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How to feed bees in freezing weather

My husband came home yesterday and said the local postmaster was looking for me. It seems that one of his customers just lost seven out of nine hives and wants someone to explain why. Apparently he is a new beekeeper who took over the colonies from an elderly man and neither of them know why the bees are dying.

If we ever catch up with each other I will take a look, but seven out of nine is not a happy number. Without seeing a thing, my first guess would be starvation. Without a doubt, this was one of the worst years I’ve ever seen for lack of food stores.

Too cold and too hot

Last winter’s cold was interrupted by an unseasonably warm stretch that caused the maples to bloom early. This was immediately followed by drenching rains that kept the bees inside until the bloom was over. Then, just after the fruit trees began to blossom, a deep freeze shattered the flowers.

At that point, everyone was counting on the blackberry bloom to tide them over. But soon after the berries began to open, an extended heat wave dried them up. The arid summer and brown autumn that followed produced little nectar. Robbing bees were everywhere, gathering every drop of untended sweet. A sticky frame I had left on the picnic table soon disappeared under a pulsing mass of wings.

By September I had large, vivacious colonies with virtually no stores. Although I harvested not a single drop of honey, the hives were so light I could pick up the back end of most. I knew it would be a long, hard winter.

Making up for bad weather

I started by giving the colonies syrup while the weather was still warm, something I haven’t done in years. Then I fed them the frames of reserve honey I kept just in case. After that was gone, I started feeding sugar cakes. In spite of all the feeding, I lost one in December due to a clear case of starvation.

As I said, I haven’t yet inspected the seven dead colonies, but since the owner is close by and suffered the same weather patterns, I wouldn’t be surprised if they starved. And since many places in North America had sere summers, I wanted to remind you to check on food stores the first chance you get.

Too cold to feed bees?

Beekeepers often say they want to check for stores but it is too cold to open the hive. In my opinion, if you believe they might be low and the weather is cold, there is no point in waiting for a warm day to go through the frames. Instead, go ahead and give them reserved honey if you have it or at least a sugar supplement—and do it now.

Candy boards are extremely helpful and, this year, my plan was to make candy boards for each hive. I purchased the materials I needed to make the boards, but never got to it.

But the system I use allows me to feed the bees on cold days, even down in the 20s F. This is what I do:

Feeding when it's freezing
  1. I make no-cook candy cakes by mixing a little water into a lot of sugar. I put the wet sugar in paper plates and let it dry rock hard. (If I’m in a hurry, I dry it in the oven.)
  2. When the cakes are hard I sprinkle each one with a drop or two of essential oil, such as anise. The scent helps the bees find the sugar, if nothing else.
  3. I pop the cakes out of the plate and stack them in a bucket along with my hive tool.
  4. At the hive, I take off the lid. The bees stay warm because the quilt box holds most of the heat in, even with the lid off.
  5. With the hive tool, I crack the quilt from the feeder rim below it, but I don’t remove the quilt.
  6. I take a candy cake in one hand, lift the corner of the quilt with the other, and slide the candy cake into the feeder rim, placing it directly over the cluster.
  7. If you are ready, this takes about one or two seconds. The hive loses very little heat because you never remove the quilt. It’s like opening and closing a window on a cold day: they get a little gush of cold air, then the temperature returns to normal.
  8. Replace the lid and go to the next hive.

The idea that you shouldn’t feed your (possibly) starving bees because they might get cold in the process doesn’t make any sense to me. If they are out of food, they will die whether they are cold or not. So if you think they might be short of food, prepare in advance, and do it as fast as you can. You don’t have to go through every frame and then decide.

Nature isn’t always nice

Naturally, the best possible food for bees is the honey they stored for themselves. But it doesn’t always work out that way even if you didn’t harvest. If you think your bees may be hungry, go ahead and give them some help. Warm weather may come too late.

Remember, too, that the rate of consumption increases as spring approaches. Just when stores are lowest, they use them the fastest. Every year, thousands of colonies die in the last weeks before the first nectar flows. Remember that, and check on your bees early.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

A candy board is a good way to feed bees in freezing weather.
A candy board is a good alternative to sugar cakes and provides a way to feed bees in freezing weather. © Herb Lester.

