Feeding Honey Bees In The Winter With No-Cook Sugar Bricks

These days I use sugar bricks to feed my bees in the winter and here’s a quick 2-minute video that demonstrates how I do it.

This is a condensed version of a 4-part video series (not unlike the original Star Wars trilogy) that I posted last winter.
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How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter.

One of my bee hives after a  snow storm in 2013.

One of my bee hives after a snow storm in 2013. The bees survived.

I’m no expert, but here’s what I do, and what I do could change entirely by this time next week.

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (November 4th, 2015.)

So the big question is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
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A Hive Pumping Out Heat

I noticed something unusual yesterday. I happened to touch the top cover of one of my hives and it seemed warm. Warm on a typical frigid April day in Newfoundland. So I pulled the top off and put my hand on the wood chips in the moisture quilt…

A hive giving off some heat. (April 15, 2016.)

A hive giving off some heat. (April 15, 2016.)

…and that sucker was giving off some serious heat. I’ve felt heat over the moisture quilt in the winter in strong colonies that were clustering near the top, but never this late in the winter. (On a practical level, my winter beekeeping doesn’t end until it’s warm enough to give the bees sugar syrup, if necessary.)

Q1501 giving off heat next to the shed. (April 15, 2016.)

One seriously hot hive next to my bee supply shed. (April 15, 2016.)

It might not mean anything, but it could mean the queen has been laying and a big batch of brood recently emerged. That’s just a guess.

I took a peek under the moisture quilt and it was packed with bees all over the dry sugar and devouring a pollen patty I threw in about a week ago. I’m not sure what to think, but to feel that much heat coming out of a hive at this time of year — it’s a new one for me.

UPDATE (the next day): After inspecting the hive, I did find a frame a brood, though overall I’d say it’s a fairly small cluster for this time of the year. Whatever is going on, nothing bad seemed to have come from the heat. Strange.

Why Do Honey Bees Eat Chicken Feed?

Because they’re hungry for protein. That’s why honey bees eat chicken feed. Especially in the early spring when the queen is laying again and there are more mouths to feed. (Spring is a relative term for beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland.)

Honey bees eating chicken feed. (Flatrock, NL, April 9, 2016.)

Honey bees eating chicken feed. (Flatrock, NL, April 9, 2016.)

I gave my bees pollen patties earlier in the winter and they showed little interest in them. But judging by how intensely they’re digging into the chicken feed (full of protein), I bet they wouldn’t say no to a protein-rich pollen patty right about now.

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April 2019 Postscript: Honey bees are often starving for protein in the early spring before much of anything has flowered. They will dig into anything that looks or smells like protein, including chicken food, dog food, bird feed, a pile of sawdust — you name it, they’ll go for it.

Dry Sugar With a Hole In It

July 2019 Introduction: I don’t add dry sugar to my hives like this anymore. I use sugar bricks instead. However, I’d probably follow this method if I couldn’t use sugar bricks.

I’ve been feeding my bees in the winter for a while now by pouring dry sugar on newspaper over the top bars. Some people refer to this style of feeding as the Mountain Camp Method. I like it because it’s the quickest and easiest method for feeding bees in my particular winter climate.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

Bees eating dry sugar via the Mountain Camp Method.

Although I’ve never had any problems with it, there is some room for improvement. Some people only put newspaper over the back two-thirds of the top bars so that the front is left open for better airflow. That’s an excellent tweak to the method and it works. There’s no urgent need to change it. However, in my experience, the cluster usually breaks through the top bars in the middle and spreads out from there. Most of the moisture — or humid air from the bees’ respiration — flows up from the middle as well. My little tweak is to create a hole in the middle of the sugar for better ventilation and to give the bees easier access to the sugar.

Dry sugar over newspaper with a hole in the middle. (Dec. 12, 2015.)

Dry sugar over newspaper with a hole in the middle. These bees have about 40kg of honey stores. The sugar is a precaution. (Dec. 12, 2015.)


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A Real Life Demonstration of Feeding Honey Bees Dry Sugar

July 2019 Introduction: I don’t add dry sugar to my hives like this anymore. I use sugar bricks instead. However, I’d probably follow this method if I couldn’t use sugar bricks.

