Emergency Feeding – Don’t let your Bees Starve!

If you have any suspicion whatsoever that your bees might be low on food – or even if they have food but the cluster might not be able to get to it. You can insure that your bees don’t starve by “mountain camp” feeding. It is very easy, doesn’t require any special equipment, and doesn’t require digging around in the hive – you can even do it when it is pretty cold. There is no reason to let your bees starve.

Mountain Camp Sugar Feeding

This article has been previously published, but contains seasonally relevant information…

dry sugar emergency feed for honey bees
To ensure your bees don’t starve over the winter you can very simply pour plain sugar onto a sheet of paper towel or newspaper  laid directly on the top bars of the hive. leave room for the bees to get around – that’s just about all there is to it. A useful addition is a piece of  half  inch mesh wire under the paper so that when you need to inspect you can easily lift the whole thing off and replace it.

If you have any suspicion whatsoever that your bees might be low on food – or even if they have food but the cluster might not be able to get to it.   You can insure that your bees don’t starve by “mountain camp” feeding.  It is very easy, doesn’t require any special equipment, and doesn’t require digging around in the hive – you can even do it when it is pretty cold.  There is no reason to let your bees starve.

If you don’t wet the sugar a bit the bees will often carry it out of the hive as if it were refuse – or when they eat through the paper it will trickle down into the hive and make a mess.  Using a spray bottle of plain water wet down the paper, add a layer of sugar about 1/2 – 1″ thick, wet it down, continue adding sugar in layers and wetting them until you have added all the sugar you want to apply.  If you are worried about adding so much moisture to the hive – don’t the sugar will quickly absorb all of it as it hardens up.  It will not hurt anything.  4-5 pounds of sugar  is not too much to use.  Be sure to leave space for the bees to go around the paper.  Add an empty super or a feed shim to make room for everything.  An empty super may seem too roomy, but it works fine – I have been doing this for 5 years now, and a medium super does the job with no problems.

this honey bee hive has eaten almost all of the mountain camp sugar.
This hive needs more sugar.
bees out of sugar
Now even a complete novice can tell that this hive will starve without immediate action. No guessing, very simple judgement, and a good excuse to go out and visit your bees on a winter day.

It will now be easy to tell just by peaking under the cover if your bees have used up the sugar yet.  If you feed like this and the cluster is at the top of the hive – which they often are by now – they Will Not Starve unless you let them.

A common spring occurrence is that colonies will have a good amount of open brood in them during a late cold snap.  The hive will cluster on the brood to keep it warm, and the bees and open brood will consume all of the food stores withing reach of the cluster.  Within just a few days of cold weather under these conditions a hive can starve to death with honey stored less than 3 inches from the cluster.  If the cluster is at the top, and you apply mt camp sugar this will not happen unless you let them run out of sugar.

An additional benefit of feeding like this is that the sugar absorbs moisture and helps to prevent condensation from dripping on the bees and freezing them.

maountain camp honey bee emergency feed with pollen sub candy.
As the bees consume the sugar feed you can replenish it with bee candy – I start feeding pollen sub candy in mid January.  As you can see in this picture the bees often hollow out the sugar from the bottom as they eat it.

As the food is used up you can either add a layer of paper on top of the old feed and just give them more granulated sugar or you can give them chunks of home made bee candy.

By the time you are ready to remove any remaining feed the sugar will be set up into a solid chunk that can easily be removed.  You can make syrup out of the scraps and nothing goes to waste.

There are two drawbacks to this system that I know of:  Sometimes during long spells of bad weather or if the bees have nosema a few of them may defecate on top of the sugar feed – they normally would not do that inside of the hive unless conditions were really bad.  This can’t be a good thing as far as hygiene goes, but I have never lost a hive due to nosema as far as I can tell despite routinely using mt camp sugar feed. On the other hand the signs of nosema are very clearly apparent when you see them on top of the white sugar, and that could give you the notice that you need to take timely action if you plan to treat for such things.

The other drawback to feeding like this is that you can’t add supers until you remove the feed – you can actually, but it won’t do much good if the weather turns cold and there is a box of empty comb between the emergency feed and the cluster of bees.  Of course you don’t need to add supers until there is nectar coming in anyway, but I thought I should mention that it can cause a conflict in certain weather/hive conditions.

I always feed like this in the winter, because I think that the benefits outweigh any downsides that there may be, however this does not mean that you can or should rob excessive honey, or fail to feed syrup in the fall if they need it.  But if your hives are light this will save your bacon.

Package Bees or Nucleus Hive?

If you are new to beekeeping and have yet to get bees you are probably wondering whether you should get a package of bees or a nucleus hive (nuc) to start with – what is the difference?

a package of bees
a package of bees

This article was previously published in January 2011, but contains seasonally relevant information.