Comments

Phillip
Reply

I’ve been pouring dry sugar in my hives over newspaper because it’s the easiest method I’ve found and I’ve sworn off cooking anything again ever. But that no-cook method of making candy cakes and slipping them in the hives when the bees aren’t looking — it’s the genius of simplicity. I hate you.

We had an exceptionally warm December in NL and most of my colonies burned through their honey at an alarming rate. One colony nearly starved to death before I could give it extra sugar. Its cluster was about the size of baseball the last time I checked (it’s a goner). I expect some of the colonies are already living entirely off the sugar I gave them.

Rusty
Reply

I have to tell ya, Phillip, I had this baseball-size colony going into winter. I planned to combine it but never got around to it. Then a week of 18 F weather hit. I figured they were gone, so I didn’t even open the hive when I was giving the others supplemental honey. Then, about a month later, we had another week of below freezing weather, and I still didn’t open the hive. Then one day, I decided to store that equipment in the shed. I threw off the lid and there they were! I was dumb-struck.

I began feeding them, and they are now about cantaloupe size. You just never know.

Eddy
Reply

Great plan — if you have Lang hives. Anyone with top bars with some (any) insight as to how to get a frame of food in without freezing the bees?! Not that it is freezing here, more like damp 45-degrees . . .

-Eddy

Rusty
Reply

Eddy,

I do exactly the same thing with my top-bar hive as I do with my Langs. Exactly.

Jan Brett
Reply

What did you mean when you said you “slide it into the feeder rim”? I don’t have a feeder on my hive now, but the quilt is just under the inner lid. Can you just put it on the top of the frames? Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Jan,

Yes, put it on top of the frames if you have room. The feeder rim (or just an empty super) gives you lots of space so the bees can access the sugar.

suzanne
Reply

I have Langstroth hives that I make candy boards for, but this is my first year with a TBH. So do you just lift the lid and remove one of the top bars and place the sugar cake in the hive? I hate to break the propolis seal, but want to make sure they have food. How close to the cluster do you place the cake? Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Suzanne,

I just lift the lid and place the candy on the top bars directly above the cluster. I do not remove any bars because I have lots of room within the gabled roof to place the sugar cakes. The propolis will reseal in no time and, in any case, food is more important than an intact seal.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty,
I put sugar cakes on 2 hives today when it got up to 48 out. Even through my glove, I was amazed at the heat coming up off the cluster. One hive had half of the last cake left: the other had a sliver. The shavings in the moisture quilt were dry, Thank you for all the great ideas and guidance. Just praying the water maples wait till February!
Nan

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

Glad to hear your bees are hanging in there!

Eddy
Reply

Hmmm. I do not have open spaces between the bars as in a Lang hive, so there is no “put it on the top” option. Plus, they are all glued together with propolis!
I will have to crack open a bar on the edge of the colony, remove a bar of comb (and any bees on it), slip my custom-made v-shaped candy board in, and close them back up.
I can do this maybe in about 30 seconds — would that too much cold air, or can they warm the place back up if they get the extra food? I couldn’t kill the hive by doing that, would I — that is the underlying fear . . .

Rusty
Reply

Eddy,

I see what you are saying. I don’t keep all the top bars in the hive. Mine holds 24 bars, but I only use 22. I space them out so the bees can go into the “attic” where the extra food is. When it gets warmer I will take some photos so you get a better idea.

The bees will warm up the hive again. Fed but chilly is better than warm and dead, at least in my opinion.

Lyn
Reply

I live in Florida so I don’t have the extreme weather but I still check and feed during the winter if supers seem light. Letting bees starve, in any climate, just seems like neglect and sad to me! Especially when i’ts easy to supplement with sugar in different forms.

Robin
Reply

I watched my hives carefully and topped them off with lots of honey balls in early December [honey and sugar mixed until it holds together]. Lost both of them anyway because the clusters were just too small. [I had followed the advice of state experts who said that they would winter them small instead of combining. Oops.]

