Have you ever wondered where the super busy honey bees go when winter arrives? For three quarters of the year, we see them buzzing around, pollinating flowers, and drinking the sweet nectar that mother nature provides in abundance. They don’t hibernate like other mammals; it made me wonder what do bees eat in winter?
Bees eat honey in the winter. When their honey stores are insufficient for the whole winter, beekeepers feed them dry sugar and sugar syrup during the fall months to store in the combs. Additionally, bees will eat winter patties, candy boards, and fondants to help them survive.
During most of the year, bees feast on nectar and pollen. Nectar is a sweet, sugar-rich liquid that plants create to entice pollination creatures. The powdered material contains nearly every nutrient a little bee may need, including carbs, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Winter restricts the bees from having access to pollen and nectar, so if they can’t eat their main source of nourishment, what do bees eat in the winter?
What Do Bees Eat In The Winter?
Honey, the sweet heavenly substance produced by honey bees, is what bees eat in the winter. Winter honey consumption depends on how severe the winter is, but on average, a hive will need between 33 to 110 lbs. (15 to 50 kg) of honey to survive this season.
Unfortunately, the bees’ honey supply might not always be enough to help the whole hive survive the winter. Beekeepers need to be extra vigilant during this time and often need to supplement the hive’s food resources.
When winter arrives, the male drones die off, leaving the worker bees and the queen behind to survive. Female bees do this by forming a winter cluster. The queen is placed in the center, with the rest of the worker bees shaking and shivering to generate heat for the hive to survive.
The female bees need the energy to shiver and shake so that the temperature remains at 81°F at the beginning of winter and 93°F when the queen starts laying eggs. Energy sources are honey, sugar syrup, and candy boards. Proving energy to the hive is crucial in ensuring their survival.
It is important to remember that by only feeding the hive with sugar, you aren’t providing nutritional value, and it’s recommended that you add some supplement feeding to the sugar syrup, like pollen (winter) patties.
How Much Honey Does A Bee Hive Need During Winter?
The quantity of honey that must be preserved for the winter depends on the climate and location. Hives can consume up to 110 pounds of honey in chilly regions, whereas just 30 pounds may be required in warmer regions.
Reasons For A Hive’s Honey Shortage In Winter
There are numerous reasons why a colony’s honey supply will not be enough to last them through the winter months, typically due to having insufficient worker bees to collect and store pollen and nectar. Some of the most common causes for this scenario include:
- A weak queen failed to produce enough worker bees in the peak nectar flow season
- Cool spring temperatures resulted in a late start to egg-laying
- High mortality of adult worker bees due to parasite infestations (Varroa mites) or other diseases
- Fall nectar flow is disrupted by inclement weather
- Honey gets stolen by robber bees from other hives, yellow jackets, and other animals drawn to honey, typically in the fall when natural resources get scarcer for all animals
- Beekeepers overharvesting
What To Feed Bees Before The Start Of Winter?
A colony in the wild that does not have enough food stockpiled to make it through the winter is doomed to fail. The bees won’t have the energy to keep themselves warm when clustering if there isn’t enough honey stored.
If you discover that your bees don’t have enough honey stored for the upcoming winter, you should think about giving the colony, extra honey. Beekeepers often need to supply their bees with added food supplies to ensure their survival. Foods that you can feed bees during winter when their honey supply is running low are:
- Sugar Syrup
- Candy Board
Feed The Bees Honey
The best way to ensure that your bees survive winter when their food resources are running low is to feed them the honey they have produced over the year. You know it’s disease-free, as it was produced from your (hopefully) disease-free hives.
Feeding them honey from an unverified source, another beekeeper’s honey, or supermarket honey, can cause disease or infection in your bee hives. American foulbrood disease could be present in unknown honey sources.
Feed The Bees Dry Sugar
A starving colony should be fed sugar syrup before being given dry sugar. Sugar syrup will immediately provide the bees with food without the need to liquefy crystals. No matter the colony’s size, feeding dry sugar works best in the fall and spring when humidity is generally high.
Bees find it challenging to dissolve sugar crystals in liquid during the hot, dry summers. Dry white table sugar can be placed on hive mats or in trays underneath the hive lid and can be fed to medium to robust bee colonies. In order to liquefy the sugar crystals, bees need water. They will either use condensation from within the hive or obtain water from sources outside the hive.
To keep the sugar from setting, some beekeepers prefer to moisten it with water. Thus, a partial syrup is produced. Weak colonies shouldn’t be fed dry sugar since they might not be able to obtain enough water.
Feed The Bees Sugar Syrup
Start feeding your bees six weeks before the cold season begins if you reside in an area without a consistent, heavy fall nectar flow. You might still be able to finish the project in 3–4 weeks if you get started at the right time and during warm weather. It depends on how much assistance your bees require.
Many beekeepers have views about the correct amount of sugar to use in a syrup. A popular ration of 1 part water to 1 part sugar (the 1:1 method) syrup is generally used when honey stores need to be supplemented.
Other beekeepers opt for a denser syrup that contains 1 part water to 2 parts sugar (2:1 method), and it’s believed that the stronger syrup feeds encourages the bees to store it in their combs. The syrup is made by heating water in a container that can hold the water and sugar.
