Feeding Bees in Winter

     First let me start by saying that I don't usually feed my bees unless it is a late winter/early spring emergency feed. There are exceptions such as extreme drought but in most areas of the world where honey bees are kept the bees produce enough honey to overwinter. 
     Depending on the length of your winter (no natural food source or too cold to forage) a full colony of bees in our northern regions will consume between 27-40 kgs (60-90 lbs) of honey.  In our apiary in Vancouver we have found that a average sized colony requires 10-12 deep frames (30 kg or 66 lbs) to overwinter in a normal year.  Every location is different.  Opening the hive in winter should be avoided but if necessary you can check if your hive is in need of winter feeding with a quick check on a nice day (not snowing or windy).  This should take less than a minute and not require the lifting of frames.  It's possible to avoid opening the hive by monitoring the weight (vs weight at beginning of winter) by simply lifting the back of the hive if you have experience or using a simple luggage scale.  Here is an example of a winter hive check.

     In beekeeping it may vary yearly but months are either negative or positive in terms of food accumulation.  In our temperate northern climate April to October are positive accumulation months, March and October are neutral depending on the weather and November through February are negative.  
     In some areas where there is a late summer dearth (lack of forage) beekeepers will feed a 2 to 1 sugar syrup mixture to ready their bees for winter.  When the weather is still warm and there is not good forage, the bees are still very active and can consume a lot of their winter food supplies.  This can occur for us in October.  The recipes listed here are not as good as the natural food (honey) bees make for themselves but there are some situations when beekeepers will choose to supplement their bees' diet with a carbohydrate and/or protein feed.  Sugar syrup is sometimes fed to bees in the spring and fall but below a certain temperature (approximately 12 C / 54 F) the bees are unable to dehydrate the liquid to store it.  One issue to keep in mind when autumn feeding is the accumulation of stored uncapped syrup in frames which acts as a hive humidifier in winter.  It's a good idea to minimize this.  Some beekeepers maintain that the warmth from the cluster will be sufficient to heat a plastic baggy of syrup placed above the cluster at colder temperatures.  I've not tried this.  
     When it is colder beekeepers can use a solid sugar feed in dry form as a sugar cake.  In the "Feeding" section of our "Beekeepers Library" you will find recipes for syrup, candy, pollen patties, grease patties, pollen substitute, essential oil mixtures, inverted sugar syrup and other bee food products.  If you are using sugar make sure it is refined sucrose (table sugar) without impurities.  Unrefined sugars have poisoned bees and brown sugar and molasses are toxic to bees (Selecting sugars for feeding to Honey Bees).  While it was previously thought that high fructose corn syrup, which is used by many commercial beekeepers was chemically indistinguishable from honey a recent study (Honey elements induce detoxification and immunity) found that honey contains important elements of pollen and propolis.  These elements induce the detoxification and immunity genes and may help the bees cope with pesticides and pathogens.  Feeding anything but their own honey is not a long term healthy alternative.  
     Some beekeepers believe that if you invert the sucrose (refined table sugar) by adding an acid (i.e vinegar) you will create a more natural food similar to honey and easier to digest.  The inversion process changes the sucrose to fructose and glucose essentially the same as honey.  However, there is no scientific evidence supporting this and bees actually perform the inversion in the digestive process in their honey stomach.  Another issue you may wish to consider is whether your sugar contains pesticides.  That will depend on your supplier.  
     When feeding in winter you want to apply the food so that the girls do not have to leave their winter cluster.  You can invert your inner cover to leave space to place the sugar cake or patty on top of the frames or build a simple spacer or eke.  I use 2 inch feeding spacers similar to those used by Anita at Beverley Bees (Beverley Bees Candy Board) and a simple no cook sugar and water mixture.  Remember to make your spacer as small as possible as the ladies love to fill that space with comb and may do so rather quickly in the spring.  You can feed the ladies dry sugar on paper (Michael Bush uses a dry granulated sugar for cold weather feeding) on top of the frames wetted down with water (the hive humidity should keep it moist)  or make a Sugar Cake.  You can check quickly throughout the winter on nicer days (avoid windy,snowy days) and add as needed.  Here is a demonstration by Philip from Mudsongs.org adding a sugar cake on a winter day. 