Rusty
Reply

Robin,

I’ve read that some states have inspectors with very little practical experience. Don’t know how true that is, but it’s a persistent rumor. It’s better to go with your gut feeling, I think.

Robert l
Reply

I use my rinse water from crush and strain as a food supplement in the spring or really any time it gets warm enough for them to fly in the winter. I freeze it in gallon jugs. When I need some, I let it defrost overnight and punch small hole in the bottom for them to drink it out of. Of course I make the holes after I have it where I want them to feed, it does leak a bit till the vacuum stops it. The bees love it. I just set them far enough from the hives to discourage robbing.

Rusty
Reply

Robert,

Great idea . . . I always learn something from you all.

Mary P.
Reply

Hi Rusty…could you give more specific details about feeding a TBH? It’s not clear to me where to put the sugar cake since the top of the combs aren’t exposed like in Lang when you take the cover off. TIA. – Mary

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

My top-bar hive has a gabled roof. When I take it off, it exposes the tops of the bars, just like in a Lang. The whole interior of the gabled roof is empty space. I pile candy in there, or frames of honey from my Langs or, if I want, I can even put a gallon syrup feeder in there. That’s one reason I like my top-bar hive so much—all that space, and never once have I found burr comb in there. The colony living there now swarmed in when the hive was sitting empty in my driveway, and that was five years ago.

cgrey8
Reply

Since probably November, I’ve been concerned about my bees due to low stores going into the fall. So for quite some time, I’ve had an empty super on top of each hive surrounding an aluminum pan full of hardened sugar made as described above. But on many inspections, the bee were rarely partaking. They went over a month without eating at it much at all. So I thought maybe I’ll wet it just a tad just to see if that makes it more appetizing. And each time I’d wet it, the sugar was covered with bees sucking it up. The next day, the sugar would be bone-dry. So I decided I’d pour a good bit of warm water all over the sugar to make a small moat of sugar water amongst “sugar-bergs” and that has worked out very well. They take the sugar much more readily. It probably also helps that the tray is right above the cluster so the heat of the cluster helps keep the sugar at an edible temp for them.

Now that we are in mid January, the population has increased noticeably since December, even though the worst of our winter (historically) is still ahead of us although the temps so far this year have been quite mild…below freezing at night but back into the 40s and 50s in the day.

So far, both hives appear to be doing quite well despite them having a novice for a keeper. The winter isn’t over, so things could always change. But at the moment, I’m quite hopeful for them.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

If your bees aren’t taking the hard sugar, removing it from the container and laying it directly on the top bars makes all the difference. In that way, water vapor from the bees’ respiration rises and then condenses on the under side of the sugar cakes where it dissolves the bottom layer and keeps it nice and moist. This doesn’t happen if you keep the hard sugar in a container.

cgrey8
Reply

That would explain why they weren’t eating the dry sugar.

I originally had the chunks of sugar directly on the frames, but I stopped doing that because so much of the sugar was crumbling and falling past the frames, through the screened bottom board, and right onto the ground. I had ants like crazy eating the sugar that was under the hives. It wasn’t just a little bit of sugar. It had the area under both hives completely white. I decided I didn’t like the idea of loosing so much of the sugar to the ants so I came up with the dish idea. That solved the problem, but I didn’t realize they required the moisture from their respiration to eat the sugar. I wish that had been mentioned somewhere amongst all the MANY posts and youtube videos talking about dry-sugar feeding. But not one mentioned this.

Always something new to learn…

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

In a previous post on Mountain Camp feeding I say, “Moisture from the bees’ respiration condenses on the sugar and makes it palatable for the bees.” But yeah, it’s hard to find. I actually leave the sugar in paper trays or paper plates and the bees take it just fine. You must have stubborn bees.

c hart
Reply

Thank you so much for discussing this. I’m still confused. Even if I lift the top of my top bar hive and put a sugar party directly on the bars, I don’t understand how the bees can access that space and the sugar when the bars are pushed tight together and most, if not all, are sealed with propolis. What key step am I missing here?

