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Don’t let your bees go hungry

Here is a quick reminder about the amount of food a winter colony can burn through. Contrary to logic, your colony will eat more during a warm, balmy winter than it will during a colder one.

On warm days, honey bees will leave the hive and fly around looking for food, but flying is extremely energy expensive. Chances are, they won’t find anything to collect, so they spend a lot of energy looking for something that doesn’t exist. On the other hand, bees that are huddled together in a cluster share their warmth with each other and burn less energy.

A few warm days can help

Warm days do have advantages. A few warm days scattered throughout the winter will allow your bees to take cleansing flights, which are good for the long-term health of the colony. I’m always happy to see bees flying briefly after a cold spell or leaving yellow spots in the snow.

However, if the warm days persist and you discover your bees foraging day after day, it may be time to check on their food supply. Many times in the past month, I’ve noticed bees poking around the leafless bushes and examining the compost pile: too much flying too late in the year.

Flying bees are hungry bees

I was thinking about this one day when I received the following photo from Cal Early, a beekeeper here in Olympia. It shows a no-cook candy board, the same type that I use, that he made as an insurance policy. He writes:

Here’s a representative photo of a candy board on one of my 19 hives. They all have them, put on in early October, each containing about 10 pounds initially. Most of my colonies are in single deeps with a medium super on top, then the candy board above that. A big colony in a 3-deep configuration has only about 1 pound left in theirs. Looks like a winter to be sharp and watch their food carefully so as to avoid simple starvation.

Bees flying on warms days can eat through their supplies. Here is the remainder of a 10-pound candy board after two months on the hive.
Bees flying on warms days can eat through their supplies. Here is the remainder of a 10-pound candy board after two months on the hive. © Cal Early.

Many people like to make candy boards as a precaution, just in the case the bees eat through their honey stores. But to have a 10-pound board go nearly empty by mid-December is kind of scary. In fact, I often don’t put them on until around the winter solstice (December 21) so this shows how unseasonably warm it has been in our area.

Brood rearing will soon begin

Remember, too, that soon after the winter solstice, brood rearing will begin to increase. Your queen will go from laying few, if any, eggs to laying more and more every day. If all goes according to plan, the hive will be overflowing with bees by the time the nectar flows begin. But more brood rearing means the colony will plow through even more food, so if there is any chance your colony may run short, you should check more frequently as spring approaches.

One time I made the mistake of checking on food stores every two weeks. I put it on my calendar, and checked like clockwork, often giving extra sugar to some of the more populous hives. But as spring approached, once every two weeks was not enough for my largest colony, and it starved to death sometime in that two weeks period. It still makes me furious to think I could be that dense, but it’s a good reminder that what was enough in winter may not be enough in spring.

As soon as I finish this post I’m going to do a quick hive check: lift one end of the quilt, peek at the candy board, and close it up. A check takes about five seconds but can be priceless.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Vince Poulin
Reply

Rusty, came home in mid-December to see both of two very strong hives going into the first week of October died out. 100% loss. I also learned from our local bee club that 50% of people had hive losses and that was a survey in November. Something nasty happened. One of the hives had a moderate number of mites on the drop board – about 400 but those accumulated over many weeks. No DWV observed in any of the dead bees. I salvaged 36 pounds of bottled honey from the winter stores. Some of us are wondering if CCD isn’t lurking in SW BC.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Vince,

It still sounds like mites to me. The biggest hives are always the first to fall because they can quickly grow huge populations of mites. And remember, bees that contract deformed wing virus as adults do not have deformed wings because their wings were already formed. So in the fall, with little brood, the mites can spread the viruses throughout the adult population without a deformed wing ever showing.

Barb Risucci
Reply

Thanks for the reminder! We just put a large sugar cake on our bees this morning. It’s been quite balmy lately here in Southeastern Virginia, with several days of seeing the bees out, (and some bringing in pollen..??!! We have no idea where that’s coming from.) We were surprised to see them up around our inner cover when we took off the lid. As soon as I noisily popped the inner cover off, one startled bee came out and zapped me on my forehead. Other than that, they seemed happy to see the sugar cake. Thanks so much for your site. I use it as a reference all the time as a 3rd year beekeeper. In fact used it yesterday to refresh my memory on how to make a sugar cake!! Happy New Year!

Kathleen Wallman
Reply

Thanks, Rusty! You mentioned a quilt in the post. What do you use and what’s your experience with it?