Here is a few simple recipes for those not as lazy as me:

Fondant from Granulated Sugar
Fondant can be fed directly to the bees once cooled. They are a good food source for mini-mating nucs because there is no drowning involved when you have a small amount of bees. It is also common to use this recipe in small quantities to plug the hole on a Queen Cage.
< 1 large saucepan
< 1 Hand or electric mixer
< 1 Cooking themometer
< Shallow disposable setting pans (pizza)

< 4 parts (by volume) granulated white sugar
< 1 parts (by volume) water
< Optional 1 teaspoon white vinegar

Boil water and slowly add the sugar until dissolved, stirring constantly. Continue heating until the mixture reaches 238°F (114°C). Without mixing allow the solution to cool until it is slightly warm to the touch (200F). Then begin to mix (in a mixer) and aerate the solution. As you do this the color should turn white and creamy with air bubbles. Pour into shallow dishes or mold and allow to cool.  To feed it can be placed directly on top of the frames or in a feeding spacer.  You can make the fondant thin enough to where it can be worked into an empty frame of drawn comb.

This video is a step by step process of how to make their version of fondant by the Northwest New Jersey Beekeepers Association.

Bee Candy
Candy is not used as much as in the past because it's harder to make and work with.  However here is the recipe for those not deterred by hard work.
< Heavy duty cooking pans
< Large spoon for stirring
< Measuring jug
< Cooking themometer
< Plastic containers
< Enameled or pyrex dishes

< Refined granulated white sugar
< Water
< Cooking oil
< Newspapers

Pour 500 ml (1 pint) of water in a heavy saucepan and add 2 kgs. granulated sugar. Heat to the boiling point, stirring constantly to prevent the sugar burning on the bottom. Continue to boil til the syrup reaches 117 degrees centigrade (242 fahrenheit).  Prepare your enamel or pyrex glass dish by coating with vegetable oil, then lining with a sheet of newspaper.  Also, soak an old towel in cold water and lay it on a waterproof heat proof work surface.  Once the boiling syrup has reached 117 degrees centigrade place it on the wet towel to cool.  Stir the mixture continuously as it thickens.  Stir only so long that the mixture can still be poured into the lined dishes.  Allow to set and cool and to remove (when cooled) pull gently on the edges of the paper liner. 

     Here are a few other versions of fondant recipes from Brookfield Farm and Backyard Beehive or you can purchase it from a retailer like Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.  Whether you use the above recipes or just dry granulated sugar you can check on your feed and add as needed whenever there is a break in the weather.  Here is another video showing feeding at 40 fahrenheit (4 celsius).  


     Pollen patties (with sugar) provide both the carbohydrates from sugar and the proteins from pollen (or pollen substitute) and stimulate brood production.  In Vancouver pollen patties can be added as early as February. There is a theory to begin feeding pollen patties 8 weeks prior to the heavy pollen flow (for us fruit tree blossom).  3 weeks for the girls to be born, 3 weeks to become foragers and two weeks to build up the forager numbers. Remember the presence of new pollen in the hive triggers the queen to produce brood which is why there is little to no brood production through the winter.  Pollen is the source of protein and nutrients for bees.  The level of body protein in bees varies seasonally between 21-67% depending on the availability and type of pollen available and the amount of energy expended foraging and brood raising. Different blossoms produce different quality pollen.  For example dandelions and blueberries produce a fairly low nutritional pollen while almond pollen is fairly high in nutrition. 

Dandelion pollen, although attractive to bees lacks certain amino acids.  Other types of pollen must be gathered in order to fully utilize the protein.

     Bees store protein in their bodies in the form of vitellogenin which directly determines their life span and immunological strength  to fight diseases and pests.  When the body protein level in bees drops it may take several weeks to recover.  Low body protein level means low brood and honey production.  A wide variety of pollens are essential for optimum bee health as each pollen provides different essential nutrients.  The report, "Nutritional Value of Bee Collected Pollens" is an qualitative analysis of the pollen from different plants and trees.  This is why pollen patties or pollen substitute patties are not a healthy alternative to a natural variety of stored pollens but rather a diet supplement.  Having said that research has shown that colonies receiving pollen supplements in early spring can produce 2-4 times the brood of a non supplemented colony.  In addition the life span of worker bees is increased up to 15 days and consequently mid summer honey production is also increased.  
     The best protein source for supplemental feeding is of course pollen.  Studies show that bees are attracted to pollen and consume significantly more when the patties contain pollen rather than pollen substitute.  The graph below illustrates the benefits of pollen in supplemental feeding.  