Rusty
Reply

The key is to not use all of your top bars. I use 22 of the 24 and space them out so the bees can access the “attic.”

Aaron
Reply

So I had a dead out and I was pretty sure – until I read this – that they froze. Now I am wondering if they starved after all. I had a 2-deep setup, and the top deep was/is full – it weighs as much as I’d expect going into winter. I examined the frames and found a tiny cluster, dead, about the size of a racquetball. There are bees in the cells and appear to be surrounding something. I’m pretty sure that if I dissect it I will find the Queen. That particular frame has almost no brood or pollen, but does have capped honey on the far side. There does appear to be some capped brood right next to the cluster (about 12 cells). The surrounding frames have honey and pollen.

My thoughts are that there is far too much honey and pollen in the hive to be a starve out. My main issue is about the amount of stores and I can’t tell if they starved or froze. I know they won’t break cluster to eat, but I live in NW WA, on the Olympic Peninsula, and we’ve had a pretty mild winter, save the December cold snap. My other hive has bees flying on warmish days. This one had flyers about 3-4 weeks ago….

I have a (fairly long) descriptive write up of my findings and a lot of pictures if anyone wants to know more or see the images. I am not sure this is the right place for it unless Rusty says so. 🙂

Aaron

Wayne Davidson
Reply

I have been feeding syrup all winter for the last three winters with some great success. I’m at 6000 feet in SE Idaho and have long winters, well into April. So I started preparing in the fall by leaving the top feeder on. The bees seal the edges, I add Styrofoam to the top and wood chips in the top feeder anywhere there isn’t the syrup pan. I put syrup in the pan and periodically through the winter on sunny days I refill it. To refill just lift the top, remove the Styrofoam and the inner cover. The top feeder stays on and the bees never get blasted by the cold. I’m sure they feel the draft up through the feeder entrance, but it’s quick and closed soon. I found the syrup doesn’t freeze, at least every time I have opened the hive there was nothing frozen. Even if it does freeze it doesn’t hurt anything, and is still in place when it warms. Also no moisture ends up in the hive since all the water is on top and the top is vented through the Styrofoam. This has worked well, and allows me to feed honey or syrup all winter. I could send pictures if you’re interested.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Wayne. I sent you an e-mail.

Jim Harper
Reply

Rusty,

We have our first beehive in our apiary located in our community garden in SW Illinois. We established the hive with a nuc of Russian bees last April. When we got the hive ready for wintering over, we added a feeder box with 14 lbs of bee candy (I added 2 drops of lemon essential oil when I was doing the final stir before pouring it in the feeder box). We placed that feeder box on the upper hive body, then put the quilt box on top of that and a white improved cover (from Dadant & Sons in Hamilton, IL) which should help keep the colony warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Temperatures here have been very cold, sub-freezing days with nights in the teens, the past
three weeks. This week our daytime temperatures are above 50 so we did a limited hive inspection and the bees are loving the bee candy and have consumed about 1/4 of it.

Our quilt box we made is working very efficiently and we have one HAPPY HIVE of bees. We are now preparing a second hive for receipt of its bees this coming spring. To paraphrase a Ship Captain, “Steady as Bees Go!”

Rusty
Reply

Jim,

Sounds like they’re doing great!

Beth
Reply

Hi Rusty,

My husband and I were so happy to see you bring this up the other day. We have three (what we think/hope to be) strong hives this winter with 2-3 honey supers. With living in New England, as the saying goes, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”

We wanted to take a peek at our girls yesterday with the temps being winter warm, sunny and in the low 40s. Did just as you suggested, and had our winter patties and sugar blocks ready, cracked open the hive by lifting the moisture quilt just a few inches and was going to place the items in, when surprise! We were greeted by our bees dangling from the bottom of the screen of the moisture quilt clinging to each others legs down to the frames.

My husband quickly closed up before they tried to come out. A few weren’t lucky, but the hundreds/thousands we saw stayed in thankfully! So now we aren’t sure what to do. He is afraid if we try to place the food in on them, we could possibly harm the queen. We did lift the hive and it is still extremely heavy, indicating that there is still plenty in there. But should we be worried that they are at the top? I would love to buy a thermal imaging camera (least expensive of the lot) to be able to see where the cluster is exactly, before attempting to try that again. Have you experienced your bees doing something similar ever?

