. Food stores were minimal – 1-2 frames of honey in NUC’s and why feeder frames were designed. Hard sugar bricks fed all winter. Very easy, takes seconds and gives inspection opportunities. A very important outcome was watching how the bees utilized the feeder frames. Rather than just access the sugar they spent the winter in them clustered floor to ceiling. Clusters literally sat on top and spread out over and across a sugar cake. They had no reason to move. Food was immediately available, no reason to break-cluster. On March 9 I set the NUC’s up for spring. In 2-NUCs the bees already broke-cluster and move down. The main hive and 1-NUC had a partial cluster still in the feeder frames. Smoke was needed to move them down. Another very interesting outcome – in 2 of the overwintered NUCs bees did not eat honey but consumed sugar all winter. Each NUC was given 1-2 frames of honey in late September. From what I could tell either not used or minimally touched. One of the NUC’s lacked residual honey. Those bees did use what was given. This result showed that once inside the feeder frames the bees did not move much beyond the frame during winter. It makes sense. The warmest place in the hives was the feeder frames. Above the feeder frames are quilts of wood chips which provide insulation and moisture venting. Clusters hung from the bottom of the quilts sitting on top of sugar or sagging over and down into the lower brood box. This was an unforseen outcome and one that possibly helps explain the high survival rate of 100% (N=4). Not a large test but consider it. In more normal circumstances clusters of winter bees crowed between frames some with heads jammed in empty comb cells. They can’t move. Heat has to come from bees situated between combs. Food is any number of frames away both horizontally and vertically. What I happens in feeder frames is likely not much different than what happens in feral colonies but on a smaller scale. Bees are less confined with respect to space. They hang as in swarm. With 1 lb of sugar literally at their feet (they sit on it) and placed in the warmest part of the hive (just under a quilt) they don’t have to move. This is what I think happened and why they pulled through so well. All now heavy with capped brood, eggs and larva. Could not have had a better result. So interesting was their lack of interest in honey and ability to survive nearly strictly on hard candy sugar.