To survive the winter in central Wisconsin the honey bee hive needs several things; 1) adequate food, 2) a dry ventilated and wind free environment, 3) a minimum of pests and 4) an adequate population to provide for cluster warmth and to raise brood. A deficiency in any of these four areas will put the hive in jeopardy. This article is focused on the “adequate food” portion of the above equation.
Winter feeding of bees is considered controversial. After all, the bees evolved a system that has allowed them to survive millions of years without artificial feeding during winter. Of course beekeepers have only begun stealing the so called “surplus” honey during the last few thousand years. Also the recent industrialization of agriculture has greatly altered the types and duration of forage for the bees in only the last few decades. Probably the best approach is to simply leave a full super of honey on top of the hive. If unused, the super can be extracted the following spring. Or a heavy feeding of 2/1 sugar syrup after super removal is recommended for underweight hives. What else can be done? Winter feeding!
The concept of winter feeding is to provide the bees with emergency rations if they have depleted their stored honey. These emergency rations are added to the hive AFTER the bees have gone into cluster, because you do not want the bees to shift to the emergency rations prior to consuming their more nutritionally balanced honey. The emergency rations can be presented to the bees in a number of methods. All methods require, as a minimum, removing the outer telescoping cover. Don’t be overly concerned about this operation as long as it’s done quickly. Research has shown that the internal hive temperature is basically the same as the outside air temperature. So removing and then quickly replacing the outer telescoping cover will not “chill” the bees to any degree.
The simplest method of giving the bees emergency food is to spread sugar or granulated honey on top of the inner cover around the center hole. In warm weather areas this can be effective. However, in central Wisconsin the bees are very reluctant to leave the warmth of the cluster in winter. Even when the cluster has risen to just below the center hole the bees will usually not venture more than a couple of inches from the center hole simply because they can’t remain warm enough. As spring arrives they will venture further away. So although this is the simplest method of winter feeding, it is probably the least effective.
Sugar added on inner cover
NOTE: I have shown approximate distance the bees will venture from the center hole
The next easiest method is to spread sugar or granulated honey on a sheet of paper laid on the top bars of the brood chamber frames. This will be below the inner cover and thus be slighter warmer. Do not make the paper too large. If the bees must leave the cluster to get around the edge of the paper they may not be willing to make the journey. Also do not block the inner cover center hole. Air flow through the center hole removes excess moisture from the hive. It is probably not a good idea to use a paper plate because the raised outer rim will inhibit bee movement. The amount of sugar that can be applied is restricted by the space between the frame top bars and the underneath side of the inner cover. Some beekeepers insert a one inch shim below the inner cover to provide more space for the sugar.
Sugar added on thin sheet of cardboard
Next is the winter patties sold by the bee supply houses. Winter patties have high sugar content and low protein (pollen substitute) so as to feed the bees, but not induce brood raising. It may be necessary to flip the inner cover to provide room beneath the cover for the patty. Also remember to not block the inner cover center hole.
Picture of winter patty on frame topbars
Next up is the candy board. The candy board is candied sugar poured into a form. After the sugar sets up the board is then placed under the inner cover. When the cluster reaches the frames top bar it will begin eating the candied sugar. The advantage of the candy board is the amount of sugar that can be put in the hive. Depending on the thickness of the candy board 5 to 10 pounds of sugar can be added at one time, thus minimizing the number of times you need to open the hive in cold weather. Again the bees will only eat the candied sugar in close proximity to the cluster as shown in the following picture.
Bees only removed sugar above cluster
The final method is a winter super; invented here in central Wisconsin to address the bee's needs during prolonged cold spells experienced here. More about the winter super will be provided in a future article.