Thank you in advance!! We think of you as the ultimate Honey Bee Guru.

So looking forward to spring! 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Beth,

That is so funny; my bees always do that. They completely fill the feeder rim, hang from the quilt, fly out at me, and act like they haven’t seen food in weeks. The queen will be down on the brood comb; she won’t go up there with the teeming masses so don’t worry about her.

What I do is put a small stone on top of the frames, a stone about one-inch in diameter. Then I put the sugar cake in so that one edge is on the frames and one edge is on the stone. This keeps the sugar cake from squishing the bees against the frames. Some bees will fly out, but on a warmish day, even in the 40s, most will find their way back in. Just ease the sugar cake in and the bees will get out of the way.

It sounds like your bees are doing great. Just go back in and get this done. You will get used to it.

Vince
Reply

Rusty
I started feeding my bees the first of January in central Alabama. I also had some frames of honey left over that I had placed in a freezer. The honey had a smell that was not pleasant. I used 4 in each hive with some sugar cakes. I was thinking that I should not have placed this extra honey in the hives as it may have gone bad. They are getting 1:1 sugar/water as well. Should I leave the honey on and let the bees deside? Temp 34 and warming up to around 62 for about 5 days in a row.

Rusty
Reply

Vince,

Honey doesn’t go bad, assuming it was capped. The smell comes from the plant it was collected from. Some have a bad odor, for example goldenrod, but there is nothing wrong with it. Usually the odor dissipates with time, and your bees probably think it smells delicious.

Brad Raspet
Reply

I make fondant(bee candy) works great, installed as Rusty states. Here’s my recipe: Bee Candy / Fondant Recipe
Emergency Feeding (late winter or early spring)
10 lb sugar Caution:
5 cups water Hot Syrup, Handle
1 teaspoon ProHealth or HBH With Care!
1 teaspoon Vinegar (Do Not Let Over Boil!)

Bring Water to boil on medium high heat
Add sugar & stir, add more sugar & stir (don’t cover)
Continue stirring, and bring to soft ball stage 242 degrees
(Do Not Leave Pot Unattended!)

Remove from heat, cool to about 210 degrees
Add ProHealth & Vinegar…
Stir vigorously and quickly pour into paper plate molds
Should be fudge hard at room temperature when cooled
Place on top bars, add empty honey super if required?
P.S. Disease Free Honey is always better but Bee Candy can make the difference if they are low on groceries. :^)

Brad Raspet – BingalingBees.com 360-708-9424

Tomas
Reply

Rusty

I’m new to beekeeping and I have been looking up the benefits of using quilt boxes for winter periods. I also understand that a feeder tray is essential to help prevent starvation. I was just wondering though does the moisture not collect at the bottom of the feeder tray before the vapours travel through the quilt box and reaches the bottom of the top cover(roof)? Or do the vapours simply pass through and condense on the bottom of the top cover. I’m just curious because I live in Ireland so moisture is definitely an issue. I was thinking of modifying the feeder tray to make a lot more transparent.

Rusty
Reply

Tomas,

1. Feeder are only necessary if the bees do not have enough stored honey. Honey will keep them healthier, especially during long winters.

2. You have to design your feeding system so the warm air can pass through and between the food and up into the quilt. I like blocks or cakes of hard candy placed on the top bars. The warm air condenses on the bottoms of the candy and the rest continues up to the quilt.

Martin Vinaver
Reply

Hi, does anyone know if in freezing weather my feeding glass jars, which are inside the hive on a side compartment COULD FREEZE AND CRACK, letting my bee tea inundate the premises inside the hive? If that possibility exists, are plastic jars the solution?

Rusty
Reply

Martin,

I don’t know how cold it gets where you are, but syrup freezes at some temperature, and due to the high water content, it will expand. More to the point, however, is that bees won’t drink any liquid that is below about 50°F, so why bother?

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