After varroa mites and their associated viruses, starvation is the most common cause of colony death during the winter. In this article, we'll show you numerous winter feeding techniques. Keep in mind, though, that feeding may not be needed every year, while in other years it might be critical for bee survival. For some folks, it's needed annually because in their area a late summer nectar flow never occurs.


In cold weather, bees need food that is mainly carbohydrates, and simple sugars, like honey. Protein (naturally obtained from pollen) is necessary to raise new brood, but adult bees can survive with little to no protein for long stretches.
In cold weather, bees need food that is mainly carbohydrates, and simple sugars, like honey. Protein (naturally obtained from pollen) is necessary to raise new brood, but adult bees can survive with little to no protein for long stretches.

How to tell if your bees need winter feed

Throughout the cold months, you can heft or weigh a hive, or just briefly open the outer cover and look at the inner cover's center hole. If you can see bees just below the hole, it's possible they need some emergency winter feed, because they may have eaten upwards through all their stored honey. We recommend checking every hive once a month between fall and spring.

When it's necessary to feed in cold winter weather (when it's too cold for the bees to fly) we need to feed solid things like winter patties, fondant, sugar bricks, or just plain granulated white sugar. To feed any of these, your hives will need a little bit of extra space because you put them directly onto the top bars of the top box. For this added height you can use a feeding shim, a spare empty super, or a deep rim inner cover. Some beekeepers hesitate to feed solid food to bees, since honey is a liquid, but honey is really more than 80% sugar with just a bit of water in it, so these sugar options aren't that much of a deviation from the natural bee diet.




Laying winter patties on a hive.
Laying winter patties on a hive.

How to feed using winter patties

Betterbee's winter patties are mostly a mix of sugars, as well as a little Honey Bee Healthy and minimal amounts of protein and fat. These additives give winter patties a slightly tan color, and they are sometimes confused with high-protein pollen patties. Pollen patties/protein patties are only fed to bees in the spring to boost the bee population, usually in preparation to split the hive. We don't want to stimulate brood rearing in the middle of winter. We just want the colony of adult bees to slowly and quietly nibble on sugars so they have the energy to keep warm until spring.




Laying HiveAlive Fondant on a hive.
Laying HiveAlive Fondant on a hive with a feeding shim in place.

How to feed using HiveAlive fondant

Another type of solid winter feed is fondant. We now carry HiveAlive Fondant, which is a sugar paste already infused with the HiveAlive bee supplement and feeding stimulant. To use it, simply use a knife or a sharp hive tool to cut a hole in the plastic wrapper on one side, then place the package on the top bars or above the hole in the inner cover with the cut side facing down. The bees will climb up and lick the fondant when they need it during the winter.




Laying sugar bricks on a hive.
Laying sugar bricks on a hive.

How to feed using sugar bricks

White granulated sugar can also be used for feed during cold weather. You can use it "as is" or you can make it into sugar bricks. These bricks are made with a small amount of water and take a few days to dry. Some beekeepers fill the entire feeding shim with the sugar brick, and let it harden into a "candy board," which is offered to the bees as one big slab.




Mountain Camp Method
Mountain Camp Method in action.

How to feed using granulated sugar

Suppose none of the above options is available. In that case, you can also pour granulated white sugar straight out of the bag onto a sheet of newspaper that you've laid on top of the top bars in your top box. Moisture from the bees' breath will make a kind of crust on the pile of sugar, so it won't run down all over them as they nibble through the paper. Be sure to leave a gap in the paper at the front so that you don't block the hive's upper ventilation hole.

If you'll be away from your bees for most of the winter but think they'll need solid feed, it's perfectly fine to add it now, even in large quantities. The bees will eat the feed if they run out of honey and rise to the level of the feed during their normal winter movement upward through the boxes.


Concluding thoughts

The basics of keeping your bees fed in the winter are:

  1. Try not to over-harvest honey so that feeding isn't necessary, or the need is minimized
  2. If there's time in the early fall, feed as much thick sugar syrup as your bees will take, to get them up to the target hive weight
  3. If the weather has become so cold that the bees cannot fly, but they still need more food, you will have to feed solid sugars. Install a feeding shim to make room, and put any of the solid winter feeds described above directly over the hive's top frames so that the cluster can easily access the sugar.

 *Bees will do better in the winter with the proper hivetop equipment. Check out this article on winter hivetop roofing arrangements for your bees.