In the thick of winter your bees are in the fight of their lives.
At this point in the year, you've likely finished the long task of preparing hives for winter. If you haven't, then check out our other article: The Ultimate Guide to Winterizing Your Bees to help you get through it.
It's crucial to prep your hives when going into winter because a single colony can eat up to 80 lbs of honey! That's roughly the weight of a deep brood box that has every frame filled with liquid gold.
The amount of honey that your bees have eaten depends on how strong the swarm is and how warm your winter has been. A warm winter, above 40°F (4°C), keeps the colony active which uses more energy than they would during a cold winter. A cold winter, below 30°F (-1°C), results in your bees remaining in their cluster and conserving their energy.
The more energy that the bees use, the more food that they need to eat to replenish that energy. This is one reason why most beekeepers prefer a cold, but not frigid winter.
Another reason beekeepers prefer it to be cold while overwintering honey bees is so that the queen slows down or even stops laying brood. During broodless time periods, the Varroa Mites can't hide in the capped brood cells or reproduce. While the Varroa Mites are all exposed, it's a great time to try to eradicate them from your hive by using a Varroa Mite treatment.
Throughout this article we'll go over when, what and how to feed your bees during winter. We'll also talk about treating your hive for mites during this broodless period.
Table of Contents (Click to Skip Around)Feeding Bees In Winter
Winter Bee Foods
- Grease Patty (October - December)
- Emergency Dry Sugar (January)
- Dry Pollen (February)
Varroa Mite Treatment in Winter
- The Life Cycle of Varroa Mites
- Leveraging the Life Cycle of Varroa Mites
How to Do a Varroa Mite Treatment In Winter
Feeding Bees In Winter
Feeding bees in winter isn't the most labor intensive activity. In fact, this part of the winter beekeeping process only needs to be done if you missed a step or two while preparing hives for winter. If you did it right, you probably won't find yourself in an emergency or having to feed your bees till the February pollen push.
Depending on how much extra food you've stuffed into your hive back in the fall, it is possible for the bees to run out. Especially once February and March roll around.
If you forgot to add food into their hive, you may need to crack open the hive on the warmest day.
In general, cracking open a hive is not the best idea during winter because it breaks the propolis that the bees have stuffed into the crevasses to get their desired heat and ventilation. But if you have to add food, then be quick and do it when the temperatures are as close to or above 55°F (12°C) as you can.
Winter Bee Foods
There are three different winter bee foods that we'll mention and they all serve different purposes. If you have the ability to use all three throughout your winter beekeeping process, it would be best to do so. If you only have the ability to choose one, then dry sugar granules will be the best choice overall.
Grease Patty (October - December)
The first winter bee food we'll look at is the Grease Patty.
The Grease Patty is an all around great food for your bees to eat whether it's winter time or not. It has multiple benefits and provides essential minerals, carbohydrates and can help control your Tracheal and Varroa Mite population.
Grease Patties are especially great in the late fall/early winter because you can add food grade essential oils like tea tree, wintergreen, thyme, spearmint and eucalyptus that you shouldn't add while you have honey supers on your hive. Both field and laboratory studies have shown that the use of essential oils like these are a natural and holistic way to curb the mite population of your bee hives in winter.
On top of using effective essential oils against Varroa Mites and Tracheal Mites, the grease in these patties, aka Crisco, coats the outside of your bees. This creates a slippery surface that Varroa Mites have a hard time hanging onto. Secondarily, the Tracheal Mites who only reproduce in young bees can't smell the difference between young and old bees anymore because of the Crisco coating.
