Feeding bees should the priority of every beekeeper

Feeding bees in winter – Season 6

Don't starve your bees

I believe that feeding bees is an underrated topic among beekeepers. Medicating bees is the most discussed and certainly overrated topic, on my account. So, it is no surprise that every year, many beginner  beekeepers starve their colonies. Even experienced beekeepers starve their colonies, when they unexpectedly explode in growth in the spring.

Starved honeybee colony

Those two pictures above are of the one and only (so far, at least) colony that I let starve to death a couple of years ago. Do you see how large it is? What happened? Well, I thought they had enough in stores, when I lifted them one week… I found them dead ten days later, during inspection and feeding. It was a very warm February.

When do I feed my bees?

It is December. We have had a very warm and dry year. It just got cold here, in Northern Alabama. I am still feeding my bees, although the hives are heavy. I will feed the bees as long as they take syrup. I lift the hives every two weeks to check for stores. Then, as soon as the warm spells start (sometimes even in January), I start feeding again every week.

What do I feed my bees?

And how about what to feed the bees? One beekeeper is planning to feed sugar syrup or corn syrup, while another may be spending money on pollen patties. Yet, another is making protein patties from sugar and different protein sources.

I think that if you have to feed protein patties, you either live in a much colder climate than Northern Alabama, or your colonies are so week by spring that you can’t rely on foragers and need to feed them something for the queen to start laying eggs.

Feed your bees

So, first, let me admit that I used to feed homemade pollen patties in the past. I found that harvesting pollen in the spring and keeping it in the freezer or trying to extract it from the old foundation is rather cumbersome. Besides, I get to ponder how that theory of keeping one colony’s pathogens from another can work, if I do that… I do not buy any other pollen or protein for the same reason: to avoid spread of disease or introduction of pesticides. So, for the past two years, I have successfully overwintered my bees on the following food sources:

Sugar syrup: once I remove the honey supers and all the frame with the old foundation, I feed my bees sugar syrup, weekly, until each hive weighs about 50 lbs (an average 7 year old human). Some colonies are very slow at moving their syrup down into their storage. I may find an unfinished bottle in the hive and discard it, as it may start fermenting (more on that later). In that case, I make a note to make the syrup with less viscosity than the previous batch.

The syrup is made using 1:1 sugar to water ratio. Bring the water to boil, add sugar, stir until completely dissolved and the syrup becomes clear. For each 5 gallon bucket of syrup, add 1/2 cup of red pepper (flakes, which I buy from Costco), and a few twigs of yarrow and bee balm.
Wait until the syrup has cooled and strain the solids before pouring it into feeders. Keep refrigerated, if not used immediately.

Why use red pepper in sugar syrup?

Russian beekeepers from Voronezh State University conducted research using red pepper and yarrow and reported 91% decrease in varroa counts. I have been using red pepper, yarrow  and bee balm for years, and I do believe that my syrup works just as well as a thymol application. As you may have read in my other posts, I dust my bees regularly during the warm season with red cedar sawdust (my husband loves working with cedar). Of course, not all the mites will be removed by the bees after dusting. During the summer months, the varroa mites survive by feeding on bee larva and reproducing in the same cell as the bee larva. In the cold, broodless season, we have a perfect opportunity to get rid of a lot of mites through dusting and feeding them hot pepper syrup. The bees love the syrup, by the way. I have started this practice four years ago. In my first three years, I saw a lot of bees with crippled wings. This deformity is believed to be caused by Deformed Wing Virus carried by mites. I have not seen any deformed bees this or last year. I have only seen a couple of mites in the bottom tray, after dusting, and none on my bees.

I also feed a lot of honey back to the colonies. Each time I find a comb in the brood chamber, filled with honey, I put it in the top feeding area and leave it there for bees to clean up. I don’t mix up the comb though – it comes from that colony it goes back to.

The bees generally have no problem storing pollen in the fall and finding more in the early spring. I do find that keeping bees varroa mite free (or almost free, I should say) and keeping the bees on new foundation through the winter helps to keep the colony healthy enough to find their own sources of protein (aka pollen).


  • Jack Albers July 23, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Where can I find the research that you reference above about red pepper in sugar syrup? I would really like to read it and look at their references. Thank you. I am learning a lot reading your blog.

  • Rob Russell November 26, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    I’m a second-year beekeeper (7 hives), trying to learn from my mistakes. A week ago, I added a Mann Lake-brand pollen patty to each hive. Yesterday, I found my one hive of wild bees had all died (two combs of bees “butts out” in cells, and the rest of the cluster dead on the floor). All other hives were fine. There was plenty of pollen patty remaining. For the past few weeks, the weather has been mild (all hives have a 1″ foam board on top of the inner cover). Thoughts?


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