Rusty
Reply

Kathleen,

I’ve written about moisture quilts many times because, quite simply, I think they are the thing most responsible for successful overwintering in my climate. I wouldn’t even try to overwinter without them.

lloyd
Reply

Amos once said to Andy, you have a lot of great judgement. How did you get that? Answer.
I got that from experience. So Amos says how did you get all of that experience. Andy. I got that from bad judgement.

last year i used candy boards. made them myself. felt real good. they don’t really work. yeah they ate some of it but there were two problems. first you can’t use a quilt box. secondly the cluster really need that food source close to where they are. so a mentor, white house mentor, told me he feeds syrup and fondant placed on top of the frames. no inner cover. this way they can really be closer to the food source and you have the added benefit of the quilt box. so. so far when i check them, 20 hives, they are chowing down on the syrup and a few on the fondant. recently when i open the tops to have a look see it was like an ocean of bees up top. the syrup won’t freeze. 2-1 syrup. ask me in the spring how it ended up. lots of variables but doing this has been an eye opener.

Rusty
Reply

Lloyd,

I use both a quilt and a candy board, designed to be used together. See A no-cook candy board recipe for wintering bees. The candy board is placed directly above the brood frames and below the quilt. Works like a charm.

JWPalmer
Reply

Rusty, seems to me the bees will eat a candy board before they eat their own capped honey/syrup. Bees are all over the sugar bricks and the hives are full of capped frames of syrup.

Rusty
Reply

Yes, definitely. I have seen that happen.

Georgina Macfarlane
Reply

Any hints on how to feed bees in a top-bar hive?

Also, I live in southern New Brunswick, Canada and we have are having quite cold snaps (23 deg.F during the day, 10 deg.F at night) alternating with several days of hovering around 32deg.F. When would our queens start prepping to lay brood in this climate?

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Georgina,

Your bees will sense the change in day length, not so much the temperature. When the time is right (any day now) the workers will raise the temperature inside the cluster to around 93 degrees F and the queen will begin to lay eggs.

As for feeding a top-bar hive, it depends on how they are designed. I just lay sugar cakes on top of the bars and leave some space between bars so the bees can get to it. But not all top-bar hives allow for that. You may have to carefully think it through.

Richard Rurup
Reply

To Georgina Macfarlane: Use a frame feeder and just fill it with sugar. If they can’t access the top drill 2 or 3 holes( 3/4 -1 inch) about an inch down from the top and put in place of a frame facing the holes toward the bees. You might also try just opening a bag of sugar and setting it between your follower board and frames.

Georgina Macfarlane
Reply

Thank you for the prompt reply. I hadn’t thought about the trigger being daylight hours and not temperature.

I had put some sugar cake under the comb in the hive and sprinkled some broken sugar bits along the top of the bars, but that was in November. I did not realize that they might be running out of food already so am very glad to have read your blog about checking on them more often. I guess it is better to take the chance of chilling them a bit and feed them than to go too long between feedings.

Rusty
Reply

Georgina,

Food above the cluster will be warmer than food below (because warm air rises). So always try to put food above the bees if you can.

Lara Wilson
Reply

lawil0212@gmail.com
Rusty,
What do you think about giving some protein or pollen substitute along with candy boards during winter?

Rusty
Reply

Lara,

I think it’s fine as long as you don’t give it too early. Any time after the winter solstice (like now) is great.

glenda
Reply

I live on the central coast of sunny California. Today was very sunny in mid 50’s and the bees were loving the flowering “Money Tree-Eucalyptus.” The tree was so full. Do they get nectar or just pollen or maybe both?

Rusty
Reply

Glenda,

I believe eucalyptus trees provide both nectar and pollen.

Debbie in Ohio
Reply

That candy board was similar to what I saw last week when I checked on hives. I have a few colonies that are on their second candy board already. The problem I am seeing this year is that the bees have also gone through their bee bread and pollen reserves. They are leaving small clusters at the brood area and the rest of the bees are moving toward any food they can find. The hives were bursting with reserves the end of November at last inspection. I added some winter pollen patties and also sprinkled some pollen dust on the candy boards to help them. It’s going to be a long hard winter when winter does hit in January. We know it will get here, we just don’t know when and it’s going to hit the bees pretty hard if we keep up at this rate with the weather. I have one colony that requeened in September and that queen has not stopped laying. The bees are bulging out of the box. It has two candy boards on it and a super of honey. I added three frames of honey three weeks ago and when I went in to check last week, all frames were empty. Shows you how fast they can go through frames of honey. I am hoping for a nice warm day to break the boxes down to the brood area and see what the frames look like. Having empty brood frames with no reserves scares me. I had kept over 80 frames of honey in reserve to add through the winter and I have only twenty left. They will be gone soon if we keep up at this rate.

