The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
icon of list

The Classroom

The Classroom – December 2016

- December 1, 2016 - Jerry Hayes - (excerpt)


Nutrition During Winter?



That is a loaded question because there are many needs and nuances and what it ultimately means to the health and sustainability of the colony. To add a wrinkle to this, honey bees before varroa mites were wild insects that simply tolerated us putting them in our beehives, but if they didn’t like them they could leave and go live in a hollow tree someplace and life would go on. Since the varroa mite, which will ultimately kill a colony after a long decline in 18-24 months, honey bees became livestock that needed management to continue to survive.

As a review, the best food at any moment in time is beebread (fermented pollen) and honey (flower nectar(s)). Honey bees or the ancestors of them have been around for about 100 million years based on a bee found embedded in amber from Myanmar (Burma). So, their relationship with flowers started at the same time almost as flowering plants came into existence. This explains this rich mutuality association between flowering plants and bees as plant flowers exchange pollination to reproduce and survive for the reward of honey bee free access to flower nectar and pollen. Then, honey bees had to figure out how to eat and preserve these raw materials or they were entirely dependent on when flowers bloomed. Pretty cool. Our managed honey bees need the proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals found in pollen converted into beebread to reproduce, grow and survive. And, they need nectar directly or converted to honey as their energy source. When honey bees figured out to survive in very cold temperate climates, they did it by figuring out how to add fermentation organisms to pollen so it could be converted into usable food we call beebread and stored in cells over a long cold hard Northern European winter.

But, you need a lot of energy (carbohydrates) to survive and keep the colony warm for months at a time. This resulted in a high water content sugary nectar being converted to low water concentrated high energy food called honey. Now this resource food relationship with flowering plants meant that beebread and honey were long-term stored food items that could be used and depended on over many months of no flowers….called winter. They could stay in one location and not have to retreat to warmer climes or die.  Then, when the next spring came, they could use flower resources to grow and reproduce by swarming to move their population around.

That was the long explanation to say naturally stored beebread and honey are the best foods for a colony. Just like for your diet, a sandwich with chicken, leafy greens, a tomato, and a slice of natural cheese is better for you than chicken nuggets with processed cheese sauce dip and fries. You can select, the bees can’t and therefore must take what is offered in the environment and sometimes it is better than others. It is what it is.

Honey bees react to the seasons and wait for pollinator-friendly flowers to bloom to start their year and their preparation for the next winter. With the varroa mite and Varroa/Virus complex and the stress from the pesticides, we as beekeepers must control Varroa because if their nutrition is even slightly deficient, then it is a health downhill slide as other viruses, nosema and bacteria take advantage of the bee’s weakened immune system. If this happens colony-wide, then that is the signal for small hive beetles and wax moths to move in.  Colony populations drop because the queen and the colony don’t have the resources to ‘grow’ the colony. This also selfishly means the beekeeper gets little value from this colony as well. And then, the package bee suppliers sell more.

I can’t tell you what having enough stored beebread is other than saying a frame or so is not bad. The colony is not actively raising lots of brood during the winter so this is a stored and preserved food resource primarily used as brood rearing begins again in late winter. I can tell you that for most situations, going into a real winter with 50+lbs. of honey seems to be the goal. Then, of course, it is important to have knocked Varroa down to a level below 2 or 3 per hundred bees in September and appropriately crossing your fingers….because this is beekeeping.

It is easy to feed sugar syrup to make up for stored honey. But, what do you do to replace beebread? You can’t because there are no real replacements/substitutes. What is available on the market are supplements positioned to help, but not replace beebread. These supplements, because they are incomplete, require the nutritional gaps in amino acids, fats, vitamins and minerals to be filled from the bodies of the bees themselves. Envision those terrible pictures of starving people who are thin and emancipated on the TV news. Starving bees may be like that because their bodies are breaking down muscle and fat tissues to fill nutritional gaps, basically parasitizing their own bodies. However, they can only do this for one, maybe two, brood cycles before their bodies give out and they die. Then, brood production plummets and the bees actually eat their own larvae as a food nutrition resource. Pollen coming in and conversion to beebread is the key to colony health. Pollen can be collected and fed to a colony, but unless it has been stored in a -80F freezer, the contents of the pollen (plant sperm) with all the nutritional elements begin to break down and are not very useful.

So, the take-home message for colony nutrition is #1 Beebread/Honey, #2 Commercial Supplements for no more than 6 weeks and #3 Hope spring comes early!


I’m sending you a picture of my hive setup, hoping you can give me some advice.
We live in Boise, Idaho where the winters are cold but there is not a lot of snow or long deep freezes.
I have three deeps and the top deep is full of honey. The bees occupy all three boxes and they are bringing in pollen and doing well. On top of my top box I have a queen excluder and then my ventilator. The ventilator has a breathable cloth stapled to the bottom, filled with cedar shavings, and exposed holes on the sides.

My question is this: Is the queen excluder too much exposure. Will it let out too muc…