If you are new to beekeeping and have yet to get bees you are probably wondering whether you should get a package of bees or a nucleus hive (nuc) to start with – what is the difference?

A nucleus hive is a complete hive with, comb,  eggs, open brood, capped brood, newly emerged nurse bees, foraging field bees, and a mature queen who is already busy laying eggs.

A “package” contains 2-3 pounds of field bees (shaken from a lot of different production hives) and a very young queen in her own cage, which has probably laid only a few hundred eggs – enough to prove that she can.  No comb,  eggs, brood, none of that. Oh yeah, a package contains a can of syrup to keep the bees fed for a few days.  A package is very like an artificial swarm.

Cost – nucs are about twice as expensive as a package.

Queens – When you get a nuc it comes with a queen which is already a part of the hive, and is already laying eggs.  With a package you have to “install” the queen and there is always a chance that she won’t be accepted by the hive.

Comb – a nuc comes with about 5 frames of drawn comb where a package has none to start with – unless you have some to give it.  This means that a package has no where to put stores, and the queen has no where to lay.  However a package will usually draw a few frames of comb very quickly because they’ve been confined and drinking syrup.

Build up – A nuc is a complete hive and should start building population as soon as you get it.  A package has no brood yet, and the population will actually decline for about 4-6 weeks until the first eggs that are laid emerge as adults.  So a nuc has about that much of a head start on the season when compared to a package.

Honey production – If you have drawn comb to work with and get your bees early enough either a nuc or package has potential to build up and perhaps produce a honey crop.  If you don’t have comb – and as a beginner you probably don’t – then probably neither one (IMO) is going to produce excess honey in the first year – at least not in our area.  With luck either one should be able to do so in its second year.

Either a nuc or package should build up enough during it’s first year to a sufficient size to over winter and get a good start next year.  You might even be able to split during your first season and successfully go into your first winter with twice as many hives – I did.

Winter Feeding – BeeCakes

Keeping your bees alive and healthy during the winter is a very important and sometimes challenging task.  One very effective method of feeding is putting sugar directly on the top-bars of the top box of the hive.  When the cluster is in direct contact with sugar (even solid sugar), it is very difficult for them to starve.  Below I have outlined a recipe I have found to be very useful in keeping my bees healthy and happy during the winter.  In order to make Bee Cakes, you will need the following:

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Ingredients:

  • 4lbs sucrose (while table sugar – beet or cane is fine… just needs to be white)
  • 2cups water (tap water is fine)
  • 1tsp white vinegar (acid + heat inverts the sucrose into fructose & glucose)
  • 1+1/4 cups pollen substitute (I use UltraBee from Mann Lake)

Kitchen Supplies:

  • 2x 9in. cake pans (or something similar)
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Large stock pot
  • Wooden stirring spoon
  • Candy thermometer
  • Measuring cups & spoons (1C dry, 1/4C dry, 1C wet, 1tsp)

Step 1

First,  you will need to line the 2 cake pans with a single sheet of aluminum foil each.  You’ll be pouring the hot liquid sugar mixture into them, so the aluminum foil needs to be as high-up as possible on the edges of the pan.  You’ll also want to make sure the aluminum foil is as flat & “wrinkle-free” as possible so that the cakes are easier to unwrap when you put them on the hives.

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Step 2

Mix the 4-lbs of sugar, 2-cups of water, and 1-tsp of white vinegar together in the pot, and stir until it makes a thick white liquid.img_2829

Step 3

Put in your candy thermometer & turn on the burner to start heating the sugar mixture.  Stir constantly to keep even heat distribution.  The mixture will eventually start boiling & will expand a lot.  This is why you need a large stock pot… if  you use a small pot it could overflow the top & cause major problems.

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Step 4

You’re looking for the mixture to get up to the “Soft Ball” stage… this is aprox. 238-242 degrees.  Once it reaches this point, most of the water will have boiled off, but you’re looking to get a bit more water out of it (maybe 1-2 more minutes)… just don’t let it get much over 242 degrees.  You’ll know it’s ready because a lot less steam will be coming out.  Then take it over to the sink, pull out the thermometer, and add the pollen substitute.

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Step 5

Stir in the pollen substitute making sure that you get most of the lumps out (doesn’t have to be perfect).  Then pour the mixture into your foil-lined cake pans to cool.  Note… once you take the mixture off the heat you’ll need to move pretty quickly.  You have to get the pollen substitute incorporated & the mixture poured before the sugar cools enough that it starts hardening.

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Let the Bee Cakes cool & harden, and then wrap the foil over the top of them & store until you’re ready to put them on the hive.  When you do go to put them on the hive, remove the foil & set the cake on the top bars of the hive.