Feeding Bees in Winter With Fondant
Tips on feeding bees in winter with fondant, including feeding methods and quantities needed. Opening and feeding colonies in winter differs from feeding them in summer or autumn. Knowing how to feed bees in winter can mean life or death for your colony.
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If you could have the choice of drizzling golden honey over your food or white sugar, what would you choose? If you were a honeybee, you’d choose the honey, of course! It’s made from everything bees need to last through lean times, including energy, vitamins, minerals, protein, and other micronutrients. Colonies make more than enough honey to keep bees alive in winter, but part of beekeeping means harvesting honey in late summer. If this honey isn’t replenished in autumn, or if it’s a very hard winter, honeybees might run out of stores before spring and die.
If you’re worried about your bees having enough food for winter, the tips below on feeding bees in winter will help you to make decisions about your colonies. Feeding or not feeding bees in winter can mean life or death for the colony. You do need to be careful about outdoor weather, temperatures, and exactly what to feed bees in winter, though. How you do it and what you should provide is much different from supporting honeybees through spring and summer.
The First Spring Hive Inspection
It’s now early April and warm enough (50ºF/10ºC) to properly open my colonies to look inside. During this first look, I’m looking for signs of eggs being laid, sealed brood (baby bees) in the comb, dampness in the hive, disease, and honey stores. Fortunately, my honeybees had plenty of honey this year, so I won’t have to give them emergency rations. I’ve had to feed them in years previous, so it’s important to look inside the hives and see if they need food as early as possible.
Opening the Hives in Winter
You must be very careful opening beehives in winter since it releases the warmth inside. A cold chill can kill honeybees, especially if you’ve opened the hive late in the day as outside temperatures begin to drop. If I’m worried about honey stores, I’ll briefly look inside colonies in late winter by removing the roof and sliding the crown board over a few inches. If the frames I can see have honey, then I’ll close the hive up and leave it for a couple of weeks. Sometimes I’ll notice right away that the frames look empty, though. In that case, I’ll slide the crown board over a few more inches and try to cover the frames I’ve already looked at with a cloth. If honey in that top super is critically low, I’ll make the decision to feed the bees.
Traditional Beekeeping with Sugar Syrup
In my early days of beekeeping, I took more honey off the hives than I do now. It was what I learned in a beekeeping course, and to make up for the difference, I used a rapid feeder to feed sugar syrup back to the bees. You make the sugar syrup by adding two parts sugar to one part water and heating it through until it’s all dissolved. When it’s room temperature, you can pour it into a rapid feeder and put it inside the hive for bees to drink. They then transform it into a weak honey and store it away for the winter.
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It’s a common tactic that beekeepers use; take as much honey from the hives in late summer to early autumn and then feed the bees with sugar syrup. You only do this if it’s consistently above 50ºF (10ºC) since the bees need to process the syrup into honey. That involves evaporating off the excess water, and they need it to be warm for them to do this. Honey made from sugar syrup is low in micronutrients, but it does keep the bees from starving to death in winter. This practice is also one of the reasons that Vegans don’t eat honey.
Honey Stores in Autumn
Honey is the best food for bees, so these days I leave at least one full super of real honey on each hive, in addition to the honey they have stored in the brood box (I use National hives). I haven’t fed my bees with sugar syrup in over ten years, and I think my colonies are stronger for it. Real honey made from the nectar of flowers has incredible health benefits for people and honeybees. Honey made from sugar water doesn’t and is the equivalent of junk food for honeybees. Saying that, there are cases that feeding sugar syrup to bees is a good idea. For example, to help strengthen a weak colony or a small swarm you’ve collected that doesn’t have stores.
Cold and Damp Kills Bees in Winter
The biggest challenges to bees in winter are cold and dampness. Cold can kill the bees outright, and moisture in the hive can cause disease and fungal infections that can also kill honeybees. Bees keep at least parts of their hive at a warm 92ºF (33ºC) throughout the year, including the winter months. In winter, the warmest part of the hive is the center of their cluster. They huddle together and move in a way that creates heat and eat honey when they need more energy.
Even so, the warmth they create causes condensation that can rise and collect in the wood that makes up the crown board and the roof. It can then drips back down on the frames and the bees. That’s another reason that I inspect the bees in winter. I’ll take a dry roof out to replace the one on the hive if it looks soaking wet.
