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Plain Talk Beekeeping: The Basics … and then some

Feeding Fall and Winter Colonies

- September 1, 2023 - James E. Tew - (excerpt)

Giving it our best seasonal guesses

It’s a common recommendation

Nearly every fall and winter bee management list has feeding as a recommendation. It’s a common bee colony management tool. If late-season colonies are light on honey stores, then certainly feed them, but as usual, the beekeeper challenge is a mash of contorted management details.

I’ve been giving my autumn colonies my best food-stock guesses for decades. All these years later, I find that I am still guessing. It’s no surprise that we all must go through this “estimation” process every fall. We have an idea of what the bees will need to survive the winter, but we have no way of preemptively knowing what the winter will require from the bees. Every fall, I struggle with the following questions:

  1. How long should I wait on the fall flow before giving up on it?
  2. How severe will the upcoming winter season be?
  3. Which colony should be fed and which colony can I safely take honey from?
  4. What equipment or procedure should I use to address the bees’ food shortage?
  5. How long and how much should I feed? Do I stop feeding all colonies at the same time?
  6. When are some of my procedures helping my bees, and when am I actually causing them damage? For instance, inciting robbing behavior or drowning bees in syrup.

Honestly, it’s not easy

In past years, I have tried and (mostly) failed, but at least I tried to augment my colonies’ stores, and I felt better for having attempted some kind of aid program. But a looming question that we must address in cases like this is, “When is it better to give up on light colonies and just start again next year?” This past spring, I invested several hundred dollars in splits and packages. I nurtured them all spring and summer. Now fall is here. These young colonies are about to enter the most dangerous winter of their lives — their first one.

Apparently due to excessive rain, the spring flow in my immediate area was little more than “okay.” Being a perpetual beekeeper, I naturally hope for a strong fall flow, but that does not look likely. About half my colonies are too light to withstand even a mild winter. I feel uncertain about the colonies’ future. What to do? Do I put even more of my limited money and energy into them?

In an extreme world, a beekeeper younger than I could drastically move some of the colonies to warmer locations in southern states where they have a better chance of surviving. For me, that’s just stargazing or even outright impractical. With the investment that effort would require, I could more cheaply buy replacement bees next spring. So, I and my bees will have to winter where we are, and as usual, I will feed my bees. Will it help? I certainly hope so. I now say again, as I said just a few paragraphs ago, these food reserve estimations are not easy guesses.

The behavioral mechanics of feeding bees

Some bees are smart and some bees are not. In my list of concerns that I presented at the outset of this article, I asked when was I helping and when was I hurting? In the past, some colonies took the feed admirably while others never seemed to figure the feeders out (or they didn’t want the food). Division board feeders, of which I have many, have frequently been death traps for bees trying to use them. Top feeders and entrance feeders can encourage robbing behavior. As much as I would like to, I cannot assume that all colonies will be able to store the extra feed as winter foodstuffs.

Some comments and questions on hive feeders

Readers, it is not my intent to review the various types of feeders. Rather, I would like to consider the decision-making that is required of us when we decide to supplement our colonies, but some of those decisions will require choosing what feeders would work best.

There is no perfect feeder design for beehives. At different times, in different apiaries, some feeder designs work better than others. In my lifetime of equipment holdings, I suspect I could come up with twenty different styles of feeders — none perfect for all conditions. The sheer diversity of feeder designs would clearly indicate that feeding hungry colonies has been an issue for concerned beekeepers for many, many years.

Feeders, some random comments, and feeding experiences

In addition to several entrance feeders, I primarily have division board feeders, top feeders, and plastic pail feeders. I will probably use all but the entrance feeders. Entrance feeders require the bees to leave the cluster to feed, generally have only a small syrup container, and encourage robbing behavior near the entrance. Use these only if you have a few colonies to feed or if you are a new beekeeper.

Open feeding

In lean years past, when trying to feed many colonies, I have employed “open-feeding” procedures. I cut a 55-gallon drum lengthwise and used the halves as two large bulk-feeding tanks. Alternatively, a large tub could be used.

The bees took a large amount of syrup in a short while, but classically, “the rich got richer.” Strong colonies got the bulk of the syrup while the weak colonies got much less. A lot of bees drowned. After I stopped feeding, I still had to move combs of syrup about the apiary to equalize the winter feed of individual colonies. I am managing fewer colonies now, so I will not use this simple procedure.

I need to add the following thought. Actually, I am not a strong proponent of open feeding. It can spread diseases and pests. Additionally, I am also sure that I am feeding bees that are not mine. But having said this, I have seen commercial beekeepers routinely feed from open containers. To truly work well, open feeding would fare better in warmer climates when bees can freely fly. It also helps if the apiary is somewhat isolated from other bee yards.

Dipping drawn combs in syrup

As a younger beekeeper trying to bungle through managing needy colonies, I decided that simply filling combs with syrup would quickly fill the bill. No feeders would be needed, and the supplemental feed would be near the hungry cluster.

Essentially, dipping combs or pouring syrup on open combs didn’t work. The comb cells didn’t fill. I suspect that air pockets formed in the empty cells that prohibited the syrup from filling them. To force the air from the empty cells, I tried a simple compression sprayer (garden sprayer) to fill the cells. At low pressure, I sprayed syrup into the open cells. That worked better, but it was clumsy, slow, and profoundly messy. My entire life was sticky. However, it did work (somewhat) okay.

In years past, I had a Kelley Comb Filler, a unique device that is no longer manufactured. This feeder was a gasoline-powered pump device that was intended to spray sugar syrup into empty combs.1 While I liked the machine and while it did work reasonably well, I could never find a consistent use for it. It was slow, messy, and noisy. I suspect that it would be too slow for commercial beekeepers and too expensive for hobby beekeepers, but it did spray syrup into empty combs. I present this old device to show the extremes to which beekeepers have gone to feed their colonies. I gave up on this comb-filling process and moved on to other desperation ideas.

Fondant feeding

During my early obsessive years of beekeeping, while reading old bee texts, I would occasionally come across procedures for making sugar fondant. “Candy boards” were simple devices — much like an outer cover only without a metal covering. The cooked fondant, as a liquid, was poured into the upturned wooden “pan” where it hardened into solid, soft fondant. This soft sugar candy was then placed over the bees inside the hive.

I have recently discovered that I am no cook and that this old procedure required …