We leave all of the honey in the hive. Though honeybees have honey within the hive, they may not be able to move from frame to frame to reach it when it's cold. Northern beekeepers know that from now until March, honeybees are at their highest risk of starvation. One insurance policy I use to make sure my bees make it through to spring is to place sugar cakes directly on top of their frames--a cold weather alternative to 50/50 sugar syrup. It’s much easier in cold temperatures for bees to move up rather than over to the next frame. When warmer temperatures arrive, they'll go back to their honey.
⚠️ No, this doesn’t risk harming the bees, but starvation does. Work quickly to install the rim spacer and sugar cake and you should be in and out in 60 seconds or less. If it was that jarring, the bees in the video would not leave the cluster and crawl up to the sugar. They would stay clustered. A hive can be full of honey but if temps are too cold, the cluster can’t move over to a new frame. They can starve in place. This is a practice conducted by many northern, well-experienced beekeepers. This concept will not apply to warm climate apiaries.
⚠️ Please research using alternative sugars to white sugar before deciding to do so. Though it's counterintuitive, other sugars may cause harm such as honeybee dysentery because of ash content. You can learn more from this well known beekeeper here.
10 cups white sugar
2.5 cups water
1 tsp distilled white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
bread loaf moulds*
Combine all ingredients in a large stockpot over medium heat. Stir constantly until a simmer is reached. Insert candy thermometer. Continue to heat and stir until the thermometer reads 234°F. This will take a while so be patient, and continue to stir regularly. Once temperature is reached pour the sugar solution into the moulds. The sugar will continue to boil and breathe as it cools and hardens. Sugar cakes can be made in large batches, wrapped in parchment paper and stored in the refrigerator or in a cool dry place until use.
*Sugar cakes are to be placed directly on the brood frames. I use a shim/spacer/rim spacer directly above my brood box to allow space for the sugar cake. Note the size in height of the spacer/shim you are using in your hive. Mine is about 2” tall. Ensure that the amount of sugar solution you pour into each mould will not be taller than the hive spacer and will still fit within the hive. My sugar cakes are just short of 2” tall within the moulds. I then place the inner cover above my spacer.
A pivotal piece here on my homestead for winter survival of my honeybee hives. When I first started beekeeping here in NJ, I lost my hives three seasons in a row. Since then, I’ve overwintered successfully. Here’s what’s worked for me:
1. Feed sugar cakes.
I leave my bees with the majority of their honey (90% to be precise). This is plenty to get them through winter. But as an insurance policy, I place sugar cakes directly on top of the frames for access in case it’s too cold for them to move between frames. It’s easier for a cluster of bees to move up instead of over.
2. A Quiltbox.
I place a spacer right under the outer cover, on top of the inner cover. This spacer is lined with a screen on the bottom and has screened air holes on the side. Inside are pine shavings. Any condensation that builds up from the warm colony on a cold day accumulates under the outer lid. But a quiltbox prevents it from dripping onto the bees. Bees can survive cold. They can’t survive wet and cold. I check my shavings about once every few weeks to make sure they’re dry. The bees are never exposed to cool air while doing so.
Have you tried a quilt box? I have a video on my Guides tab under beekeeping on how to build one if you’re interested. 🐝
Angela is the farmer and content creator behind Axe & Root Homestead LLC. This historic six-acre permaculture farm is home to two Clydesdale horses, ten honeybee hives, five sheep, two guardian dogs, barn cats and a flock of 40 geese and ducks. The farm produces maple syrup, fruit from a small orchard and loads of garden produce for consumption, preservation and donation to the local food pantry.
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