Bees are remarkably resilient. From hot to cold and through the seasons, bees are adaptable to climates nearly across the board. But with populations numbering in the tens of thousands, the needs of a colony are significant. Bees understand this, of course, and throughout the warmer months, they gather and stockpile resources, to increase their chances of making it through the long winter.
Ideally, while things outside the hive may be bleak in the middle of winter, on the inside a hive will be handily stocked with required resources, such as honey, pollen, and healthy winter bees. But this is not always the case. New colonies, less than ideal summer weather, or otherwise stressed colonies can all at times use a little help throughout the year.
While the need for stored resources will be greatest during winter and early spring, preparation for this time begins in later summer into fall. A beekeeper’s job during this time (in addition to treating Varroa and other tasks) is to ensure that the colony has enough stored resources – honey and pollen – to make it through the winter. This involves inspections and the monitoring of resources in the hive, leaving enough honey if you choose to harvest honey, and making a determination regarding if feeding your bees will be required.
The needs of a hive will vary depending on region, type of bee, and your hive setup, however in the northern United States up to 90lbs of stored honey is suggested along with ample pollen stores. Some beekeepers weigh their entire hive, while others determine if a hive is “light” or “right” by way of inspections.
Regardless of your preferred method, going into winter with sufficient stores only makes things easier for the bees and the beekeeper. If your bees do not have sufficient stores, feeding 2:1 sugar syrup (which has less water to evaporate) during this time is suggested until the hive is set and ready for winter.
Over winter it’s too cold to feed sugar syrup and fondant or even simply dry sugar (which can also help absorb excess moisture) is preferred. Additionally, the last thing you want to do on a cold winter day (for the sake of your bees) is open up a beehive, allowing the heat from the cluster to escape the hive. As such, ideally, we will have already prepared our hive for this time during the previous spring.
That said, right angles rarely exist in nature, and this very much applies to a beehive. The rectangular Langstroth hive is not an exact match for the spherical shape of a winter bee cluster, so a cluster will not be able to utilize all the honey stored in the corners of the hive. This is why it is best to over-estimate the needs of your bees and why it’s a good idea to consider supplemental feed, as well.
Perhaps the crux of the year, early spring is when many colonies simply run out of food. As soon as the weather allows (a nice sunny day with moderate temperatures), a beekeeper should quickly check and refill any supplemental food stores, or if you have been over-wintering your bees solely on honey, consider adding supplemental feed during this time. Later in spring the colony will begin to prepare for the upcoming season and will start to rapidly expand.
This is also a time when protein, in the form of pollen patties or supplements, can be beneficial. Just be aware that once brood-rearing is initiated by way of pollen supplements or substitutes, the bees will continue to need protein until natural pollen is brought into the hive in a sufficient amount.
The time to let the bees do what bees do, summer is when a healthy beehive will be working in full force and hopefully, collecting all they will need for the late fall and winter months ahead. During this time supplemental feeding is usually not necessary and is something you will want to actually avoid if honey supers will be in place.
While summer may not be the time for supplemental feeding, the beekeeper is not free of other beekeeping tasks, such as mite monitoring and treatment and making sure the hive has enough room to store all that nectar they’ll hopefully be bringing in. Once the summer season is winding down and any honey supers have been pulled, it’s time to prepare your hives for winter and evaluate if supplemental feeding will be needed yet again.
What to Feed
Sugar syrup is the most common feed that a beekeeper will utilize. Sugar syrup can stimulate the drawing of new comb for newly installed bees, and can be stored by bees in the existing comb and used for energy overwinter. Generally, beekeepers will use a 1:1 sugar syrup (that is 1 part sugar to 1 part water) in spring and a “heavier” 2:1 syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) in the fall.
During winter, dry sugar or fondant is used. Conveniently, a beekeeper can use either weight or volume and get pretty close to the right mixture when it comes to sugar syrup. The syrup is made by heating – but never boiling or scorching – the mixture. A thermometer combined with frequent stirring is useful here.
For protein supplementation, commercial pollen patties or substitutes (a substitute contains no natural pollen) are available. The patties can be placed on top of frames. Alternatively, dry mixtures are also available that can be open-fed or fed within the hive if the proper type of feeder is utilized. These dry supplements are also useful for those beekeepers who wish to make their own pollen patties at home.
Overall, supplemental feeding is very much about balance. Overfeed a new nuc without a drawn comb and you could end up with backfilling of the brood nest and a possible swarm event on your hands. Underfeeding a weaker colony in the fall could be setting that hive up for a difficult winter and early spring ahead of them. And if you have multiple hives, you already know each hive is different and must be evaluated separately.
Ultimately, it’s up to the beekeeper and their experience to find that balance where resources within the hive are on track.