Winter feeding of bees
Bees can survive in the wild on very small quantities of honey, however, in milder winters when the bees aren’t cold enough to go into torpor ( a state of stillness like hibernation) then they need a lot more. 18kg is the average recommended by most beekeeping authorities for managed colonies. It is wise to check the brood honey stores before taking honey from supers to ensure that the bees do have adequate stores. Interestingly bees need less honey during a long cold winter, than a wet mild one.
Many Beekeepers take the honey supplies from the bees and at the end of the summer replace it with sugar syrup or fondant so the bees can re fill their stores ready for the winter months.
In basic science this seems fare as sugar is made up of the glucose necessary to give bees energy. Unfortunately the sugar doesn’t contain the complex combination of fructose, sucrose and all the trace elements found in plant nectar, combined with the glucose and the bees enzymes during the transferring of the nectar from honeycrop to wax cell.
It was found that bees ‘self medicate ‘ during the winter months, taking honey from various areas of their stores, wildflowers one day, clover or dandelion another. This shows the bees awareness of taking a balanced diet rather than the same food everyday.
We’d be much the same, not working through our larders left to right until they were empty. We prefer a varied diet, incorporating as much fresh seasonal produce as possible, understanding that different foods provide us with different trace minerals and vitamins.
Imagine what our immune systems would be like through the winter months if we lived on a diet of baked beans say for six months?
Feeding, or not feeding bees, is often debated amongst beekeepers, and most have their own experiences and opinions.
When I am asked about feeding, my answer much depends on the colony in question, and the weather conditions when asked. Opening up a hive in cold and wet weather, breaking the all important propolis seals, can do far more damage to a colony, chilling them perhaps to the point of death. However, leaving a colony with no stores, honey or sugar, can cause them to starve.
I learned of a tip from a beekeeper, if really concerned about a smaller colony in early spring, who haven’t been seen flying on the warmer days, to open the hive, but to have a sugar or diluted honey liquid in a spray bottle. This can be sprayed onto the cluster to allow them some nourishment, without the risk of separating the cluster.
If fondant was placed above the crown board . and the clustering bees were deep below in the brood box, the scent of the sugar . would entice them up, which could prove fatal for the cluster should the bees become chilled through not remaining close enough together.
In Charles Butler’s ‘The Feminie Monarchie’, a tip is given of placing a teaspoon of honey onto some old wax comb and placing at the entrance of the hive.If the bees take the honey then repeat at the same time each day. This is a wise tip as the bees would pass it on leaving the hive . on brighter days. I have tried this with my own colonies when Spring weather does not encourage flying. I always use the colonies own honey, kept aside after an extraction in case of such a need. Honey from other colonies should never be fed to bees.
If I haven’t taken any honey from an established colony then feeding them is not a concern as they have all their own honey stores!