Late Winter – Need To Feed?

Winter is two months old, August is upon us, and still no snow on the Brindabellas.  There have been lots of sunny days and maximum temperatures in the mid-teens scattered throughout June and July.  Do the bees know it is really Winter?  Among the suburbs of Canberra, bees have been out flying every sunny day and bringing pollen in.  Some sunny days young downy bees emerge and do their short orientation flights near the hive entrance.  Yes, life and reproduction still goes on in the hive    but how are the Winter stores of honey and pollen standing up?  Have those generous stores of food been eaten into faster than you had planned?  How will the colonies go when the snow does come to the Brindabellas and the weather does turn cold?

Its easy for the beekeeper in Winter to blissfully relax in the belief that the bees are safely clustered in their hives, surrounded by the ample supplies of food left by the beekeeper to see them through the months of inactivity.  But late Winter and early spring is the time that most cases of colony starvation occur, and beekeepers need to be observant of what is going on in the hives and be ready to respond if starvation becomes a possibility.

Why do bees run out of food stores in Winter and early Spring?

  • Insufficient honey and pollen stores were left in the hive after the last extraction of the autumn.
  • Sufficient stores were left, but were not compacted around the cluster area and were inaccessible to the bees in thcold weather.
  • Unseasonally warm weather in the middle of Winter, along with the availability of some nectar, stimulated the bees to commence brood raising early and to use up the available stores before Spring arrives with its replenishment nectar and pollen flows.

Foraging bees need food for flying, bees producing wax for comb building need lots of food, and new brood larva being fed with royal jelly, nectar, and pollen use up great quantities of stores.  However, in the cooler regions around Canberra, there is normally little reward for the foragers, often only a little thin nectar that produces less energy than is used up by the foraging bee to obtain the nectar.  Locations within the city of Canberra itself offer a lottery, because of the planting of a multitude of non-native trees, shrubs and flowers that can, for varying times, provide pollen and nectar flows during the Winter.  These supplies, accompanied by the occasional warm sunny breaks of mid-Winter, will often stimulate the bees to begin brood production early, but may or may not persist long enough to provide sufficient ongoing stores of food for hive survival.

What warning signs should the beekeeper be looking for?

  • Is the weight of the hive commensurate with the amount of stores expected to be remaining?
  • Are there signs of brood production?  . bees collecting pollen  new young bees emerging from the entrance on sunny days?
  • Does the weight of the hive (when hefted) come from plentiful stores of honey, or from expanding brood with diminishing stores?

What if stores are very low?   If stores are too low then supplementary feeding to prevent starvation, should be considered, depending on your prognosis of the weather and natural food sources over the next few weeks or months.  The preferred way to provide food is to give the colony disease free combs of honey and pollen.  This effectively limits you to using full combs that were excess to your own apiary requirements at autumn shutdown and were stored for just this eventuality. Place the frames of honey and pollen on both sides of the cluster or give the colony a super of honey directly above the cluster.

The alternative to feeding stored honey is to feed sugar as a syrup or dry.  The sugar must be common white cane sugar, not brown sugar, treacle, or other form of sugar (although commercial beekeepers may find certain forms of bulk sugar to be viable).  White cane sugar is sucrose that the bees can convert to the same levulose and dextrose they derive from nectar.  For late Winter feeding, a heavy syrup of  2 kilograms of sugar to each 1 litre of water is recommended.

Sugar Feeding

There are numerous ways of feeding the sugar and the means employed will normally depend on equipment available, accessibility of the apiary and personal preference.  The most common feeders used are: the Frame-top Inverted feeder, the Hive Top feeder, the Bag feeder, the Empty Comb feeder, the Division Board feeder, the Boardman Entrance feeder, and the hive mat (dry) feeder.

What is the best type of feeder?  Well, its horses for courses.  All the different feeders work well in the appropriate circumstances.  However, for feeding in late Winter conditions, a primary consideration must be the ability of the feeder to present the food close enough to the cluster to enable the bees to access the food. Although hungry, bees will starve to death rather than leave the cluster warmth and travel 10 to 15 cm away to a source of sugar syrup. Climate and weather conditions will therefore have a bearing on selection of feeder type.

The Boardman Feeder is a very convenient and effective feeder in warm conditions (as long as robbing does not become a problem), but it presents the syrup to the bees just inside the hive entrance.  The cluster in danger from starvation will likely be high up in the upper brood box, more than a full box length away from the entrance, and in cold weather the bees will not be willing to leave the cluster to travel such a distance.  The Boardman Feeder is not recommended for Winter feeding.