I must mention that there are two downsides for grease patties:
- One is that when the temperature drops too low, the grease patty may freeze. Once the grease patty is frozen, it is hard for the bees to eat as well as it's secondary effects for mite control are greatly reduced. This is why we recommend grease patties for early winter beekeeping, but they couldn't harm your bees if you leave them in there all winter
- The second is that during the spring and summer seasons the Crisco in the grease patties can attract Small Hive Beetles (SHB). If you live in an area that has SHB, then you should only use patties during winter while the SHB are burrowed underground. So if you do decide to put a grease patty into your hive before it gets cold outside, be sure to take it out of the hive when spring time rolls around
The grease patties that we use are a recipe that has been tested at West Virginia University. It includes:
- Honey from your own hives to make the patty attractive to your colony
- Sugar to give your bees an extra dose of energy at a lower cost than honey
- Crisco for reasons mentioned earlier
- Corn Oil to make the patties easier to work with and keep your patties from drying out. For more on why to use corn oil instead of other oils (Click Here)
- Mineral Salt to provide healthy nutrients to your bees
- Essential Oil for reasons mentioned earlier
Grease patties can easily be placed in the freezer until you need them. When it's time to feed, first allow the grease patty to thaw. Then open the hive, and lay two or three 2 ounce patties directly on top of the frames in your hive.
Emergency Dry Sugar (January)
If you had to choose just one food for feeding bees in winter, this is it. In fact, you can use dry sugar all year long or use it to make sugar water once the weather gets warmer. Dry sugar is also the cheapest of any option available - you probably already have it in your cupboard.
We do not advise opening your hive in winter, especially in January - the coldest month of the year for most states. But, if you find yourself in an emergency, we recommend feeding them dry sugar. The reason is because it doesn't freeze up. No matter how cold it gets, the bees will be able to chip away at these tiny granules and feed on them.
There are only a couple scenarios that constitute this kind of emergency:
- One might occur if you had a warm winter and your bees have kept active. While they're active, they may have eaten more than you had expected and could run out of their food sources
- Another reason might be if you had forgotten to feed them dry sugar before it got cold and you took all of their honey supers off their hive
We understand that as a new beekeeper, mistakes happen. So if you do find yourself in this second scenario we recommend using dry sugar for any emergency winter beekeeping issue.
In general though, try your best to hold off opening the hive till spring. Doing so is the best way to help your bees survive winter. Not cracking open the hive keeps the propolis seal on your hive that your bees created intact. This maintains the ventilation at the same level your bees wanted it to be while preparing themselves for winter.
A hidden benefit of dry sugar is that it is able to pull moisture out of the air and soak it up like a sponge. Moisture can be an absolute monster when it comes to whether or not your bees survive winter.
Moisture has a tendency to gather under your inner cover and turn into freezing cold water. Once this water has gathered, it drips down on to the cluster below. Much like humans can suffer hypothermia from getting wet in the cold, the bees can't handle being wet in the winter's cold and unforgiving environment either.
One way to combat moisture in the hive is to use a technique called the Mountain Camp Sugar Method:
- First crack open the hive and inner cover
- Then place some newspaper down directly on the top frames (some people spray the newspaper with a little sugar water to keep it weighed down and to help the bees chew through it)
- Next, slowly pour a mountain of dry sugar on top of the newspaper
- Spread the sugar to form an even layer over top of the newspaper
- Then close up the hive
This Mountain Camp Sugar Method is great for emergency winter feeding. Try your best to do it on the warmest day possible.
Dry Pollen (February)
The final winter bee food that we'll suggest in this article is to feed your bees pollen or a pollen substitute like Ultra Bee, MegaBee, and Bee-Pro.
While nectar is your bees primary source for carbohydrates, it is pollen that packs the punch when it comes to your bees proteins, lipids, sterols, vitamins, minerals and certain carbohydrates. Pollen is absolutely essential for your bees to get the nutrition they need to create a healthy hive.
According to a study on how your bees take in protein published in the Journal of Insect Physiology, pollen provides your bees with:
- Nutritional reserves to stimulate brood rearing
- Support while resisting pathogens such as Deformed Wing Virus (DWV)
- A longer lifespan
- A more nutritious and higher quantity of worker jelly to help larva grow strong
A different study, from the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) suggests that feeding pollen to bees in February can give them a head start to early spring flower blooms and help increase your bees population growth. They note that, "In colonies with a lack of pollen, brood rearing is delayed until fresh pollen is collected from spring flowers, and these colonies usually emerge from winter with reduced populations."
