When you find the need to feed a weak colony in the midst of winter, there are may things you must be careful of.
- The bees need to be able to access the food when clustered. It only takes a short cold spell for the bees to starve if the cluster can not get to food.
- You need to be careful not to chill the bees while giving them feed.
- You don’t want to feed syrup as the excess moisture can easily cause dysentery/nosema in weak colonies.
What I have found to work quite well is to make sugar blocks and place them over the hole in the inner cover. Assuming that the bees follow their natural progression upward as they consume stores, they will end up at the inner cover. For this to work, proper Fall planning is needed to remove all empty supers so that there are stores all the way up to the top. I found that an old turkey fryer works great for making the sugar candy. I use the following candy recipe, you can cut it as needed.
- 25 lb bag of sugar
- 2 quarts water
- 6 Tbl vinegar
- Place water and vinegar into a large cooking kettle and bring to a boil.
- Slowly add sugar (1/3rd at a time) and continue to stir.
- Keep stirring and heating until it thickens (~270F) to the consistency of cooked oatmeal. It takes time so be patient.
- Remove from heat and wait until boiling stops and then pour into the molds. Use extreme caution, the sugar will burn you really bad if you get it on you.
- Let cool overnight.
When it is cool, I just pop it out and place it over the inner cover holes. Put an empty super around it and cover it with a pieces of insulation batten followed by the telescoping cover. You can easily check them by lifting up the insulation and add another block of sugar if needed. Here is a short video of the sugar boiling so you can get an idea of the consistency if you do not have a candy thermometer. I would recommend getting a candy thermometer if you don’t have one, otherwise you may end up with a sticky mess. I find 270-275F gives me the best results.
Another method I employ when I know I have a weak hive going into Winter is the use of a sugar board. Weak colonies will have a hard time storing away large quantities of syrup and thickening it enough to cap before the cold sets in. I make the sugar boards by simply constructing a 2 inch high bottomless box the same dimensions as a hive body. A small entrance (~1-1/2″ x ~3/8″) is cut in the sugar board to provide ventilation for moisture and for cleansing flights. The bottom is covered with 1/2″ hardware cloth which will hold any sugar chunks, that crack, from falling out of the board, and still allows easy access for the bees. It also makes summer storing of any unused sugar easier. The bees tend to eat the sugar from the outside edges, so most of the time, there will be big chunks freed from the board. I have tried many different designs and found this to work the best. Although a solid top allows for easier filling, once on the hive, you have no way to see how much of the sugar they have consumed without lifting the sugar board and exposing the whole cluster to the frigid air. I lay the sugar board top side down (hardware cloth up) on piece of plastic on the garage floor. Using the recipe above, I pour the molten sugar up to the entrance cut out. Once hardened, I remove the plastic. A 25lb bag of sugar will fill one sugar board. The sugar board is placed, hardware cloth side down, right on top of the brood chamber without the use of an inner cover. This allows the cluster to move right from the tops of the frames to the sugar. I then place an empty medium super on top of the sugar board with a piece of rigid insulation board, or insulation batten inside, followed by the top cover. You can periodically check on the consumption without disturbing the bees by just lifting the insulation. Another advantage to the sugar board, is that the sugar absorbs any condensation that forms over the cluster and helps reduce the humidity in the hive.
Another method that I have been using lately with polystyrene nucs is a sugar frame. I construct them by ripping 3/8″ strips from 2x6s and creating a box with the same outside dimensions as a standard frame. I wire them with both horizontal and vertical wires to give then strength as well as keeping the sugar in place. To fill them with sugar, I put a piece of Glad wrap on one side and lay them on the concrete floor in my garage to pour the molten sugar. Once the sugar hardens I then just peel the Glad wrap off. I put one of these frames in a 5 frame polystyrene nuc with 4 frames of comb. Each frame holds about 9 pounds of sugar. I’ve also been adding dried natural pollen and some dried powdered pollen substitute to the frames as well. This gives the bees some source of protein if needed, as the nucs have very little stored pollen. These frames can also be given to full size colonies in place of division board feeders without the worry of bees drowning or the syrup causing dysentery.