When the water starts to boil gently, remove it from the stove, and pour the sugar into the container while stirring the mixture until the crystals in the sugar dissolve. Don’t boil the mixture after adding the sugar, as it can lead to caramelization, making it indigestible and toxic.
Allow the sugar syrup to cool down to room temperature before placing it in the hive, using one of the following methods:
- Feeding container with a sealable lid: Find a clean container and fill it with the sugar syrup. A jar or a push-down lid tin works best. Drill or puncture the sealable lid with 6 to 10 small holes. Cut a piece of wood in two 12mm-high risers before placing them across the frames’ top bars in the hive’s top box. The filled container should be placed on the two risers upside down. Replace the hive lid after placing an empty super on the hive to cover the feeder. The risers should provide a bee space between the top bars and the perforations in the container lid.
- Plastic bag feeder: Fill a plastic freezer bag until it’s half full. Squeeze the bag to release the remaining air before tying the bag’s neck with an elastic band or piece of rope. Place the sugar syrup bag on the top bars of the beehive frame, found in the top box, underneath the hive cover. Punch 6 to 8 small holes in the bag’s upper surface using a small nail or brad. The hungry bees will suck the syrup through these small holes. Refrain from punching the feeding holes on the undersurface of the bag, as the syrup will leak out too fast, often leading to nearby bees robbing the syrup. Ensure that there’s enough bee space between the bag’s upper surface and the under surface of the hive lid. Use a wooden riser if there’s not enough bee space.
- Shallow tray feeder: Put a shallow tray (aluminum foil tray works well) filled with syrup under the hive’s lid. Again, ensure enough bee space, as bees falling into the syrup will drown. For this reason, place some wood or grass straw in the syrup to help the bees escape a drowning death. The hive should be level on the ground to prevent the loss of syrup.
- Frame feeder: This method requires placing the syrup in a division board or frame feeder (Langstroth full-depth frame with an open-top sitting in the super.) Flotation material is required in the feeder for the bees to safely access the syrup without the chance of drowning.
How Often Should You Feed The Bees Sugar Syrup?
When you start feeding your bees sugar syrup, it’s pretty normal for them to remove the syrup from the feeder, reduce the water content of the syrup, and store it in the combs as if it were honey. How often you’ll have to feed a colony of bees with little to no honey stores will largely depend on the brood amount, the syrup feeder’s size, and the colony’s size.
Over-feeding the colony is safer than under-feeding, as not providing enough food can lead to the death of the entire colony. Begin to feed your bees with 1 to 3 liters of syrup, keeping a close eye on how much syrup is being stored in the combs, using this to guide you in how often you should be feeding them.
If you become aware that the hive will not have enough honey for the winter, it’s an excellent idea to start feeding them sugar syrup before the cold weather of late autumn and early winter. Being proactive in your feeding will allow the bees to boost their food stores and to fully process the syrup. When nectar becomes widely available, you can start to wean the bees off their sugar syrup diet.
Feed The Bees Supplements
Numerous publications and recipes suggest feeding bees candy, sugar syrup, or plain granulated sugar over the winter. However, recipes that call for a sugar-based supplement don’t provide any extra nutrients or appetite stimulants.
When honey supplies are limited, your bees have the best chance of surviving with a more nutritionally complete product:
- pollen patty, made with high protein formulas designed to provide nutrients to bees when they need it most. These patties are placed directly on top of the frames of the hive’s brood chamber.
- Another excellent supplement is high carbohydrate feed like these winter patties made with AP23 (artificial pollen), sugar, and Amino B Booster (Honey-B-Healthy) that contains spearmint oil and food-grade lemongrass and can be used in winter or early spring, replacing the need for candy boards.
- A popular supplement fondant that contains vitamins, amino acids, scientifically approved seaweed, and very fine sugar particles for easy absorption (minimizing energy loss) can also be used to help lower overwinter mortality.
- You can also go for high-protein dry food that contains beneficial minerals, lipids, vitamins, and 65% crude protein specially formulated for bees. In winter, it’s best to make a fondant or patty from dry food. Bees prefer it in this form when temperatures are cold.
- Candy boards are also an innovative way to feed and keep your bees alive during winter. This one-piece candy board offers food (sugar and pollen mix), ventilation, higher insulation, and an upper exit/entrance to keep bees healthier throughout the winter.
When To Stop Feeding Bees During Winter
Stop feeding your hive once it has enough honey stored for a typical winter in your area. It would be ideal if you stopped feeding them by mid-fall. As additional protection from famine, adding a winter patty or fondant is often a bee lifesaver if the hive struggles to get ready for winter.
In the winter, you shouldn’t intend to give sugar syrup to your bees, only as a last resort when the hive is struggling to survive. When the daily temperatures fall below 60°F, removing any sugar-water feeders from the hive is preferable if you reside in a cold climate.
Given a choice, all bees would feast on nectar and pollen the whole year. But as winter approaches, these food sources start to dwindle, and your hive might need some additional sources of food to ensure that they survive the cold months.
Beekeepers must be proactive and start supplementing their hive’s diets, preferably 4 to 6 weeks before winter comes, when it’s clear that there won’t be enough honey to carry the hive through until spring.