Don’t Feed Bees Sugar Syrup in Winter
You can see why feeding sugar syrup to bees in winter is a terrible idea. Many rapid feeders are simply a bucket with a fine-mesh screen in the center of the lid. You turn it upside down on the topmost frames, the syrup drips through, and the bees can feed on it from below. First off, bees won’t feed off sugar syrup in winter. The issue compounds as the wet and cold syrup drips down over the frames and onto the bees. Mold, fungus, and disease can follow and potentially lead to the colony’s death. Even if you feed sugar syrup to bees through a rapid feeder that doesn’t drip, the bees won’t touch it, and it will still ferment, mold over, and potentially cause issues.
What to Feed Bees in Winter
If your bees are low on honey stores in the winter, you instead feed them fondant. Fondant is a sugar paste for decorating cakes, and it usually comes in thick white bricks. While it doesn’t usually have the nutrients that bees need to thrive, it does have instant sugar calories and can make all the difference between your colony surviving the winter or not. You can make fondant by combining four parts of sugar (by weight) with one part of water (by weight) with a tiny splash of vinegar. Most beekeepers just buy it, though, usually from a supermarket, bakery, or beekeeping supplies company. You can even get fondant that’s been mixed with bee pollen which provides extra protein for the bees.
Feeding Bees Fondant in Winter
Bees will feast on fondant like you wouldn’t believe, but they can also get stuck in it and die. That’s why when you’re feeding bees fondant in winter, you need to do it in a particular way. Though fondant feels solid when you first put it into the hive, it can warm up and become gooey and sticky once inside. If bees land on it, their legs can get stuck like glue. Then they die, and you feel like a jerk when you check on the bees next and see the casualties. Sadly, I have experience with this.
To minimize the risk of accidental bee deaths, place fondant in the hive so that bees can’t land on it from above. There are two ways I’ve done this, and a third way that beekeepers in colder climates that mine use when winterizing their hives. If you, too, live in a cold region, then making or buying a candy board is a winter insurance policy for your bees. They are two-inch deep boxes with wire mesh on the bottom. You fill them with fondant, and optionally a pollen cake, and place them on the topmost box of the hive. Honeybees will eat the fondant from them if they run out of stores, and a quick peek at the candy board from above will tell you if you need to add more emergency fondant rations.
How to Feed Bees Fondant
In almost all of the winters I’ve kept honeybees, they’ve had enough of their own honey to see them through. That’s why there’s not as much point in adding a candy board to hives in places with mild winters. More often than not, it will be an emergency situation in that you need to get fondant to bees quickly and don’t have a candy board available. In this case, I recommend buying small packets of fondant and opening up just one side of the bag. If you lay the fondant in the hive this way, bees enter from the side and eat their way through the bag. No bee will die this way because they eat the fondant before they have a chance to walk in it.
Some beekeepers with many colonies will buy fondant in bulk, though. Bakeries and bulk food suppliers often sell fondant in large boxes, and you’ll need to cut pieces out at a time. If you don’t have or use a candy board, what you can do in this case is stuff it into a sturdy plastic bag (like a ziplock) and feed it to bees, as described above. You can also squish it into bowls, Tupperware, or other containers and place these face-down in the hive. Either on top of frames or on top of the holes of a crown board. Because the fondant can get warm and drippy, and bees can land on it, you might lose a few bees if feeding fondant this way, though.
How Much Fondant to Feed Bees
If you’re planning on filling and using a candy board to feed bees fondant, you can fill it halfway to all the way, depending on how cold your winters are. Place the candy board on the top of the hive in autumn, and the bees will use it as a last-resort food supply. Don’t open the hive when it’s cold to check if they’re eating from it, though. If there’s frost, ice, or snow on the ground, leave the colonies alone. Experience and the advice of local beekeepers will tell you how much fondant to feed bees in winter.
If you’re feeding fondant to bees in an emergency situation, you may need to use small blocks from the supermarket. The one winter I had to feed fondant to my bees, I found that they went through a 500-gram (18 oz) pack of it in just under a week. My honeybees are petite Dark European Honeybees, though, so if you have larger bees, they’ll probably need more. How much fondant your bees need also depends on how low their stores are, what time of the winter it is, how cold it is, and when you can next open up the hive. It’s better to feed them more than they need than for them to run out and starve, though.
Image credit: the featured image in this piece is from Jon Shave
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