The Division Board Feeder is a commonly used feeder that is very effective when used as a supplementary feeder in warm weather when there is no honey flow on, particularly when an artificial honey flow is needed to stimulate and support comb building on foundation and brood raising.  It is also useful for feeding thick syrup in early Autumn, when needed to promote storage of Winter stores.  But the Division Board Feeder needs to be placed within the brood box and requires the brood box to be opened up for checking and re-filling.  It should be placed at or near the side of the brood box, as it must not come between useful stored honey/pollen and the cluster as any stores beyond it will be lost to the cluster. The Division Board Feeder is not recommended for late Winter use.

The Sugar Comb Feeder can be used as an emergency feeder to prevent starvation when the colony is on the point of running out of honey.  A Sugar Comb feeder is an empty frame of comb which is filled with heavy syrup by either spraying or pouring the syrup over the comb until the cells are filled with syrup.  The now full combs are then placed adjacent to the cluster.  This is only suggested as an emergency feeder, because the brood box has to be opened up and the cluster probably disturbed as the comb frames are removed and inserted.

The Hive Top Feeder is essentially a water-tight shallow box or tray that is placed over the top box and under the lid and is intended to hold sugar syrup.  An entry is provided on one side of the box for the bees to climb up into the feeder and gain access to the syrup.  A well designed feeder of this type will hold significant quantities of syrup that can be monitored and replenished without uncovering the lower boxes.  Excellent for feeding in warmer times, but the access route to the syrup is lengthy and requires the bees to move a considerable distance from the warmth of the cluster.  Not recommended for cold weather.

The Bag Feeder is a plastic bag, partly filled with syrup, then sealed and placed directly on top of the frame top-bars.  Once in place, the bag is perforated with a small number of holes through which bees can access the syrup.  The Bag Feeder has the advantages that it can be placed such that distance of travel from the top of the cluster is reduced to a few centimetres, that it is easily and inexpensively made, and that its replenishment (by replacement) can be achieved with minimal disturbance of the cluster.  Disadvantages include the relatively small amount of syrup held by the bag and the care and practice (and luck?) needed to puncture the bag in a manner that avoids leakage over the cluster.  A heavy leakage could result in disastrous flooding of the cluster.  The Bag feeder is a satisfactory Winter feeder, if used with care.

The Frame-top Inverted Feeder gets the sugar syrup closer to the bees than any other type of feeder. It is a jar or a rigid friction-lid container, with small holes punched or drilled into the lid, filled with syrup and placed inverted on the frame tops.  Better still, an inner cover or Cec Mercer type hive mat (with an elongated longitudinal hole exposing the two central frame tops) is placed over the frame tops and the Inverted feeder is stood over part of the central ventilation hole.  Inventive beekeepers (and arent we all) may use suitable spacers to raise the feeder sufficiently above the mat to provide beespace under the feeder lid.  Multiple or large feeders can be used if desired. This feeder presents syrup in the warm centre of the hive.  An empty super is placed on the brood box to enclose the feeder and the hive lid put on top.  Checking and refilling the feeder is done through the lid, without disturbing the brood box.  Glass jar feeders are preferred because the syrup level can be monitored easily and quickly by merely peeking under a raised hive lid.  The Frame-top Inverted Feeder, pictured below, is recommended for late Winter supplementary or replacement feeding of sugar syrup.





Dry Sugar.    Opinions differ widely over the efficacy of dry sugar as a honey substitute.  Bees will normally, but not always, use dry sugar when it is deposited on an inner cover or hive mat, where it can be in close proximity to the cluster.  However, bees cannot process dry sugar without relatively large amounts of water being added.  Water must therefore be either found within the hive itself close to the cluster (condensation) or brought in from the cold world outside.  Dry sugar is convenient to handle, transport and place in the hive. It is recommended by some well-experienced beekeepers and is worth considering.

Pollen.   Do not ignore the pollen needs of the colony.  Pollen supplements may be required, separate from but alongside the sugar supplement.

When Should Feeding End?.  The bees will tell you.  Bees will collect natural nectar and pollen by preference, when conditions are good enough.  When the bees stop emptying the feeder then it should be removed, and hopefully you will soon be replacing it with a honey super.

Spring.  Different considerations apply to the supplementary feeding as Spring advances and temperatures warm up.  Spring feeding will be discussed in a later article.

Disclaimer.  This is one view of the world.  Bees often act as if they have not read the rules.  Bees will not always behave predictably, but will often act in response to factors in the environment of which we mere humans are not cognisant.  Today, the last day in July – 16C, sunny, wind calm and inspection reveals that my own bees do not believe it is Winter.  All colonies are busily raising brood and one is crying out for a honey super to be added.  What should I do?  Will August bring with it weeks of cold, wind, rain and snow and cause the less prepared colonies use up their stores?  Or will Spring come early and bring on swarming?  Fascinating, aint it!

Paul Hooper

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