feeding bees wintering

Syrup does not belong in a cold hive

I am getting so many questions about feeding syrup to winter bees that I decided to re-run this post from last year. Two points are especially important. First, it is the temperature of the syrup—not the temperature of the outside air—that governs whether the bees will drink the syrup. If you are having nights in the 30s or 40s, even if the daytime air spikes into the 60s, the syrup will not be warm enough. Sugar syrup has a high heat capacity, in other words it takes a lot of heat to warm it up.

Second, a container of syrup in your hive in cold weather will not harm the bees, but neither will it help them. The bees will just ignore it. But it is a waste of syrup, it will probably get moldy, and it can add moisture to a hive you are trying to keep dry. So why go there? Just give your winter bees fondant, hard candy, or granulated sugar instead.

So here’s the original post. I’ve added some related posts at the end. I particularly recommend “Physics for beekeepers: why bees can eat solid sugar in winter.”

Q: What should I feed my bees, sugar syrup, fondant, or hard candy?

A: Both liquid feed and solid feed have their place. Ideally, a solution of 2:1 syrup can be fed in the fall until the syrup itself reaches about 50°F (10°C). In colder temperatures solid feed (either fondant or hard candy) should be fed.

Q: I’ve heard that evaporating the syrup is particularly difficult for the bees in cold weather and this is why it shouldn’t be fed in winter. What do you think?

A: There are really two questions here.

Q1: Is it difficult for bees to evaporate water from syrup in winter?

A1: Absolutely. Cold air can hold less moisture than warm air, so in a cold hive no amount of fanning will evaporate the water from cold syrup. Think of dew. Dew forms on objects because the cold air of evening cannot hold all the moisture that warmer daytime air can hold. As the temperature drops, the water vapor literally falls out of the air and condenses on things. If winter air cannot hold the moisture from the syrup, it will not evaporate no matter how hard the bees work.

Q2: Is this why you shouldn’t feed syrup in winter?

A2: Most winter feed is not given to bees in the hopes they will store it, it is given to bees to keep them from starving should they run out of honey. A feeder full of cold syrup in your hive will not hurt your bees, but it won’t help them either. It just sits there because it is too cold for the bees to drink. And since they won’t drink it, it is not an emergency food source.

Q: Don’t bees need some water in order to eat hard candy and fondant?

A: Yes, a source of moisture is needed, but there is plenty of moisture in the hive for this. The moisture from bee respiration condenses on cool surfaces just like the dew. Since the fondant or candy is above the bees, the moisture from their respiration lands on it and condenses. Unless you live in the desert, damp air coming in from outside through the entrance may condense on the solid sugar as well. These sources provide plenty of water for the bees to consume solid sugar.

Q: Won’t bees leave the hive in dangerously cold temperatures in order to find water to dilute the fondant?

A: No. Bees don’t commit suicide. At any rate, the colder the air, the less water it will hold—and the more bee respiration will condense on the sugar.

Q: I’m confused. I thought 2:1 syrup was fed to bees in order to build up reserves for winter.

A: It is. But, as I mentioned above, the purpose of fall feed and the purpose of winter feed are different. A hearty feeding of 2:1 syrup in the fall while temperatures are still warm enough to evaporate it will be stored by the bees and used to increase their winter food supply. On the other hand, the purpose of winter feed is to keep bees that are low on stores from starving—they are not going to store their winter feed, they’re going to eat it.

Q: Should all bees be fed sugar?

A: No. Bees should eat honey. Sugar is fed when a colony hasn’t collected sufficient stores to make it until spring, when the beekeeper has over-harvested, or when the beekeeper needs to administer certain medicines, such as Fumagilin for Nosema diseases.

Q: So you’re not advocating solid sugar over liquid sugar?

A: I’m not advocating anything. I’m just trying to explain why the bees treat different feeds differently at different temperatures. Very specific physical properties govern how the world works. The more you know of these, the easier it is to make good management decisions.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite.com

Related posts:

Winter feeding of honey bees

Ten questions about Mountain Camp feeding

Sugar syrup ratios: which one to use

Why feed sugar syrup at all?

 

28 Comments

  • Thanks Rusty. I think it’s also the case that if syrup is fed too late in autumn, for instance during damp weather, the bees will have insufficient time to evaporate the excess water, and the syrup will be stored and could ferment. This could cause digestive problems such as dysentery for the bees when they come to feed on it later. Would you agree with this?

