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Winter Feeding

In his book "Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey", Brother Adam writes "winter losses are not the direct result of exposure to low temperatures but are generally due to a lack of timely cleansing flights and unsatisfactory stores". Although written years ago, that statement is still essentially true. More bees do perish due to starvation than perish due to freezing. 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 and once the temperatures fall, you cannot feed sugar syrup. The bees will not take cold syrup. Even with 2 to 1 syrup they will not expend the energy and cannot evaporate the excess moisture sufficiently to be able to use it. In colder weather. unlike others, the bees do not hibernate. Instead they form a cluster to keep their queen and any brood warm. The bees do not heat the entire hive, only the cluster. But if given a choice, they will not abandon brood, even for the queen. To generate heat, a certain number of bees will put their heads in cells around the cluster and rapidly flex their bodies, (much like we shiver when we are cold.) 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 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 as they cluster. With that in mind, it is important that you put your winter food directly on the top of the frames.

To provide a supplemental food source, (generally around Thanksgiving in our area), we switch to a form of "dry" sugar mixture developed by Master Beekeeper Kent Williams.

This "Kent mix"recipe includes only 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 and makes the mixture slightly acidic, similar to the ph of honey. It also helps prevent mold. The citric acid begins the inversion process similar to the process bees use to convert nectar into 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.

Put a 2-3 inch shim on top of the hive box to provide space for the mixture. By looking down into the frames you should be able to see the cluster. Place a sheet of newspaper directly on top of the frames above the cluster. We use unbleached parchment paper but you can use newspaper (color sheets are ok but don't use the slick ones). Scoop enough of the mixture onto the paper so it is about two inches thick. It is best not to cover the entire area so the bees can come up around the mix 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. We use Reflectix brand "double bubble" insulation. If using styrofoam, use the type that has foil on one side or wrap it in duct tape. This helps reflect heat and 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 and close up the hive. We use hive top feeders so we leave the empty feeders on the hive for additional insulation. If you use inner covers, put them on top of the 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 any moisture that condenses in the hive. Since it covers the cluster, there is little chance any condensation that forms would drop onto 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 that forms to help keep the mix moist.

The bees will generally consume the ​mixture from the bottom. You should check every two to 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 "Kent mix" 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 and Honey B Healthy 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

It is worth repeating that it is very important to check every few weeks to make sure the bees

still have food and you should be prepared to add more mix, if needed. Many bees starve in February and March, particularly if there have been periods of warm weather when the bees have been active.

Note: Once the queen begins to lay in late winter (sometimes as early as January in a mild winter) you should be prepared to provide some type of pollen patty or pollen substitute in the hive. The "Kent mix" provides energy food but the queen and the young brood also need protein. If none is available, the workers may consume the larvae. This can impact the development of the colony going into spring.

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