Feeding bees in winter: techniques and types of bee food during the winter season

A beekeeper inspects the reserves of a hive. Photo: Gonzalo G. Useta, on Flickr.

Winter is a very sensitive time for bees. Falling temperatures force colonies to consume more resources to keep warm inside, which can cause them to run out of food. Beekeepers must detect this problem and remedy it with winter bee feed. In this article we look at the different types of winter bee feeding and the best ways to manage it.

When winter arrives and temperatures plummet, bees need to keep warm inside the hive. They do this by converting honey into energy: they eat honey and, through movements and vibrations, generate heat. If honey becomes scarce, the bees must draw that energy from their body reserves: they convert fats and other elements into energy, weakening rapidly. Hunger then strikes the hive and alarm bells ring: if the situation continues, the colony may die.

Beekeepers know that they must leave the hives with enough reserves to get them through the winter. That means about 12 to 15 kilos of honey for a strong colony. That amount may be enough to get through the cold months, but if the cold months are prolonged, or if something increases consumption, it will be necessary to feed the hives so that they do not starve.
All winter preparation of the hives involves these calculations: on the one hand, knowing how much stock to leave the hives in winter. On the other hand, knowing what to feed at any given time and what each type of food provides. This is the only way to work strategically with the hives to ensure a good arrival the following spring.

Beekeepers, in their winter check-ups, will always monitor the presence of reserves. They can do this by opening the boxes or, more simply, by monitoring them with smart hive scales that report via phones.

Let’s take a look at how bee feeding is handled in winter and how it should be planned and managed.

1 – Phases of winter feeding of bees

Winter feeding is not the same at all times of the season. It will depend on what stage the hives are in and what is intended with the feed.

Thus, there are two fundamental stages:

Winter preparation: feeding for bees in fall.

Beekeepers want their bees to be as strong as possible for the winter. To achieve this, it is essential that the last batches of bees born in the fall are the best fed of all. This is why it is common to feed in the fall.

The objective of this fall feeding will always be to produce bees with greater fat reserves. They will be stronger and longer-lived workers, and will have a better chance of surviving the winter. In addition, food reserves will be created for the hive.

As this feeding is an extra cost, and at this time of year the bees have a lot of reserves, it is not always given to all the hives, but to those apiaries or groups of colonies that we want to pamper in a special way, so that they arrive to spring with an advantage.

Group of dead bees due to lack of food in winter. Photo: Pixabay.

Emergency winter feeding for bees

The second basic winter feeding idea is emergency feeding. The bees have practically run out of reserves and the field still does not provide food, so emergency food is necessary.

In this case, it is a matter of saving the life of the colony and, for this purpose, food is provided in solid form and based on sugars and carbohydrates. At this time, liquid food is of no use, because it will bring too much moisture to the hive and can cause health problems for the bees, such as mycosis or nosemiasis.

Therefore, in these emergency situations, solid feed will be used, which can be honey directly (with precautions) or preparations in the form of paste made with sugars and other elements. These feeds (because they are bee feed) are fed to the hive in the form of blocks or cakes, placed directly on the combs.

The objective is that the bees have sugar reserves on hand again and can maintain the warmth of the winter cud in order to survive.

Feeding to prepare for the onset of winter

The last winter feeding strategy is for the end of the wintering period. At this time, the beekeeper aims to provide the bees with protein, which is essential for feeding the brood. Bees obtain protein from pollen, but if the field does not offer it, they cannot get it. Therefore, beekeepers look for pollen substitutes or provide pollen directly to the colonies.

In this end-of-winter feeding, which is already clearly stimulating, the famous protein cakes, made from pollen or its substitutes, which are so widely used in beekeeping today, come into play.

And that winter feeding of bees would link with the spring feeding, which will be part of the beekeeping campaign preparation strategy.

Beehives covered with snow in winter. Photo: Pedro Pérez, on Flickr.

2 – Types of winter feeding of bees

As we have seen in the previous point, depending on the objective and the moment, one type of feeding or another will be used. Thus, we have several types of feed for bees.

Syrup for autumn

The autumn feed, if the weather is still favorable and the bees are still flying and going outdoors, will be liquid. A feeding syrup based on sugars, such as a fairly concentrated mixture of water and sugar (1 kg of sugar per 0.5 liters of water). Glucose of industrial origin can also be used. It can be alone or mixed with a small amount of honey. Another ideal system for autumn would be a mixture of honey and sugar (1 kg of sugar for every 4 kg of honey).

Honey, the staple food for the winter

The easiest way to make up for deficiencies in a sluggish hive is to introduce honey combs. Ideally, it should come from the apiary itself, in order to reduce contamination. It must be remembered that one way of transmitting diseases is, precisely, to take honey from one hive to another.
To work in this way, beekeepers can reserve a number of combs from the harvest for these emergencies. Or take those frames out of hives that conserve sufficient resources.

However, this way of feeding is very expensive: honey is a valuable commodity for the beekeeper, who will tend to optimize it. It is therefore not the most common form of winter feeding, although it is the most natural.

A cheaper but equally natural way is to use at this time the leftovers of the cappings and other residues that are generated during the honey extraction tasks. Properly stored, these remains are an extraordinary food in times of hunger in the hives.

The remains of honey extraction can be a good winter food. Photo: Emma Jane, on Flickr.

Sugar candy

A widely used form of food is candi. It is a paste made with sugar and water. It is made with a very high sugar concentration (15% water and 85% sugar), so that a solid paste is obtained.

To make the candi, the water is heated to boiling point and then allowed to cool to approximately 50ºC. Then add the sugar and stir. It is then poured into molds and allowed to cool. The resulting blocks or tablets can be placed directly on the honeycombs or in feeders.