I usually pour dry sugar over newspaper into my Langstroth honey bee hives so the bees have something to eat just in case they run out of honey during the winter. Some people refer to it as the Mountain Camp Method, but I’m00 pretty sure beekeepers have been pouring dry sugar into their hives long before Mr Camp came along and popularized it. I’ll call it Dry Sugar Feeding for now on. In any case, it may not be the best method for feeding bees over the winter, but it works well for me and that’s what matters most. I like it because it’s the easiest method I’ve ever tried and it may be better for the bees than hard candy or candy boards. Do a little research on Hydroxymethylfurfural and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

When I first fed my bees dry sugar, I waited until January or February when the bees, if they were low on honey, would cover most of the top bars in the hive. But waiting that long is a pain in the butt for all kinds of reasons, so now I put the sugar in long before the bees really need it — just like I did today. Here’s an 11-minute video recorded a few hours ago that demonstrates the dry sugar method in all its glory. I also explain near the end how moisture quilts work.

P.S.: I’m not a big fan of feeding the bees pollen patties early in the winter because most of the time they don’t need it and it’s not always good to give the bees solids when they can’t get outside for cleansing flights. I try to reserve pollen patties for small colonies that could use a little boost in brood production. The colony in the video that I refer to as being about the size of a human head will get a pollen patty in a week or two. A small cluster like that, which is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger, won’t be able to stay warm much longer. The colony could be in trouble if I can’t get the queen laying soon.

Another postscript (written in part as a response to the first comment): If I had to do this again, I would place something round in the middle of the newspaper, a small bowl or a jar perhaps. Then after I poured the sugar on, I’d remove the bowl or jar so that a round sugar-free area of newspaper was left behind. Then I’d cut a hole in the exposed newspaper so that when the cluster came up, the bees would go through the hole without having to chew through the newspaper to get at the sugar. The hole would also allow moisture from the cluster to rise directly up to the moisture quilt. (If I have a chance, I’ll record a follow-up video.)

January 12th, 2016: I eventually cleared a hole in the dry sugar.

When, Why and How I Give My Bees Pollen Patties

Someone asked me when, why and how I feed my bees pollen patties. Here’s a photo from one of my first posts about the topic, Adding Pollen Patties. The colony pictured below, by the way, is starving. Usually the way it works is the more winter bees above the top bars, the less honey there is in the hive (usually, not always).

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

I’ve written about pollen patties a bunch of times, so I’m likely to repeat myself here. Do a search of “patties” in my little search engine box up at the top for more detailed information with videos and photos and so on.
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What Does Fresh Brood Look Like?

Fresh brood looks like this (click the image for a closer view):

Fresh brood in the upper deep (or hive body). The queen expanding the brood nest up without any help from humans. (August 10, 2015.)

Fresh brood in the upper deep (or hive body). The queen expanding the brood nest up without any help from humans. (August 10, 2015.)

I was planning to pull up a frame or two of brood from the bottom box to make sure the queen expanded the brood nest up (a lazy edition of pyramiding), but I found fresh brood on the second or third frame that I inspected. The queen didn’t need any help from me. So I put everything back the way I found it and left the bees alone.

How I Used to Make Pollen Patties

It’s April 2019. I’ve shortened and simplified this post from 2012. Here we go:

I feed my bees patties of pollen supplement or pollen substitute to get the queen laying early in the year so that the colony’s population is at a healthy level when spring arrives. By early in the year, I mean late winter (or February and March in Newfoundland). I usually only give pollen patties to weak colonies, but I’ll give them to strong colonies as well if I plan to make splits from them.

I also feed my nucs pollen patties for first month after they arrive (usually around mid-July in Newfoundland), but that’s not a common practice. Many backyard beekeepers don’t feed their bees pollen patties for any reason at any time of the year. Overfeeding an established colony, whether pollen patties or sugar syrup, can easily create colonies so big that they swarm the first chance they get. And often the bees won’t touch pollen patties once they’re able to bring in real pollen from flowering plants. They chew up the patties and then toss the little bits out of the hive like they would with any kind of debris. So in that case, adding pollen patties creates house-cleaning work for the bees but for no benefit.

Here’s a video of me making some pollen patties — in a way that I probably wouldn’t make them today:


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Feeding The Bees Honey Instead of Syrup

I harvested more than enough honey to last us until next year, so instead of topping up my hives up with sugar syrup to get them through the winter, I decided to give them back their honey. It saves the bees the trouble of evaporating the syrup down to the consistency of honey; it reduces the risk of condensation building up inside the hive (evaporation creates condensation, especially in cold weather); and it saves me the trouble of having to mix the syrup and mess around with messy feeders — and the honey is much better for the bees than sugar syrup. So if I’m in the position to feed them back their own honey, why not?

A deep frame of honey fed back to the bees. (Oct. 23, 2011.)

I began feeding the bees their own honey from partially capped medium frames that I didn’t harvest from the honey supers. Then I switched to deep frames full of honey that I pulled from the hives earlier in the summer to prevent the queens from becoming honey bound.
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