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Should I feed my bees in the winter?

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

Greetings everyone! The new year has begun, and it's been pretty nice out comparatively speaking. This week I got to peek under the "bee beanie" in my backyard hive (the rest of my hives are in California preparing for the Almond Bloom). The temp was in the mid 40's and there were a few honeybees venturing out to fly. I thought I would make a short video showing my typical winter inspection.

I get asked frequently about hive inspections in the winter; whether you can or not, and whether it will kill the hive. In this video, you see me checking that it's warm enough for a few bees to be active, and I'm only opening the hive for about 5 seconds. Primarily I'm looking at the size of the cluster, and the status of the fondant patty, I'm not pulling any frames. I do this about every 3-4 weeks and my bees have handled those short intrusions just fine. If possible, I pick a day when the temperature is 40-50 degrees F or warmer. You can see here the hive is busy eating the fondant patty and the cluster has loosened up, the bees are spread out a bit because of the warmer temperatures (It was about 43 degrees F).

I like to winter feed my bees. I've had wonderful success with keeping the hive alive and they come out in March strong in preparation for the April bloom. This hive was pretty heavy in the fall and I didn't put the first fondant patty in till early December. The first 3 or 4 weeks they hardly ate any because the where clustered down low in the bottom box, but they have moved up and are now eating the fondant. I put the fondant in as an insurance policy to make sure they have plenty of resources to maintain the cluster till late February/Early March when I start feeding liquid syrup again to assist in their spring brood build up. Sometimes they've hardly eaten any fondant, but usually by the 1st of March I've put in 1 to 3, 1.5 lb. patties. The recipe I use is located on my website (Click here for Recipe) Just remember they are working hard to keep the center of the cluster at 93 degrees and when ever you open your hive, even for a few seconds, you're letting out all the warm air and they will have to work hard to build that heat back up. Kind of like peeking in the oven too often while something is cooking lets all the heat out and can make your bake time longer. Opening the hive does make the hive work harder to recover the heat you let out. So again don't do this very often and try to and pick the days when the temperatures are a little warmer. But it is my opinion that checking once a month and making sure there is ample an resource of carbohydrates (honey or inverted sugar the fondant patty) does little harm and can be educational as you learn from your observations.

Another question I am asked often is why Fondant and not dry sugar or liquid sugar during the winter. I like to use fondant over liquid syrup because of accessibility. I've seen hives starve and die out because the cluster of bees got so small they couldn't move within the hive to get to ample honey stores on the outside edges of the hive. Liquid syrup might be an option if placed in a bucket feeder over the center of the hive. But I don't recommend liquid feeding, because it would be cold and harder for the bees to warm up to consume, plus the water content of liquid syrup is way too high. This makes the bees need to expel more water than normal when it's too cold for the bees to leave the cluster let alone leave the the hive for a cleansing flight (for you new beekeepers -- that means going to the bathroom). Honey is that perfect combination of the right amount of water and carbohydrates and a little pollen to provide the fuel the bees need to sustain the temperatures they need in the hive. Just enough water to sustain life, but not so much they can't safely hold the waste material in their bulbous rectum, which will swell up and fill 1/3 of their abdomen till they have an opportunity to relieve themselves in a cleansing flight outside of the hive on a warm day 50 degrees or better. Sometimes this can be months in certain parts of the country.

Any food source you put in the hive during the winter has to be in contact with the cluster for them to make use of it, making dry granulated sugar on top of the inner cover harder for the bees to access. The hard fondant patties will absorb the moisture the bees exude making it soft and easy for the bees to digest the fondant patties. They are basically recycling the moisture they generate in the hive. (The patty being placed directly above the cluster in the top box, right on the frames under the "Bee Beanie") Heating the sugar up to the softball candy stage around 243-248 degrees inverts the complex sucrose sugar molecule into simple sugar molecules of fructose and glucose, similar to what honey is. It also has a small amount of pollen I mix in as well trying to mimic the trace pollen found in honey. I also add honey bee healthy to help prevent the bees from getting nosema which flourishes in the cooler moist environment of a winter hive and can spin out of control in the tight cluster environment of the winter hive. This can be especially aggravated if the hive is unable to find enough food resources close enough to the cluster. Lack of food is a well known stressor to the hive allowing diseases to overcome their natural immune defenses.

I know there are a hundred variations of keeping bees out there in the Beekeeper World. I don't claim to have the only method for wintering hives. Some will argue you shouldn't feed them at all in the winter. But I have spent my time learning and talking to other beekeepers, reading articles and books, and observing the bees in my own hives. The strategy I employ has produced excellent results, and in my experience has helped me maintain high survival rates. When I kept 50 hives in northern Utah, Salt Lake, and Davis counties my losses were always around 10% or less each winter and I still have that over winter success rate now that we are managing over 700 hives. Nothing in agriculture or nature is 100%, even the best beekeepers experienced hive losses, 10% to 15% losses are acceptable in our industry, of course when you only have one hive that 10%, becomes 100% if you lose your hive. My hives always came out stronger in the spring, than when I didn't use the fondant patties in my beginning years. I've found the little cost and effort required has paid big dividends. The patties won't save a mite infested hive, or a hive that is too small to produce the heat required for them to sustain their lives. Michael Palmer of Frenchhill Apiaries in Vermont made the observation in one of his YouTube videos that Mother Nature's winter is the culler of the weak hives, and is our helper in identifying and getting rid of the bad genetics in our apiaries. The phrase "survival of the fittest" is to be understood and embraced in our hive management practices. Try to learn from the evidence observed and left in the hive after a hive dies. Make sure you're learning Mother Natures hard lessons. I meet beekeepers that tell me," I have been keeping bees for several years now and I keep losing my bees every year". No offense but the hard fact is they didn't learn the lessons they paid for with the loss of their bees and were doomed to keep repeating them again. Learn from every years worth of experiences and observations. There is no magic strain or race of bees or special equipment that will compensate for not following some basic principles of beekeeping; I recommend learning the basic principles of beekeeping and employing them in your hive management plan. The 4 areas you need to address are-

  1. Hive Management

  2. Nutrition Management (a well feed hive will have a healthier immune system)

  3. Disease recognition and treatment.

  4. Queen management

There are many ways and beekeeping techniques to accomplish these basic principles. You need to start by copying someone's management plan (who is being successful year after year, 5 years at least or more) that addresses these principles. As you learn and experience beekeeping for yourself you will tweak and adjust your techniques to your understanding of these principles and your management plan will be yours. But at first lean on the experience of those who are having success in managing their hives. Learn from them what has worked and what hasn't. Keep studying and always have an open mind. Learn from your mistakes, Don't keep repeating them.

Action Items for this coming month:

  1. Peek in your hives quickly to see if they need a fondant patty.

    1. Observe what is left of the fondant patty. Put in another one if needed.

    2. Observe the size of the cluster and where it is in the hive

  2. Study and read articles online, industry publications (Bee Culture, American Bee Journal)

  3. Take classes, attend your local and state beekeeper conventions and meetings.

  4. Make your plans for the coming bee season

    1. Decide whether to grow or stay the same or shrink in the number of hives

    2. Research the Mite control methods available and what their pros and cons are. Pick 2 to rotate between and understand their limitations and optimum application time.

    3. Read up on swarm control methods for this coming Spring. Decide what you are going to do and acquire what ever bee equipment you may need to employ your chosen control method.

  5. If your bees have died. Place your order for a new Package or Nuc for this coming April.

Enjoy the journey of exploration and learning! That is one of the most enjoyable parts of Beekeeping!

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