The main goal of both bee and beekeeper, is to get the hives through winter and ready for spring. The bees have been storing honey all summer in preparations, but sometimes they do not store enough. As beekeepers, we need to be aware of the condition of the hive and compensate for any shortcomings.
There is only one good thing about starving bees, and that is you can do something about it. The biggest reason for hive losses in winter is starvation.
The best way to prevent starvation is to ensure that the hive has plenty of stores before going into winter. This means that you may have to feed them sugar syrup at the end of the summer going into fall.
Brother Adam, in his book “Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey” (link to my book review), would feed a gallon of syrup to his bees before fall. He would do this regardless of their condition, but would weigh each colony and feed more to colonies that were low.
There is definitely an optimal amount to feed the bees. Brother Adam warns about feeding too much. Only the amount necessary to get the bees through winter should be fed. As he puts it, “To feed enough to carry the colonies through until mid-April would as experience has demonstrated, exhaust the bees prematurely, leading to disastrous results.” If you have not read Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, I would highly suggest reading it.
Generally, feeding should take place before winter arrives. Once it gets cold, feeding sugar syrup can be lethal to your bees. There are a few ways to feed to the bees during winter. Realize though, winter feeding is generally only used for emergency feeding. Use Plain sugar or bee candy in winter. Do not use sugar syrup. It can raise humidity levels or freeze in the combs.
How to Feed Bees Granulated Sugar
Feeding bees with granulated sugar is a really easy to do. All you have to do is put a piece of newspaper on top of the frames and put the sugar on top of that. For some reason the bees have a harder time finding the plain sugar. I have had good luck adding a small drop of lemongrass oil in a 4 pound bag of sugar and mixing it in really well. This seems to help them find the sugar better. Spearmint or peppermint could also be used. Just make sure the oil is food grade.
The major problem that I have with feeding granulated sugar to bees is that a piece of newspaper is needed to put the sugar on. Sometimes the bees will chew through the paper and the sugar will fall right on the cluster. Other things can be used to put the sugar on but when you are dealing with a lot of hives, newspaper gets the job done quickly and cheaply. The problem is the sugar just ends up on the bottom board where it gets pooped on and not eaten. Once on the bottom board the sugar will also attract all kinds of unwanted guests. Mice love the sugar and will build themselves cozy, stinky, disease infested, nests in your best beehives.
Feeding Bees Fondant or Bee Candy
Bee candy or fondant is an excellent way to feed bees in the winter. The great thing about fondant is that it doesn’t fall through the frames like granulated sugar does. All you have to do is place the fondant patties on the frames and close the hive up. No newspaper is required. The only additional equipment you will need is a cover that allows clearance to the patties. Those of us running migratory covers and no inner covers have to have candy boards or find some way to lift the cover a little to make room for the fondant.
The bees really like the fondant. The finer sugar crystals in the fondant are easier for the bees to digest. The fondant also has a bit of moisture in it that keeps it soft and easy for the bees to eat. The only real problem with feeding fondant is that it is hard to make. It isn’t too difficult but does require following a few directions pretty closely. Here is the recipe that I use.
Bee Candy Recipe
3 cups water
10 cups sugar (4 lb bag)
1 cup Karo syrup
1 teaspoon Lemon Juice
Boil the water. While the water is boiling add the sugar, Karo syrup, and lemon juice. Cook until candy thermometer reads 240 degrees or soft ball stage. Allow the mixture to cool to about 200 degrees. Using an electric beater, beat the mixture until it becomes light and fluffy. Place in pan and allow to cool until you are able to work it with your hands. Knead it for 2-5 minutes then place in plastic bag or airtight container.
All of the ingredients do not need to be followed exactly. This is just the recipe I use to keep things consistent. The only thing that you need to do is make sure that your mixture reaches 240 degrees. At this temperature the correct moisture content is achieved and the fondant becomes nice and pliable. Take the mixture any hotter and you have a rock that you won’t be able to shape with your hands. Any cooler and the fondant won’t hold its shape. Make sure that you use enough Karo syrup. If you don’t the mixture will end up with large crystals and will crumble when worked. The acid in the lemon juice, I am told, converts some of the granulated sugar from sucrose to glucose or fructose, it doesn’t really matter. I do it because I have been told to. And in my biased opinion think that it does have an effect on the consistency of the fondant.
Feeding bees is sometimes necessary. It is best to let the bees over-winter on their natural and preferred food but sometimes we need to step in and help them out. The best advice that any new beekeeper can get is to not feed sugar syrup when it is too cold outside. Feeding sugar syrup or fondant can save your bees. Even though the bees don’t digest sugar the same way that they digest honey and it isn’t necessarily good for them, it is still better to feed them than to let them die.