Also, when we have them nice days and the bees are flying, I have been setting out pans of substitute pollen and they are coming in huge numbers to bring it back home. Shows that their reserves are down. It’s been a weird winter in Ohio. Wet and up and down temperatures. Not good bee weather. Hate the cold rain and warmer temps. Kills a lot of the bees. The moisture boxes have been extremely wet and I have had to add a second moisture box to some of the larger colonies and give them more ventilation.

Going to be a stessfull winter for this Beekeeper !

Thank you for this article. It was very timely. Puts people on notice to check their bees weekly.

Debbie in Ohio
Reply

A tidbit: If it is too cold to get to the brood box or honey supers and add frames of honey, sometimes I will cut off the ends of the frames and lay a frame of honey on the candy board for the bees. Seems to work out pretty good. Then in the spring, I just replace that top piece and the frame is ready to insert and use.

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

Interesting idea. Sometimes I cut out a comb of honey, let it drip on a rack for a while, and then lay the whole thing on top of the brood frames. That works, too.

Cheryl
Reply

I am a second year newbie and still have questions about feeding. I live in northern Michigan…long cold winters. I haven’t harvested honey until spring so far. If there are 2 full mediums of honey available to the bees, feeding shouldn’t be needed, right?

I did lose my bees last winter but there was plenty of honey left in the hive when the bees died.

Rusty
Reply

Cheryl,

With so many variables, I can’t just say yes or no. It depends on how big the colony is, how long the winter is, how cold it is, whether any robbing occurred, whether any mice got in, etc. Sometimes bees starve with honey in the hive because it’s too cold for them to travel to it. For best results, food should be directly over the cluster because that is where the warm air goes. Sometimes it is necessary to move the frames of honey around so that the full ones are just above, or right alongside, the bees.

Deb Corcoran
Reply

In response to Georgina and feeding a top bar hive, I put hardware cloth on a bar so it hangs down into the hive, with a sugar “brick” formed around the hardware cloth. Deb

Rusty
Reply

Deb,

Yes. Excellent idea.

Denis Quenneville
Reply

Hello and Season’s Greetings. I live in Northern Quebec and this is my first year beekeeping. I have 4 hives they are 2 brood boxes per hive. I check on them last week when the outside temperature went up over freezing point and to add each one with a cake of apifonda. I did feed them heavily this fall with 2 to 1 syrup. When I opened the 3 first hives, I could hear them in the bottom box but in the last one had the whole colony right up under the inner cover, besides being low on food could there be any other reason for them being up there so early in winter?

Rusty
Reply

Denis,

Three colonies can be different just as three children can be different. Some eat the sugar before their own honey, some don’t. So yes, there could be another reason for the one colony being high up, but I wouldn’t count on it. If I see a colony high up, I assume they are short of food. If I’m wrong, no harm is done by feeding. Otherwise, if you assume the wrong way, they could starve. Why take that chance?

Charlie
Reply

Can you feed bees bee pollen from a store in the winter?

Rusty
Reply

Charlie,

Not sure what the question is here, the source or the season. I wouldn’t feed pollen from an unknown source because it may contain American foulbrood spores. Better to go with pollen substitute designed to for bees. If you want to feed bee-collected pollen in winter, best to collect it yourself from your own bees.

Fred Ammermsn
Reply

Rusty
Do you think a candy board is better then fondant?

Rusty
Reply

Fred,

Not necessarily, but it’s my preference.

ET Ash
Reply

Another problem with feeding pollen from an unidentified source is chalk brood < much more likely to be a problem than AFB. Best thing to do is feed a bit to one hive and see what happens < basically the strategy here is not to put all your eggs in one basket.

I typically feed quite a bit in the fall of the year to hives with thin food resources and skip right by those that are heavy. This fall and early winter has been extremely wet which has made getting to most of my yards almost impossible.. Consequently those with depleted pantries will likely perish. Here in central Texas there is no really prolonged winter so hive inspection can take place 12 months of the year.

