The importance of monitoring your hives' food stores and providing supplementary food if needed can't be overstated. Ideally, a beekeeper would make sure that their hives have adequate food stores going into winter, but even then it is still necessary to keep tabs on the food your bees have available all the way up until the flowers in your area are in full bloom. Before then, they won't have much to forage on should they run out of stores in the hive.
Generally speaking, you want to avoid adding moisture to your hives during this time, and liquids may also freeze and further cool your hive, so it is often better to supply solid sugars until it gets a little warmer and dryer. If you have left sugar blocks or fondant above your inner cover for the winter, it is fairly easy to check on the status of this feed, as you can simply lift up the outer cover to peek in to see whether it's gone or not. Even so, it's probably better to avoid doing this on cold days - wait for higher temperatures (10°C or more) to lift your outer cover if at all possible.
If all of your hive's food is below the inner cover (honey frames, frame feeders, etc.) then it is not recommended that you open the hive to check on the food unless there is a particularly warm day to do so. It should be at least 10°C if you're going to open your hive, and these temperatures are not very common in January/February. Instead, you can carefully lift your hive on one end to see how heavy it is, which, if you're experienced and know roughly how heavy your hive was coming into winter, will give you some idea as to how the food supply is doing. It can take some time to get used to this, however, and many beekeepers find it better to just play it safe and add food to their hives one way or another.
In either case, if you know your hive is low on food, or suspect it is, this is a good time to use fondant or sugar blocks to prevent your population from dwindling going into the Spring. Either of these feeds can safely be placed between your inner and outer cover (it can be helpful to have a spacer for this purpose as well).
March and Onwards
By March it should start getting warm enough that you can do proper inspections and really get a sense of how hungry your bees are, so that part of the picture gets much easier as Spring comes into play. However, if you live in an area with long winters and cold temperatures, you will want to be careful about exposing your bees to cold air, and may still want to avoid anything more than peeking under your outer cover.
So long as the temperatures aren't below freezing at this time, it should be safe to start using sugar syrup to feed your bees, which you can provide to them via entrance feeder, top feeder, or frame feeder.
The purpose of changing from solid to liquid feed is twofold:
- Liquid sugar syrup helps your bees produce wax so that they can start their Spring building.
- The liquid is easier for them to consume faster, and this way they can have enough energy to be much more productive.
Once feeding sugar syrup, it is generally recommended that beekeepers continue to feed their hives until the spring flowers are out and the bees are in full swing. After that they should be able to sustain themselves, and will start storing the natural nectar that makes up the honey you will be harvesting, should you decide to harvest later in the year.
A couple of other notes:
- If you bought a package of bees, you will want to start feeding them sugar syrup right away when you get them, as they will be building a hive up from nothing.
- The same is true if you happen to catch a swarm.
- There are also a variety of other supplements that can be added to liquid sugar feed to help boost your bees' health - some deal with nosema, others are meant for queen productivity, etc. You can find a number of these products here at BC Bee Supply!: Feed and Supplements
We hope all this helps you with your spring feeding efforts, and may your beekeeping season BEE successful!
- The BC Bee Team