    • Yes, syrup stored too late might not get dried and capped, so it may ferment in the comb. A small amount of fermented honey wouldn’t hurt the colony, but large amounts would not be good. I don’t know if there is a direct link to dysentery (there might be, I’m not sure) but in any case, bees can get intoxicated on it which is not in their best interest.

  • I really appreciate this post in such a timely manner as well. There is a lot of misinformation out there, especially amongst new beekeepers just trying to keep their hives alive. I for one promptly made a sugar cake after trolling the internet for a recipe. I couldn’t find one on this website. Is there one? And where does one get pollen substitute without ordering on the internet?

  • OK, I ‘ll bite. I *do* live in the desert. Albuquerque to be exact. I am getting ready to get new bees this spring after losing a hive that had done well elsewhere but was moved to my place last year. My former beekeeper had to quit so the girls’ fate is in my hands. Can you comment on the moisture issue as it affects their ability to use supplemental sugars? I am concerned that there is not enough water in our environment during our usually dry winters, and wonder how to make sure they have enough water without having to forage much. Any info – or pointers on where to find it – that relates actual inches of rainfall to supplemental water needs would be awesomely helpful. (I live on an irrigation ditch so once the agricultural season starts we are good). Thanks so much. Awesome site you have here, I am learning a lot and loving the pro earth vibe!

    • Robin,

      Most of the water they use for dissolving hard sugar is water vapor from their respiration that lands on the sugar and condenses. The water in their bodies usually comes from the honey they eat, but if they are only eating hard sugar they probably do need some extra water in a desert environment. I don’t know about inches of rainfall vs supplemental water because it would depend on the population of the hive and how much of their diet comes from honey, and how much condensation (if any) accumulates in the morning. Why not just add an entrance feeder filled with water? That’s what I would do. The worst problem would be freezing (and breaking the jar) but some entrance feeders have plastic containers. Entrance feeders are not great for syrup because they can cause robbing, but for water they work great. You could also use a small jar feeder of water on top of the brood boxes enclosed in an empty super. Beekeeping Entrance Feeder

    • Charles,

      It’s okay to use but I don’t think it’s very attractive. Honey bees will eat hard candy when honey is in short supply, but it’s not their first choice.

      • I used something called piloncillo. It is a hardened brown sugar cane unprocessed. You can get them at Mexican stores. I had some activity before with just an old hive body, lemon grass oil, and old frames with comb. I put it in last night. This evening was a complete difference. The most activity by far. All over the hive, and now in my backyard sleeping on the side of my house, my grill, on the pavement, and the hive. How do I know if they have accepted the hive?

        • Charles,

          You know they’ve accepted the hive when the queen moves in and they start building comb and raising brood. Otherwise, they might just be hanging around for free food.

          • Should I open the hive and look for a queen? How long should I wait? Could I move the hive and install a queen?

          • Well, i opened the hive. A couple of little clusters. No brood or queen, low population. It looks like they are cleaning a bit. What if i installed a queen?

          • Charles,

            It doesn’t sound like you have enough bees there to warrant adding a queen. I don’t think it will work, just guessing.

  • I live in Denver, Co. We have been having some week-long cold spells with single digit temps at night.

    I have two top bar hives. I am wondering how tightly to close up the hives during this weather especially with regards to moisture in the hive. Additionally, what about winter feeding in top-bar hives?

    Thank you for your excellent website, the time you take for people like me, and thorough explanations as to the why bees and hives function as they do.

    Sincerely,
    9

    • Nina,

      I’m not sure I can answer, mostly because all top-bar hives are so different. I like the bees to have some top ventilation so the moisture can move out, but my top-bar hive has a large enough “attic” that moisture never seems to be a problem. I just leave a small entrance on one end and a partially screened bottom during the cold weather. I have no top ventilation in it.

      For winter feeding, I use candy cakes placed on the top bars. I spread the bars a little so the bees can get through and just lay the candy on top. Like I said, I have lots of attic space so there is room for everything.

