Perhaps surprisingly if the weather is still very wintery, inside your hives brood rearing has probably started 1. It’s about half way through the winter, there’s no forage available and the colonies are surviving on the stores they laid down in the autumn last year.
But now they have a few more mouths to feed … as a consequence, they’re likely to start using the stores at a higher rate.
I’ve recently written about the importance of hefting hives in the winter to judge (very approximately) how much stores they have remaining. It’s an imprecise science at the best of times, but it is important to ensure they don’t run out.
If they do, the colony will starve to death.
If the colony is feeling a bit light you need to give it sugar as soon as practical and as close to the clustered bees as possible. The most convenient type of sugar to give is bakers fondant. This is the same stuff you get on Chelsea buns. You can buy fondant in 12.5 kg blocks for about a tenner (in bulk … one-off purchases are likely to be more expensive) from wholesale suppliers.
Fondant keeps well for several years and so it’s worth stockpiling some for emergencies. Since I use fondant for all my autumn feeding as well I buy in bulk (200+ kg) every year or two and stack it somewhere safe, dry and protected from vermin (and other beekeepers 😉 ).
Feeding fondant can be as simple as cutting a thick slice of fondant off the block and laying it across the top bars of the hive. You’ll need an eke or a reversible crownboard to provide the ‘headspace’ over the colony. Replace the roof and any insulation and the colony should be OK … but don’t stop checking for the rest of the winter.
Don’t be stingy and don’t delay
It’s not worth adding a measly few ounces of fondant. If it’s midwinter and the colony is already light, a couple of hundred grams is going to only last a few days.
Don’t be stingy. Add at least a couple of kilograms.
Don’t wait for a balmy midwinter day to add the fondant. Add it as soon as you realise they’re light. It won’t harm the colony to open it up for the few seconds it takes to add the block.
Wear a veil … some colonies can be semi-torpid, others can be quite feisty. How would you feel about having the roof ripped off on a grey midwinter afternoon? You might be trying to save them from starvation, but their reaction might be something a little less than appreciative 😉
Add the fondant as close to the clustered bees as possible. A small cluster cannot move far in very cold weather. Even inches is too much. There are few sights more tragic than a cluster of starved bees just a few centimetres from lashings of sealed stores or a large lump of fondant.
Finally, don’t spend ages clearing bees off the top bars with little puffs of smoke. The colony will be getting chilled and the disturbance will be worse than the loss of the few bees you might inadvertently squash under the fondant block.
Think of the greater good … speaking of which.
When I feed colonies in the autumn I simply slice a complete block of fondant in half with a spade, open it like a book and lay it on top of the colony. With smaller amounts you can use a breadknife to (carefully … mind your fingers!) cut the block up. It’s a lot easier if the block is at room temperature.
For real convenience you can pack plastic food trays with fondant, wrap them in clingfilm and take a couple with you when you visit the apiary. If needed, simply unwrap them and invert them over the top bars of the hive. Large takeaway food containers or one of the many semi-solid types of plastic packaging used by supermarkets are ideal. Tortellini packets are good and just about fit the ekes I’ve built.
Wash them thoroughly before use rather than subjecting your bees to last nights Chef’s Special Chow Mein 😉
Finally, remove the clingfilm completely before use. Bees tend to chew through clingfilm and drag it down into the broodnest, even incorporating it into the bits of brace comb they build. Getting rid of the traces of clingfilm during the first spring inspection is a pain, and best avoided.
I opened a colony last weekend in 14 degree warmth, and noticed that the fondant was dripping through from the crown board between two frames onto the bees below.
Is this a common problem?
I’ve seen this before, but only on colonies that had expired. I think it happens when there are no bees there to ‘mop up’ the softening fondant as it absorbs moisture. Something similar might be happening with your bees if there’s a gap between the cluster and the fondant (which sounds like it’s above the crownboard), particularly if they’ve been tightly clustered before it warmed up. I always put the fondant as close to the cluster as possible, directly onto the top bars of the frames.
