As temperatures begin to fall it is important to assure the bees have enough stores or food to last through the winter. However, having a lot of honey in the hive does not necessarily prevent the bees from starving. In colder weather bees will cluster to keep the queen warm. They do not keep the entire hive warm. To generate heat, a certain number of bees will put their heads in frames around the cluster and rapidly flex their bodies. These “heater” bees need a lot of energy so they require easy access to food. If the hive is cold they can freeze trying to cross over to other frames to get honey. I’m sure that most of us have seen bees that starved in a hive full of honey. Bees also will not venture very far up to get food in a feeder. At the same time, since heat rises the bees will naturally migrate to the upper parts of the hive to cluster. With that in mind, it is important that you put your winter food directly on the top of the frames.
The food mixture that we use is a recipe developed by master beekeeper Kent Williams.
The actual recipe at the bottom of this blog only has 4 ingredients: sugar, apple cider vinegar, powdered citric acid (available in the canning section of grocery stores) and Honey B Healthy. The sugar supplies the energy. The apple cider vinegar adds moisture, makes the mixture slightly acidic similar to the ph of honey and helps prevent mold. The citric acid begins the inversion process similar to the process bees use to convert nectar to honey. The Honey B Healthy provides essential oils including lemongrass which helps attract the bees to the food.
The mixture will be only slightly moist – barely enough to hold it together and no more. Put a feeder 2-3 inch shim on top of the hive box . Look down into the frames and you should be able to see the cluster. Place a sheet of newspaper directly on top of the frames above the cluster. We use parchment paper but you can use newspaper (color is ok but not the slick sheets). Now scoop enough mixture so it is about two inches thick on the paper. It is not necessary to cover the entire area but you should make sure the entire cluster is covered.
Next place some form of insulation in or on the top of the shim. The Insulation can be Styrofoam, cardboard, jute, etc. I have used 1/2 inch RMAX which has foil on one side. This helps reflect heat and also keeps the bees from chewing on it. Make sure the insulation is right on top of the food mixture (almost touching). Now place the outer telescoping or migratory cover on top of the insulation. (I use hive top feeders and I leave the empty feeders on the hive for additional insulation.)
In a few days the mixture will become crusty on the top. That is expected. The mixture is hygroscopic so it will help absorb moisture that condenses in the hives. Also since it covers the cluster, there is little chance any condensation would drop on the bees. Our experience is that you don’t need any ventilation above the insulation layer since you want the mixture to absorb the moisture to keep it moist. The bees will consume the
mixture from the bottom. You should check about every three weeks to make sure they still have food. If you are seeing an opening on the top of the food mixture, they have consumed enough underneath so that you should add more. This mixture should carry you through the coldest winter months.
The recipe is:
25 pounds of sugar
1 quart of apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons of powdered citric acid
3 tablespoons of Honey B Healthy
Add the apple cider vinegar to the sugar and citric acid slowly to prevent the mixture from getting too moist.
You can also scale it to a smaller quantity.
5 Pounds of Sugar
1 cup of apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons of powdered citric acid
2 teaspoons of Honey B Healthy
Note: Once the queen begins to lay in late winter you should also be prepared to provide some type of pollen patty or pollen substitute in the hive. This mixture provides energy food but if the bees need protein (pollen), they may consume the larvae.