Having said that pollen can be a carrier of bee diseases and if the source is unknown should be irradiated before use in a pollen patty. Since most beekeepers don't want to irradiate use your own pollen collected from healthy hives.  The nutritional value of pollen diminishes quickly when dried and stored so it is best to freeze your pollen immediately after collecting without drying.  It is recommended that you use between 3-5% pollen in your pollen patty and that your overall protein level be about 25%.  The best protein supplements or alternatives to pollen are yeast and soy flour.  Brewer's yeast has a 48-56% protein content and is a good but expensive protein source to stimulate brood production.  The more affordable soy flour (48-50% crude protein level) appears to be more of an adult bee food stimulating activity in the hive.  Due to these different benefits a combination of these protein sources is recommended.  Other additives like pollard (mixture of fine bran and flour- vitamin and essential oil source), vegetable oil (feed palatability), vitamins and minerals and sugar (carbohydrate and energy source) can be utilized.  I read recently where a local beekeeper is using herring meal as a protein source and no his honey doesn't taste like fish. Human vitamin and mineral supplements are made for mammals not bees so are not recommended.  Always use fresh ingredients as nutritional values decrease with time and old soy flour may even be toxic to bees.  Sugar is an attractant in your feed and vegetable oil (like soy or cotton seed) can make it more palatable.  The patty should be placed directly over the winter bee cluster which is normally in the middle of the brood box as the bees will not leave the cluster if it is cold.  You can invert your inner cover to make room for the pollen patty.  If you find there is not enough room between your hive frames and your inner cover you can make a simple hive eke (an extender frame or shallow box). When I made my insulated moisture quilt (Insulated Moisture Quilt) I left space over the frames for supplemental feeding.  Here are a few pollen or substitute pollen patty recipes. 

Pollen Patty (3 different recipes)

In supplement mixes, the percentage of pollen can be increased or decreased depending on availability.

#1             3 parts soybean flour
                 1 part pollen

#2             4 parts Brewer’s Yeast
                  2 parts dry sugar
                 1 part pollen
                 2 parts lighter sugar syrup (2 sugar : 1 water)

#3              10 parts Torula Type S Yeast
                  10 parts Brewer’s Yeast
                   1 part pollen
Note: use 2 parts dry mix to 3 parts syrup

Substitute Pollen Patty (3 different recipes)

#1               soybean flour only

#2               4 parts soybean flour
                   1 part Brewer’s Yeast

#3               10 parts soybean flour
                  6 parts casein
                   3 parts Brewer’s Yeast
                   1 part egg yolk powder

In each case, add 4-5 parts of the dry mix to 2 parts heavy sugar syrup as indicated below in directions on preparation of patties.

Prepare patties as follows:

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly.
Mix a heavy syrup of 3 parts sugar to 1 part water.
Slowly add 2 parts of syrup to 4-5 parts of dry mix (see dry mix formulas above), while kneading.
Leave overnight and knead again before flattening into a 1.5 cm cake.
Cut into squares weighing about 0.5 kg (1 lb).
Place on wax paper and cover with another wax paper to prevent drying.

Here is a video from DC Honeybees showing how to make a substitute pollen patty using these ingredients: 
1/2 lb yeast;
1/2 lb dried milk;
1.5 lb soy flour;
1/3 cup canola oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
a multi vitamin

Here are the folks from Mudsongs installing a pollen patty.

     I checked my hives a few days ago on a warm (8 C or 46 fahrenheit), sunny day and found lots of food remaining.  Don't worry Spring is just around the corner.  I saw my first cherry blossoms of the year yesterday.  For more information on feeding bees go to the "Feeding" section of our "Beekeepers' Library".

"There is no other field of animal husbandry like beekeeping. It has the appeal to the scientist, the nature lover, and even (or especially) the philosopher. It is a chance to work with some of the most fascinating of God's creatures, to spend time and do work in the great outdoors, to challenge my abilities and continue to learn. My hope is that I never become so frail with old age that I cannot spend my days among the bees. It gives credence to the old saw that "the best things in life are free". I thank God daily for the opportunity and privilege to be a beekeeper."



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