Emergency Winter Feeding: what to do if bees don’t have enough food

Emergency Winter Feeding: what to do if bees don’t have enough food

Contributions for this article were provided by Mindy Waite from Harvest Lane Honey.

If you live in a cold climate, then winter feeding will be a hot topic for you. It is one of those beekeeping support tactics that is more art than science. Some beekeepers say you’ll do more harm than good by allowing any cold air inside. Others say a little cold air is better than starvation. If you choose to give your bees emergency winter food, here are a few tips.

Why don’t your bees have enough food?

  1. A likely cause of food shortages is difficult weather. If weather patterns freeze spring blooms, and then heat waves dry up later ones, your bees may be able to find enough food to support healthy populations during the summer, but not be able to produce enough stores for overwintering.
  2. Another likely cause of food shortages is that a warm winter extends their activity. If hibernation is prolonged, they will consume more of their food stores.
  3. Lastly, you might have taken too much from your hive during honey harvest. Let’s hope this isn’t the case; if it is, then you’re not really emergency feeding your hives. You’re creating a dependency that you want to avoid, because opening the hives at all in the winter poses a risk to your colonies. You must leave 60 to 70 pounds of honey to carry your colony through the winter at a minimum. For reference, one medium-sized frame filled to 100% capacity with capped honey will hold three to three-and-a-half pounds of honey, meaning there is about 30-35 lbs. per ten-frame super (excluding the weight of the woodenware). Ten deep frames hold about 70 lbs. of honey.

Why not open the hives in the winter?

Once snow has set in and the temperatures have dropped below freezing at night and 65 during the day, avoid disturbing your hive as much as possible. Think of your hive as your home. If you were to take the roof off your home during the middle of winter, you can imagine how cold the home would become. Checking your hives releases valuable heat the bees have been busy producing. The bees cluster during the winter to keep the hive warm, and heat loss can be a cause of death.

Chilly air will kill off the brood and prevent the hive from replacing the bees that have died off, causing the hive to die off. This becomes a bigger concern when those tempting early spring days come along that are warmer than usual, but that is a topic for another day.

How to check food levels

If you are concerned that your hive doesn’t have enough food, there are ways to estimate supply without removing the lid. We recommend lifting the corner of the hive. (Do not remove the boxes.) You are simply checking to see if the boxes have lightened or are still heavy. You do not want to remove the boxes or the lid from the hive to prevent the brood and bees from being chilled.

Emergency feed options

If the hive is lighter than normal you could quickly toss in a Pollen or Feeding Pattie, putting it directly on the frames of the top box above the cluster. Be quick and only lift the corner of the top off, to help control the heat loss.

If you are feeding sugar water and didn’t install an inside feeder before winter set in, do not attempt to add an inside feeder. Leave it out, and use an entrance feeder instead. We can’t stress enough to avoid opening the hive as much as possible, especially if you live in the northern climates.

Concerned about activity

If you haven’t seen your bees flying around for a while and are concerned that your hive may have died – again – don’t remove the boxes. Simply knock on the side of the bottom box. This should stir some buzzing. If you hear no buzzing, don’t panic. We don’t recommend pulling the top off to find out if the hive is active. There’s a chance they are weak, but hanging in there, and removing the lid will cause undue exposure. This is a scenario where you will need to wait until spring for the definite answer.

Winter insulating

Maybe your winter is becoming a little harsher than usual, or you didn’t realize the spot that you placed your hive is an area that gets a lot of wind and snow drifts in winter. Use straw bales around the hive helping to break the wind and snow around the hive. You can also wrap with tar paper, leaving the entrance exposed. We give instructions for winter prep and wrapping a hive with foam board in this blog article.

Entrance reducer

If you haven’t already put your entrance reducer on the smallest opening it is a good idea to do that now. The smallest entrance will help the hive control their heat and protect the hive from any intruders looking for an easy meal. After large snow fall you may need to remove any snow blocking the entrance as well as any dead bees. Otherwise, the hive won’t have a way to get out for a cleansing flight.