If you're beekeeping in February, you'll want to use plain dry pollen or a pollen substitute outside of the hive. The reason for this is so your bees can choose if they want to take the pollen or not. The last thing you want to do is to encourage the bees to produce brood before the hive can handle it. If your queen lays eggs so prolifically that she fills up all the frames in her box with brood, then your bees will be spread thin to try to keep the brood warm. A beehive that is spread thin can't cluster to keep themselves warm if there happened to be another cold snap.
Another possible problem with feeding your bees pollen inside the hive while late winter beekeeping is that more bees could be produced than your natural environment could support. This could lead to stress and famine within the hive. If this happens you'd be forced to feed your bees sugar water early in the year to keep up with the demand.
This is why it's so important to let the weather dictate if your bees have access to the pollen outside of their hive rather than placing it directly in their hive during February.
The best way to feed your bees pollen, during late winter, is by leaving a pile of dry pollen or pollen substitute underneath a small rainproof shelter. A rainproof shelter could be as simple as turning a bucket on it's side or under any cover that would keep the pollen from getting wet and caking. Once the pollen has caked, the bees don't seem to want it.
For some creative ideas on pollen feeders check out the video here from Jason Chrisman.
Varroa Mite Treatment in Winter
Studies have shown that the best time to do a mite treatment is around the end of August. This could be a little different for you depending on how far North or South you are. The goal of this timing though, is to treat your bees right before the queen lays her last batch of brood for the year - the fat winter bees. By making sure your bees are nearly mite free, you're helping your bees survive winter.
The second best time of the year to treat your bees for Varroa Mites is during the broodless period in December and January. We'll spend the rest of this article going over how to take advantage of this broodless period.
The Life Cycle of Varroa Mites
Varroa Mites reproduce inside of capped brood cells. The mites sneak into the brood cells and hide underneath the brood. Once the cells are sealed, the mites will start laying their eggs. These small mites feed off of the fat of your brood and by doing so they can transmit up to 20 different diseases to your colony.
While the Varroa Mites are sealed inside the cells, they are hard to kill. Once the bee brood has hatched, the Varroa Mites will cling onto the bees like ticks on a dog. They hold on until they find their next cell to breed in. This vicious cycle increases the population of mites almost all year long. The Varroa population doubles every three weeks between springtime and the onset of the broodless period.
Leveraging the Life Cycle of Varroa Mites
The cycle breaks when there is no sealed capped brood cells. Depending on how cold your climate is, you could see a broodless (or low brood) time period from as early as October to as late as January. When this broodless time period occurs, it means that the Varroa Mites are all exposed.
When the Varroa Mites are all exposed in this Phoretic Stage it would be a great time to take advantage of the mite's broken life cycle and treat your hive. Doing so could kill all of the Varroa Mites in your hive and give your bees a great start to spring.
How to Do a Varroa Mite Treatment In Winter
For winter beekeeping we recommend that you use a method called Oxalic Acid Vaporization (OAV).
It sounds a lot more complicated than it really is. In fact, a major part of why we like this method is because of how easy it is to do.
- Simple and quick process that takes under 5 minutes
- You do not have to open the hive to apply the treatment
- It is the safest chemical treatment method to your queen and colony
- The smell doesn't bother the bees at all
- The chemical doesn't get caught up in the beeswax
- You can do it any time of year as long as temperatures are over 37°F (3°C)
With enough preparation, winter beekeeping doesn't take much effort at all. A little bit of timely food and one or two treatments with Oxalic Acid Vaporization about sums it up.
Correctly preparing hives for winter is the key to it all. If you feed your bees enough dry sugar (the best winter bee food) before wrapping up the hives with insulation, there won't be a need for an emergency feeding session in January. The one exception to this is if you have a particularly warm winter. Warm winters can keep your bees active and they can quickly consume through all of their food sources.
Some winter bee foods have multiple purposes and can be used to not only feed your bees, but also alleviate your hives of moisture, protect them from Varroa and Tracheal Mites, stimulate brood rearing, and so much more.
Winter time is an fantastic time to destroy 100% of your Varroa Mites during the broodless period. If the Varroa Mites can't hide in the sealed brood cells, then they are left exposed and defenseless to an OAV treatment.
I wish you all the best of luck!
Keep On Beekeeping On!