About the first week in January the queens will begin laying and this will deplete a lot of food resources very quickly and even some of the heavy hives will become light in a very short period of time < I do not know how many times that a new beekeeper has checked a hive in February and informed me the hive is plugged with a super of honey and they want to extract the honey just at the time it is most needed.

Gene in Central Texas..

Gary van scyoc
Reply

Hi Rusty. I am still new to be keeping, (2 years+) I lost my single hive last year so I started with 2 new hives this year. I am very diligent and feed my girls candy board and bee pro sub. pollen. I left a shallow super of honey in one hive and I am feeding both the above food. I check my bees every time I can, mice gaurds in place and have a burlap quilt box on top. I love reading your blogs.

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

It sounds like your bees are in good hands. Let me know how they do come spring.

Sarah B Schwarz
Reply

Hi Rusty, How do you feel about using essential oils in your candy board…. for example Honey Bee Healthy or a homemade version with lemongrass, tea tree, wintergreen and spearmint in it? Whether you do or dont personally use EO, what do you think about that combination of oils or what would you add or subtract? If you do add essential oils to your candy boards, can you suggest a ratio?

One more question, if using a bought pollen patty, what protein % should we be using for our candy board? thanks so much!! ;D HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! ;D

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

I used to put a little Honey-B-Healthy in the candy boards but now I do not, simply because essential oils can cause robbing by other honey bees. If the candy is put on early, the oils can also attract wasps.

I used to think essential oils were a good thing, but now I think they are oversold as a remedy for varroa. And, seriously, varroa don’t care whether you use oils or not. Furthermore, they are not a natural part of the honey bee diet.

I will still use a bit of anise oil if a colony is having trouble finding a food source. For example, if a syrup feeder goes untouched for a day or two, I will add one drop of anise oil to it and the bees find it instantly. But I never use more than one drop.

If you still want to use oils in a candy board use a couple of drops of tea tree or wintergreen. Lemongrass is way too likely to attract robbers, so I wouldn’t use that. Bees are very sensitive to odors, so using too much may repel them.

Don’t mix the pollen substitute with the sugar in the candy board. Keep the patty separate. That way they have a free choice whether to eat it or not.

Bird
Reply

Hi there,

Thanks for all the info you share! Wondering how bees process dry, white sugar fondant. Assuming not stored and capped this time of year, so is it completely usable and digested as is?

Rusty
Reply

Dry sugar or fondant is reliable winter feed. Moisture from the colony’s breathing lands on the surface of the sugar and condenses. The condensation dissolves the layer of sugar on the surface, which the bees lap up. As soon as it touches their salivary enzymes, the sucrose is inverted to glucose and fructose, making it very much like honey.

Bird
Reply

Thanks! So, do they actually store it as well?

Keith
Reply

Cheryl,

Hi I am also in northern Michigan. 2 medium supers would seem to be enough for the winter. On a warmish day when you check under the lid, if the bees are up to the top then I would feed. If you look down in between the top super honey filled frames and they are still down at least 1 super they should be ok for another 2-3 weeks before checking again. Each time it warms a bit they will move up onto new honey, consuming as they go. Ideally in the spring they have 2 to 3 inches of honey in the top box still left, indicating they had enough stores.

In order for the queen to not get left behind you cannot have a queen excluder in, else she get stuck behind it. Also for the one you lost last year, mites seem to be the issue when I have lost the bees and have a lot of honey left in the spring. Rare occasion the queen dies in the winter, closed queen cells are sometime present, found during the spring clean out. I have some bees in a 3 sided shed and some wrapped with 3/4 inch styrofoam. The wood at 3/4 inch, hive IMO is a bit thin to keep the northern Michigan winter at Bay. The hives can have moisture inside so I also the quilts referenced in this thread.

Good luck. Reach out to me via contacting Rusty for my address is you feel it would help.

thanks,
Keith

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

One comment: the bees will not abandon a queen and leave her below an excluder. They know they are reliant on her and will not abandon. For example, the candy boards I’ve used for years are inside a box with a queen excluder for a bottom. The retriever bees go up, get the food, and bring it back down to the nest area and feed the others via trophallaxis.

lloyd
Reply

Great posts. All important. Candy boards, quilt boxes, feeding syrup etc. Done them all. One thing that I feel is extremely important at this time of year, maybe more so than the above, is mite treatment. I live in Maryland. Temps have been slightly above average for the past three weeks but I’m pretty sure there is no brood. The best time for a mite treatment. So today I vaped with oxalic acid. I have vaped a number of times over the past two months and each time I find fewer mites on the IPM boards. But I guarantee you that there were some there. This will be the last treatment until I start to get brood. In the meantime I will feed syrup, have fondant on, have quilt boxes on and cross my fingers crossed. I figure about 6 weeks until they start the brood cycle.