Great advice as usual!
I was wondering what you thought about feeding pollen at this time of year? Not something I’ve done before.
Here in SE England my bees have been out on about when there’s been any sun. This week I’ve noticed some bringing in miniscule amounts of pollen. Presumably because they’re struggling to find any!
I guess this means they are trying to feed brood. Would a helping hand be a good idea or shall I just leave them to it? They have plenty of accessible stores.
I’ve sometimes fed colonies dried pollen – I posted about this here and here previously. I’m not sure whether it makes any difference as I’ve never really done a side-by-side comparison of ‘balanced’ colonies. Pollen is certainly scarce early in the season so it can’t do any harm.
I have some colonies where I have removed the queen excluder between the brood chamber and a super containing honey stores. Have you any advice about where to add additional fondant in February/March to discourage egg laying in the super?
With a full super of honey and a brood box they shouldn’t need any extra (I’m assuming you fed them syrup as well in the autumn). The best thing is to put the super underneath the brood box and then add any fondant on top. The cluster will move to the top of the hive, vacating the super empty.
I am in a similar siituation. How soon can I move the super under the brood box?
Hi Sandra … this isn’t a question I can answer because I don’t know the state of your colonies or what the weather/climate is like where you are. Sooner rather than later because you don’t want the queen to start laying in the super. I’d also be careful to choose a day when the colony isn’t tightly clustered when you reverse the boxes. Simply move the brood and super to the side, remove the super and put it onto the old floor then gently place the brood above it.
Thanks. I am in Edinburgh so will do as you suggest once it’s warm enough to do so.
High single digits Centigrade should be fine … warm enough that the colony isn’t tightly clustered.
So if you put the super under the brood box at this stage – which I have to say makes sense to me when you explain it – what is the signal to take the super out again and swith back above the brood and QE?
Presumably once they’ve used any stores in the super or when the weather’s warm enough that stores aren’t a big issue? But a/ how does one know, and b/ what if the queen moves down and lays a bit?
I’m also assuming that “the cluster will move to the top” means that if the queen was in the super when you moved it, she’ll fairly soon move up into the brood.
In reverse order … yes, if the Q was in the super she’ll move up once you shift the position of the super.
Secondly, timing is all dependent upon weather and nectar flow. There’s no hard and fast rule. You’ll have to use your judgement. Simply split the colony between the boxes and check the top of the lower frames for evidence that the queen is not laying there. They will almost certainly use up the stores during the spring expansion. Remember that starvation is much more likely as the colony expands in spring than in midwinter … they’ll use the stores and/or shift them up into the upper box. You can ‘bruise’ the cappings of sealed stores to encourage them to move them up as well. Simply drag the flat of your hive tool across the sealed stores and damage is slightly.
Hey, I have noticed that you routinely recommend bakers fondant as a winter bee feed. Here in the States, beekeepers have largely moved away from bakers fondant, for a couple of reasons: 1) It is produced by heating the sugars (HFCS, Cane, etc) , thus triggering concerns about the production of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) (https://honeybeesuite.com/hydroxymethylfurfural-is-not-good-for-bees/), and, 2) In the US, commercially produced bakers fondant usually has a decent amount of cornstarch in it, which is not useable by bees, tho I don’t know about toxicity.
Is the fondant in Scotland different?
The fondant I use isn’t specifically for beekeeping. The ingredients are listed as sugar, glucose syrup and water. I know that HMF is not good for bees. I’ve fed fondant in the winter for many years now – initially as a late winter top-up and for the last 5+ years as the only feed – and am not aware of having any problems. I know that Wally Shaw, and others, have tried to find out how commercially available is produced – how much heating, sugar and invert-sugar are involved – but have been unsuccessful.
The majority of UK beekeepers use this sort of fondant in the winter and I’m not aware of any extensive discussion or concern about HMF levels.