In winter, it is better to use solid feed, such as protein cakes. Photo: Thurld01, on Flickr.

Carbohydrate pastes (sugars): bee feeds

Since honey and sugar for candi are expensive, the most common way to carry out emergency or maintenance winter feedings are bee feeds or pastes.

The advantage of pastes is that they stimulate the hypopharyngeal glands of the bees much less, thus not causing early brood set.

This type of product can be made at home. A classic recipe suggests mixing 10 kg of sugar, 10 kg of glucose, 10 liters of water and 800 grams of gelatin. The function of the gelatine is to give the whole a pasty or pudding-like texture.

Another way would be to mix 11.5 kg of honey, 11.5 kg of glucose, 1.5 liters of water and 650 grams of gelatin.

As the pastes may have to be in the hive for a long time, it is usual to add some preservative to prevent the mixture from becoming moldy or fermenting. A typical solution is sulfathiazole: one gram per kilogram or liter of mixture would suffice.

To make these feeds at home, the market offers a wide variety of ingredients: starch or corn syrups, invert sugar syrups, powdered dextrose or glucose, white sugar or honey itself.

However, it is much more common to buy these pastes or bee feeds in beekeeping products stores. Manufacturers offer a wide variety of such pastes, which, on the basis of sugar (also glucose or fructose), provide other elements such as vitamins, proteins and minerals.

These feeds are usually supplied in plastic bags weighing about one kilogram. These bags are placed open on the combs, inside a feeder or on the hive cover.

Pollen is one of the keys to good winter feeding management. Photo: Jordan Schwartz, on Flickr.

Protein patty to stimulate

Finally, in view of the end of winter and in order to stimulate and reinforce laying, it is necessary to provide the hive with protein. As mentioned above, the main source of protein is pollen.

This is why many beekeepers use pollen to feed their bees at the end of winter. It can be supplied dry or fresh, although that solution is expensive. In addition, pollen, especially if it comes from few plants, does not always have all the necessary nutrients.

For this reason, it is most common to use food in the form of pollen patty mixed with pollen substitutes, such as brewer’s yeast, soy flour or whey protein, as well as vitamin supplements to reinforce their effect. These patties can be purchased ready-made or made at home.

3 – How to make protein patty to feed the bees in winter

One of the most recommended and widely used formulas for making protein cakes is the one proposed by the well-known French queen breeder Gilles Fert. This expert elaborates quite easy to make cakes with the following ingredients:

*10 to 20 percent fresh pollen (if it is homegrown, the better, or from trusted producers).
*30 percent brewer’s yeast.
*45 percent soy flour.
*5 percent syrup (sugar, water and honey for attractive flavor).
Once the quantities are measured, they are mixed in a large, sturdy bowl. It is not easy to knead these ingredients, so many beekeepers resort to mechanical mixers, such as those used to mix paints. Or even industrial mixers.

The mixture must be consistent, but malleable. It is then distributed in cakes of about 300 grams per hive and replenished as the bees consume it.

This Fert recipe is well known, but there are countless other recipes, almost as many as there are beekeepers who feed protein cakes. On this website you can find up to 30 recipes that include pollen substitutes such as lentil flour, quinoa flour, amaranth flour, sorghum flour, rice flour, powdered milk, carob flour, kiwicha flour, fava bean flour, chaya flour, corn flour, as well as banana, powdered sugar or impalpable sugar and various types of oils.

Protein patties can also be made without pollen, an ingredient that, if not reliable, can be a vector of disease transmission. In this case, it would be sufficient to use egg powder instead of pollen to reinforce the protein content, in addition to the desired substitute in the form of flour.

Sometimes oil (corn or other) is also added to improve the texture of the whole. And apple vinegar, lemon juice or cinnamon to avoid fermentation and molds.

Once the cakes are made, they are cut into slices or portions that are placed inside the hives, on the honeycombs or in feeders. Or in plastic bags with openings.

Langhstroth type frame feeder model.

Winter feed supply in beekeeping is a facet that must be taken care of. Getting it wrong can have consequences: fermented or moldy food, bees unable to access the food, or attracting pillage or food-stealing animals such as rodents.

Therefore, consideration should be given to what type of feed is to be fed and what form is most appropriate.

For solid foods (pastes, feeds and cakes), it is most important that they are close to the winter cud, so that the bees can access the food without moving away from the heat. Thus, plastic bags are a widely used solution: they are torn a little and left on the combs, so that the bees can enter and feed. They can also be placed on the comb, with the ventilation hole open so that the bees can access the food.

Example of a roof feeder. Photo: Maja Dumat, on Flickr.

Another solution is to use feeders, which can be either inside (in the comb) or above (in the comb). In winter, feeders are most useful for foods such as honey (unless supplied in comb) or leftover opercula. They can also be used for candi or feed, but this is less common.

When working with syrups and liquid feeds, spills inside the hives should be avoided as much as possible to prevent them from getting wet and attracting pests. For this reason, feeders, whether indoors or on the ceiling, are good solutions. Bags are also a good solution, but care must be taken that they do not break.

What is strongly discouraged is the use of open feeding: placing drums or syrup containers near the apiary for the bees to collect it. This way of proceeding would only be valid in flight temperatures and, in addition, it is a perfect way to attract plunder and diseases, because in those troughs there is a confluence of own and foreign bees, whose state of health is unknown.

With these tips and guidelines, you can now work on feeding your bees in winter and strengthen your colonies so that they arrive as well as possible in the spring. How do you feed your hives? Tell us in the comments!