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Winter feed Q & A: liquid vs solid sugar

My recent posts on heat transfer in liquid and solid feeds have generated a host of good questions. Since many of the questions are similar, I’ve attempted to answer them in the following Q & A.

Q: So 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 breath 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

Comments

Emily
Reply

Thanks Rusty 🙂

Mil
Reply

Makes me glad that I fed the bees before it got too cold for them to use. Good stuff. Now, to just get the bees through the winter.

Sarah
Reply

OK, so my friend (a beekeeper) told me to buy fondant at Walmart and feed it to them. I eat organic, so naturally I found the ingredients disgusting. Instead I am mixing vegetable shortening, cane sugar granules and a couple drops of tea tree oil. I hope this works. What do you think?

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

I can’t imagine what they put in it. Fondant is made from sugar. It shouldn’t include much more. You can add some corn syrup (not high-fructose corn syrup) to give it a smoother texture, but otherwise your recipe sounds fine. I never use vegetable oil, but it won’t hurt anything. Fondant for bees is more of a texture issue than an ingredients issue. Fondant is soft and pliable, as opposed to sugar (hard) or syrup (liquid).

ScoobyDoBee
Reply

As always, love your stuff!

John
Reply

We are experiencing unusually warm winter temps here in Western NC. Today it’s rainy and in the mid 50’s and is only supposed to only cool off to upper 40’s or 50 tonight, and supposed to be in the upper 60’s this weekend, and I’ve noticed bee activity from my two hives in the last couple of days.

My question is, should I take advantage of the warmer temp and attempt to feed my bees liquid syrup instead of candy? I spent the early part of the fall sick and didn’t get a good start on feeding. I figure I got only about 3/4 gallon of syrup to them before it got cold. We went though a cold end of Nov and though Dec, but now it’s warm. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

John,

Remember that the syrup has to be above 50°F for the bees to take it. If you think it will be in the upper 60s during the day, you can certainly try. One thing you can do is heat the syrup gently before you put it in the hive; that way it will stay warm longer. Heat it to around 100°F and see how that works.

John
Reply

Thanks Rusty!

Two more things I wanted to ask. With the warm snap we are experiencing (7 day forecast is calling for little change, but here in the mountains they’re notorious for changing the forecast constantly) and noticing some bees foraging, do I need to provide anything else besides syrup. And, secondly is it okay to leave any syrup not consumed during the day, in the hive overnight if the temps are around 40?

Rusty
Reply

John,

It never hurts to give pollen substitute, but if they are flying they may not need it. In the spring bees find pollen way before nectar. Around here, by February I see them bringing in pollen on warm days. You are much further south so I wouldn’t be surprised to see pollen coming in now. On the other hand, if you have pollen substitute, there’s certainly no harm in giving it to them.

Cold syrup in the hive won’t hurt the bees, they just won’t drink it. If it sits too long in the hive it will eventually get moldy. You can always take it out and warm it up again, if you want.

John

Thanks again for the info! It’s unbelievable here! They’re calling for 71 tomorrow and 67 Sunday! The middle of January we should be having highs in the 30’s and snow!! This is insane! We had a mild winter last year and everything bloomed at the first hint of spring, and BAM! a week of lows in the mid 20’s killed over half the apple crop, I have about 14 cherry trees on my property and I didn’t have a single cherry, and no grapes off my 3 vines! Hoping this year isn’t a repeat!

Rick haney
Reply

I’m confused, do I feed my bees syrup (2/1 sugar water), dry sugar or a recipe of sugar made into candy in North Idaho?

Rusty
Reply

Rick,

Bees will not drink syrup that falls below 50°F because they get chilled and unable to move. Compare it to drinking an icy drink when you’re already cold. You don’t have to worry about hurting them, but you are wasting the sugar: they just will not drink it. So, you have to give them something solid: granulated sugar, hard candy, or fondant. The scientific reasons are explained in this post: “Why bees can eat solid sugar in winter.”

You can make candy boards or fondant, if you want. I just split open a bag of sugar and place it in an empty super.

Ima
Reply

I live in south Georgia. Temps range from 30 to 65 degrees. Feed bees 2.1 syrup mixture in a outside feeder. They eat up about 2 quart container in a day, sometimes 2 days. So it must be ok and not harming them. If too cold outside they stay in hive.

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

No, I have not considered it. Does anyone produce it for sale?

Tim
Reply

Sure! Easy to find. I’ve seen it as low as $5 a pound. Maybe the price makes it unattractive to large scale producers, but I like to spoil my farm animals, no reason bees will be different, lol.

Swanson’s Trehalose, $10/lb

Getting my package bees this weekend, the plan is to start them on sugar water as normal, but then offer them trehalose and sugar side-by-side and see if they seem to prefer one over the other.