Prefer candyboards myself . Cheaper and better for the bees as it stimulates less…
I’ve never tried them, so can’t comment. I simply don’t have time to make the stuff up though. Not sure I follow the stimulates less comment … I want my bees to start brood rearing.
Hi David, I want them not to starve. If they start to raise brood heavily because they perceive a flow, and there is a cold break (And it only has to be a day or two) they will not be able to raise all that brood (keep it warm) and lose winterbees without adequate replacement numbers which will knock the colony way back.
I do 8kg in ten min – That’s 16 portions. Juice 4 lemons, 2kg sugar goes in a bucket + 1/4 cup water and a splash of juice mix for a minute till it’s a bit like the driest sand you would use to make a sand castle , turn out into a bakers tray roll flat, score the 4 portions with a knife . Repeat. It should be a solid block overnight / in 2 days depending on humidity of the room and how much water added (less is best). The Joyce prevents mould.
As always interesting Blog…. Only one thing to take you to task on
” Half way Through Winter ” !!! Willow will blossom here in next 2/3 weeks and then we are off as of march 🙂
Speak for yourself … we don’t have the benefit of the warming Gulf Stream on this side of the country! The buds on willow here are just breaking but I don’t expect to look inside a hive until mid/late April unless it’s unseasonably warm.
Hazel and some wild cherry in flower here, snowdrops primrose and crocus also. Snow forecast and -5° c last night. Difficult for the bees..
Thanks for recipes … snowdrops out in force here and some crocus. Willow is a way off (at least the stuff I’ve seen recently which is in a very exposed spot). We’ve had 5cm snow this week and -6°C last night. It’s been a pretty cold ‘steady’ winter with relatively little wild fluctuations in temperature. I’d like it to warm a bit so they can go on cleansing flights. However, although it’s too soon to really be sure, things are looking reasonably good. Other local beekeepers here who I’ve talked to have only really had the obvious overwintering losses due to queenless colonies or drone layers … so far. At least 6 weeks to go yet 😉
I have started using the Perspex crown boards that I have modified with an eek underneath. do you find they work ok, or will they get propolised in time?
Yes and yes … they work great and they are likely to get a bit of propolis but this can easily be removed. I’ve written about the design of this sort of crownboard several years ago and, more recently, on how to clean them. The key point with the latter is that the blade should be blunt. In my apiaries most of these crownboards are currently ‘upside down’ with the eke providing space for a fondant block and with the insulating block of kingspan perched on top, under the roof. This works well, there are no issues with condensation and the headspace in the hive is kept warm to encourage the bees up to get to the fondant if they need it.
I can’t find a picture at the moment, but will post one in due course.
Hi David in keeping with all the above I have been monitoring the amount of stores and fondant available to my bees and after the recent cold spell on the first warmish day 7.5 c and sunny no wind, I had a look under the lid and was some what alarmed to see the 2.5 kg bag I had put on 6 weeks ago had all but gone worse still the bag itself had collapsed over the hole in the crown board stopping most of the bees from accessing the fondant. So I came up with a cunning plan I rolled out a 9mm thick x 350mmx350mm slab of fondant and laid it on a queen excluder and covered the upper surface with clingfilm to stop it drying out. I went back to the hive removed the roof swapped out the Q.E for the crown board put a 45mm eke/crown board on top and replaced the roof all in 35 seconds I then rescued the bees trapped in the fondant bag and returned them via the front door where lots of bees where out and about. I then came back after about 20 minuets to see if it was working and the underside of the Q.E was covered in bees feeding!! did not even notice i was there. Being a novice I dont know if that is too much disturbance or not, it was another warm morning today and they were out bring in pollen from the willows, Alder and Goat willow along the Lane next to the Apiary. I Think its ok take care Dave
Sounds like it’s all OK … not long now until the season proper starts.
PS I try and avoid using clingfilm as the bees chew it and can drag it down into the broodnest and get it caught up with brace comb … it can get a bit of a palaver removing it. Don’t bother now, but might be worth removing once the weather properly picks up.