  • Hello Rusty. After reading this I have a few questions. Our last fall inspection we decided to combine our 2 hives. We left our flourishing hive as the lower box, put cut up newspaper on top, then added the hive that wasn’t producing as well. We then added the honey super on top of both. (The super was originally on top of the better hive. We had added it because that hive needed more room.) We bought a box top hive feeder. But after reading this post we are thinking should we just leave the hive as is with the super on top? Instead of putting on the feeder? Or should we remove that top super and add some sort of feed other then syrup? My thoughts are that adding the feeder right on top of the super makes the hive 4 boxes tall. Is that too tall for a colony this size to survive the winter months?? I know they cluster for heat. P.S. this will be our colony’s first winter. We live in PA. Very frigid winters. Any advice and information is so very much appreciated. Thank you kindly. April from PA

  • Hi Rusty

    Is there any way of turning 2:1 sugar syrup into fondant and if so what ratio of sugar needs to be added please?

    • Anoma,

      If you have a lot of syrup, just keep boiling it until it reaches the temperature range for fondant. All those different stages of cooking syrup just have different amounts of water left in them, and the temperature increases as more water is driven out.

  • Thank you Rusty. So there will not be any risks of HMF by boiling the syrup I presume?

    I love your blogs Rusty. Learned so much from you!

    • Anoma,

      You always have an increase in HMF when you heat sugar syrup, but how much it harms the bees is hard to figure. Most research says that too much will shorten the lifespan of some bees, but it will not suddenly kill off a colony. You need to weigh their need for food against the increased risk. This is why many beekeepers, myself included, use no-cook recipes for feeding sugar. One thing you could do with your syrup is use it instead of water when making something like a no-cook candy board.

  • Thanks for the excellent post. Interestingly, Ian Steppler in Manitoba feeds his bees syrup in 1-gallon pails set atop the lids of his singles outside while it’s quite cold, and there is snow on the ground. Apparently, the bees take the syrup well enough. Perhaps the small space between the hive lid and the feeder pail screen warms up a little bit from the heat of the colony.

    Years ago I used to feed dry sugar in a rim below the lid, then switched to making and using fondant when necessary.

    Last year I found out about making sugar blocks, and although they aren’t as dense as fondant, they are much easier to make.

    A winter colony will go through the sugar blocks faster but they seem to be a fine way to feed in winter. Certainly cheaper than replacing starved out colonies with packages. It does require periodic checks to make sure the sugar hasn’t run out and to ensure the blocks are positioned on/adjacent to the cluster.

    Last year I had two small colonies that by late February only had clusters about the size of a softball — but I kept the sugar blocks on them…and they grew into two of the strongest colonies in the yard! Without sugar, they would have been lost for good.

    (I’m in northeastern MA)

  • Hi Rusty,

    How do I encourage my bees to store more syrup that I’m feeding?

    I have three hives (in CT) going into my first winter. All three were packages installed this spring. Two of the hives are still taking 2:1 sugar syrup, however, my Carniolan hive hasn’t touched the syrup in weeks. I opened the hives today (warm November (5th) day). The top brood box (medium) is only half full of honey and the bottom brood box is 3/4 full of honey with some late season brood about to hatch. Queen is still there and I saw new eggs and larva.

    If the bees are not taking the syrup is there any other way to feed in hopes that they can get through winter? Will putting dry sugar on top (Mountain Camp Method) help right now, or will that just help in late winter. How do I encourage them to store more syrup?

    • Christopher,

      The old adage applies here: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” If your colony decides it’s done storing syrup, there’s little you can do about it.

      Most colonies stop drinking syrup when the syrup (not the air) falls to around 50 degrees F. That’s because cold syrup chills them and makes them unable to function properly. If you are already cold, the idea of a cold drink may seem unappealing. It’s worse for bees because they are small and greatly affected by temperature fluctuations.

      You don’t say if your feeders are internal or external. If a large colony has an internal feeder, it can drink later into the season because the warmth from the colony keeps the syrup at a higher temperature.

      As soon as nighttime temperatures go down below fifty, I usually just switch to something solid or semisolid, like a candy board, sugar cakes, or fondant. Again, these should be kept above the colony where the food will be warmer.

  • Thank you for the advice,

    I’ve been feeding using an internal top feeder. The colony is not a large colony so based on what you are saying I doubt if the cluster could warm the feeder… I am going to start feeding using dry sugar on top of the hive bars. I hope the girls are prepared for our cold winters…

    • Christopher,

      Sounds like a good plan. Carniolans are known for overwintering with smaller colonies than some other types, so it all makes sense.

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