I’ve searched the literature high and low, no sign that any beekeeper has ever fed trehalose to bees, but, it’s only been commercially available for a decade or so, so maybe simply overlooked.

Wikipedia has a good entry on trehalose, seems to me the sugar of choice for insects.

Wikipedia: Trehalose

From the wiki:

“In nature, trehalose can be found in animals, plants, and microorganisms. In animals, trehalose is prevalent in shrimp, and also in insects, including grasshoppers, locusts, butterflies, and bees, in which blood-sugar is trehalose. The trehalose is then broken down into glucose by the catabolic enzyme trehalase for use.Trehalose is also present in the nutrition exchange liquid of hornets and their larvae.

Trehalose is the major carbohydrate energy storage molecule used by insects for flight. One possible reason for this is that the glycosidic linkage of trehalose, when acted upon by an insect trehalase, releases two molecules of glucose, which is required for the rapid energy requirements of flight. This is double the efficiency of glucose release from the storage polymer starch, for which cleavage of one glycosidic linkage releases only one glucose molecule.”

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

Whoa, that’s a bit out of my league. I went through 300 pounds of sugar this winter, so at $10.99/pound that would be $3,297 before shipping. I don’t think so.

Jasper McGuiggan
Reply

Just wondering about syrup vs fondant, if the bees in winter are starving its recommended to feed them fondant as they can eat it whereas it would be too cold for them to eat the syrup, would that mean its easier for the bees to digest fondant? If this is the case why not feed fondant all year round and forget about the syrup?

David A Cushman wrote in regarding feeding fondant – “Timing of candy feeding is usually during late winter or early spring when feeding liquid syrup or honey would stimulate the bees to raise brood more early than it was deemed prudent.”

He knew his stuff so that could be a good reason for feeding fondant late winter and early spring. Why not all year round, its less messy, easier to feed etc why bother with that messy syrup at all at all?

Rusty
Reply

Jasper,

Cushman answered your question in the quote you chose: “Timing of candy feeding is usually during late winter or early spring when feeding liquid syrup or honey would stimulate the bees to raise brood more early than it was deemed prudent.” In other words, late winter may be too early to stimulate brood rearing, so fondant is best. But when you do want to stimulate brood rearing, you use a light syrup. One to one syrup is known for stimulating brood production and that is precisely why it is used.

In any case, bees are adaptable. You can feed them any way you want and they will either eat it or not.

Jasper McGuiggan
Reply

Thanks Rusty, I just needed clarification as I’m new to all of this. Amazing site you have here the best online and reading the comments I’m not the only one who thinks this. Very grateful for your quick reply.

Go raibh míle maith agat.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Jasper.

Bembya
Reply

Hi
Could you please tell me what temperature should be when bees taking sugar liquid for winter?
Thank you very much
Regards

Karen
Reply

First year with bees. Checked them today and they are only in the bottom super. Not many bees at all. Which is best to feed, fondant or plain sugar over the winter here in Indiana.

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

It doesn’t really matter; they both work. But a small cluster may not be big enough to keep itself warm through the winter. They may not make it.

Wendy
Reply

Hi Rusty,

My fondant gets super hard on the frames. Possibly the moisture from the bees is aiding this process. Can the bees still eat the fondant once it turns into a brick? I’m in Wyoming.

-Wendy

Rusty
Reply

Wendy,

Lots of people feed with sugar bricks, sugar cubes, or just plain granulated sugar, all of which are hard. The moisture from the bees’ respiration condenses on the surface of the candy and dissolves the hard sugar on the surface. That is the part the bees eat. As they eat it, a new surface is exposed to the moisture and dissolves, so there is always some edible sugar.

Where are you placing the fondant? It should be directly above the cluster, such that the warm air from the bees rises and condenses against it.

Wendy
Reply

I should add that the fondant becomes like a brick after it is on the hives (almost impossible to break up or scrape off even with a hive tool). Wrapped up in a cool place, the fondant remains fairly soft. The bees appear to be trying to eat the fondant. The fondant just isn’t being consumed as quickly as I thought it would be. They have plenty of honey, so maybe that is their first choice. Our night-time temperatures are in the teens now, but daytime temps are mid-forties to fifties.

Rusty
Reply

Wendy,

They may be eating the honey first. I would just leave the fondant in place and not worry about it. I often just place a four-pound bag of sugar in the hive. It soon gets like granite, but the bees eventually eat it, especially late winter and early spring as the cluster moves up in the hive.

Wendy
Reply

Thanks so much for the info. I just wasn’t sure if the fondant/candy could be too hard. I greatly appreciate all the info you post. Reading your posts has helped me (and the bees) greatly.

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