Beekeeping: Winter Feeding

Rainy beekeeping isn’t ideal but sometimes is necessary – in today’s blog I’ll be discussing winter feeding as I visited the bees this morning (in the cold and rain) to do one of the most vital tasks to ensure the bees make it through the winter – feeding. So I’m sat writing with a cup of tea as that is probably the most vital post-beekeeping task to ensure the beekeeper makes it through the winter too.

Early Autumn feeding which I’ve already done for the year involves giving the bees liquid sugar solution in a feeder placed on top of the super or brood box. This can be Ambrosia bought from a beekeeping supplier or homemade sugar solution – both have their perks. The issue around this time of year is that the bees will form a cluster within the hive and will become less active to keep warm. This means that if the food is all the way at the top of the hive, they won’t be bringing it down into the frames as they’d have to break away from their nice warm cluster. I found out the hard way that October is too late in the year to be feeding sugar solution as I fed them about 8 litres and it went mouldy (this is the main downside of using homemade sugar solution – Ambrosia lasts much longer but is also much more expensive).

Whoops! – 8 litres of mouldy feed

To get around this issue, winter food is solid fondant! There is debate within the community as to whether this can be as simple as fondant from a bakery or whether it is better to use inverted sugar fondant from a beekeeping supplier. The argument is that the bakers fondant may have additives, preservatives, colourings and flavouring in that aren’t good for the bees. We used Ambrosia fondant from Abelo (local Yorkshire beekeeping supplier) as my beekeeper friend/go-to-expert had some spare and very kindly donated it to us. We fed each hive 2.5kg which should be enough to keep them fed and happy all winter, but we’ll still be checking them throughout the winter using a technique called Hefting; this is where you simply lift one side of the hive up, tilting it backwards in order to see how heavy it is. This prevents having to open the hive up when it’s cold and breaking up the cluster by going through the frames to check stores. It takes a little bit of practice to know how heavy it should feel but my general rule of thumb is that they’ve got plenty if I can’t/really struggle to lift it. Both of my hives aren’t at that point but they should still be okay for the winter.

So it’s too cold for syrup and you’ve hefted your hives and decided they need food. What next?

  1. Obtain your choice of fondant (bakers, beekeepers, homemade or otherwise)
  2. Using your (ever-so versatile) hive tool, score the fondant in a + shape and peel the corners a little to give the bees access to the fondant.
  3. Place scored side down on top of the top bars of the super or the brood box if there’s no super. If you can see that your bees have clustered then try and place the fondant over them.
  4. Put your eke on and close up the hive (we use an empty super as we don’t have any ekes yet)
The bees in their cluster
Fondant on!

We also only had one super spare but the second hive had a super on anyway, so we just removed the emptiest frames and placed the fondant in the gap and popped the queen excluder on top so that the queen doesn’t get left by herself in the brood box.

And that’s all! I’ll be going back out to the hives again when the temperature drops a little more to put the polystyrene floors back in for warmth so more pictures then. Other than that I won’t be seeing the bees ’til spring which I’m sad about but I’ve got a Christmas job working in a beekeeping shop so I’ll hopefully be posting about other bee related topics like candle making and honey jarring! Until then, happy beekeeping!

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