Sometimes it is necessary to feed honeybees through the winter which can be accomplished by several methods. That is the position we find ourselves in here on Five Feline Farm after two colonies have struggled through the fall with apparent robber bees.
A colony of honey bees needs 30 to 60 pounds of honey stored going into winter. This is the equivalent of 8 to 9 full frames. This provides enough to keep the cluster alive through winter and early spring until the nectar starts to flow again.
Even during a cold winter, there will be opportunities to open the hive for a quick addition of food. My hope is to have at least one viable day each month or so when the temperature hits near 50 degrees to slip some food into the hive.
The choice then becomes what method or medium to use in delivering food for the cluster. Below are the options we have tried or considered along with my opinion about each. The first two are proprietary mixes available for order from bee supply companies.
These are one of those proprietary mixtures available from a major bee supply house dadant.com. The patties come smeared between pieces of waxed paper. It is gooey and smells a bit like molasses. The catalog description states extra ingredients that will help the bees build up in the spring is part of the mix. The patties are placed in the hive directly on top of the brood frames waxed paper and all. A two inch spacer is added to allow room for the bees to access the patties. After chewing through the patties, the bees tear the waxed paper into pieces if not removed by the bee keeper and throw it out the entrance.
These patties are nutritious for the bees and a good supplement, but I find them messy and awkward to use.
Again, a proprietary mixture available through a Central Illinois business honeybeesonline.com. This is a semi-solid sugar mixture poured into a board that doubles as an inner cover. Included in the sugar is some pollen and an essential oil mixture called Honey B Healthy. The board design includes ventilation and insulation built in. The entire board is placed over the top brood box with the sugar side facing the bees. Included is a simple recipe for replacing the sugar foundation as needed.
An advantage with the candy board feeding system is that it is all one unit. This will be very helpful when it is time to change out the candy boards. The hive can be open for a minimal amount of time, pull out the empty board and place a full one.
These are easy to make at home. Using the formula of one cup water to one pound of granulated cane sugar, bring water to a boil and stir in the sugar. Bring the mixture to the soft ball stage (234°). Allow to cool stirring until it becomes cloudy. Pour into a mold. I used aluminum mini-loaf sized pans. After the fondant bricks have cooled, pop them out and store in a plastic bag with a zip seal until needed. If these start to dissolve, you may need to boil them again to reset. To use these in the hive, you will need a spacer board that holds the inner cover above the fondant blocks allowing room for the blocks to sit on top of the frames.
This method is relatively cheap and easy to do without ordering any supplies. The downside is that it can be messy and does not include any additional supplements to support bee health.
An additional inexpensive method of feeding bees in winter is using plain granulated sugar. The hole of an inner cover is blocked with newspaper or a paper towel, moistened and a bag of sugar poured on to the cover. An empty super is placed around the sugar mound and topped with the outer cover. Bees will chew their way through the paper and consume the sugar.
This method will allow for a long term feeding option as 10 to 25 pounds of sugar can be added at one time. In areas where winters are harsh with no days reaching 50 degrees to quickly open a hive and add food, this may be the best option.
No matter the method chosen, if the bees do not have enough stored food for winter, it is critical that the beekeeper provide some type of food. Otherwise the colony will starve and you will find an empty hive in the spring.
Julia Miller is the co-owner of Five Feline Farm, a hobby farm in Central Illinois. In addition to honeybees, the Farm offers opportunities for gardening, recipe development and writing. The five resident felines oversee the work. Stop by our website www.fivefelinefarm.com for more information or like us on www.facebook.com/fivefelinefarm.
Photo by Five Feline Farm.