Janet in NC Ohio
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Your reply to Keith has stirred up an old question in my brain to which I’ve never come up with a satisfactory answer: I overwinter in 2 deeps and a medium of fall honey. I would prefer to keep the queen from laying in the honey super but was hesitant to use an excluder. I have, however, used your candy board method with great results when needed. So could I use an excluder to keep my honey super brood free without killing bees?

Your thoughts on this, as on all the many topics you cover here, will be most appreciated. I love your blog and read it regularly. THANK YOU!!!

Rusty
Reply

Janet,

If you’ve used my non-cook candy board, you already know the answer to this. It doesn’t matter if the food is in a comb or not; the retriever bees go get it and bring it down to the brood nest.

Tom
Reply

Do you find the candy board method superior to top board winter syrup feeding? I use a glass pickle jar with holes in the lid, inverted onto the inner plywood cover, An old hive body is used to cover. Easy for the cluster to access and easy for me to monitor. I have found that the 2:1 sugar syrup generally does not deteriorate or mold like the 1:1 syrup can. This method does require additional hive bodies, but anyone who has kept bees for more than a few years will probably have a few of those around that are usable but past service life.

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

Whatever works for you is fine. I like the candy boards because it’s one and done. No mess, no mold, no refills (most of the time). Truth is, there is nothing I hate more than making syrup. But that’s just me.

Sam Shafer
Reply

Rusty,

Two of my three hives found starved early this winter (11/24), despite fondant lying on the top bars but apparently not close enough to the cluster. I had built top feeders and put on one hive, but it was different than yours. I used 7/16″ USB and had only a couple round openings sized for jar feeders. They would not leave the cluster to climb up to the fondant in the feeder. Your design using the queen excluder is much more logical as it allows better airflow and humidity to enter and warm the fondant area. Dang! These lessons continue to be painful.

Rusty
Reply

Sam,

Sorry to hear about your bees. I was really skeptical about the queen excluder idea at first. But now that I’ve seen them work year after year, I wouldn’t go back to anything else.

Karen Turner
Reply

Hi Rusty, I live in Northern Ontario. I am hoping you can give me some advise. I checked my hives today, I have 3 hives that have bees right at the top, when I peeked in the bees were not in cluster even though it was -10. It’s has been warmer the previous 2 days 0 to -1. My question is how can I put feed in without having the bees pouring out of the hive? I know they need feed, any suggestions?

Thank you
Karen

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

I sometimes make sugar cakes in a paper plate. Then I take them out, open the top of the hive an inch or so, and slowly slid the cakes in. If you push them in slowly, the bees will get out of the way.

Jeannie McDaniel
Reply

How do you make candy boards?

David Langton
Reply

Hi Rusty. I find your explanation that flying bees in the warm use more energy due to wasting it looking for nectar that isn’t there great. It was a question I couldn’t find a logical answer to.

What do you think about an insulated hive (similar to a tree). If there is high insulation and low ventilation the temperature should be high inside the hive. Which could suggest they’d use more energy and everyone seems to say bees out of cluster use more energy. But if the temperature outside is still too low to fly in will the bees stay in the hive? Surely in that case they won’t be flying and won’t be in a cluster so would be using the least amount of energy?

Thanks,
Dave.

Rusty
Reply

David,

When temperatures get too high inside a hive, bees have a tendency to fly out. If it is really cold out, they may perish quickly. It is one reason that internal heaters are not a good idea. Also, too much insulation without ventilation can lead to dangerous levels of moisture. Properly insulating a hive can be done, but it’s a tricky business.

Gary
Reply

I have recently been using cloroplast wrap on my hives. This is black corrugated plastic about an eighth-inch in thickness. I wrap the entire hive and cut out openings with a razor knife for ventilation and ingress and egress. I can’t report on the results yet, but to the feel in 9 degree weather, the hives feel like 50-60+ degrees in the open sunlight.

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