NBU Alert – Spring Starvation


Urgent message from Our Seasonal Bee Inspector,  27/05/2021APHA logo

Stuart Westsmith, one of our seasonal bee inspectors has directly phoned Bob Maurer, as Chairman of SBKA, to say he has found a great number of hives around Surrey with no stores and starving bees in the last few days.

A circular recommending that we all check our hives as a matter of urgency and feed as needed will be issued by Apha/NBU but it has to go through their administrative procedures and Stuart thinks it is too urgent to wait.

Bob has never had a bee inspector make a direct request like this before so it must be serious. He thinks Stuart is absolutely right and has been feeding his own bees for a while.

So please check your bees as soon as you can.

Assume nothing … Inspect your colonies for useable stores and feed if needed.

If in doubt, feed anyway … what they don’t need, they won’t take.   

Assessing Winter Food Stores

Luggage Scale

Use Luggage Scale to Weigh Hives & Assess Winter Stores

A typical colony will require approx 40 lb. sealed stores to survive the winter. Colonies should have been fed a thick sugar syrup (if necessary), in September-October, to give adequate time for it to have been ‘ripened’ & sealed. If feeding becomes necessary in the winter, you will need to use a semi-solid form of food e.g.

• Baker’s fondant.
• Candy – commercial or home-made.
• Bag of dampened white sugar.
• Icing sugar made into a thick paste with water.

Bees can also starve in the midst of plenty. Bees move upwards – very cold weather may prevent sideways movement to the next frame. If a super of stores is left on the hive, it is usually recommended that the queen excluder is removed to avoid isolation starvation.

It is particularly important to assess a hive’s food stores through the winter months, to avoid the possibility of “Winter Starvation” but, how do you do this? Opening up the hive & inspecting the frames for stores will break the winter cluster & chill the bees so, this is definitely not an option.

There are 2 options: [Read more…]

Making & Feeding Pollen Patties

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPollen patties are often used by beekeepers with colonies near Spring rape, where there is a dearth of spring flowers to allow the colony to build up naturally.

In order to build up the colony for the early spring rape flow, the patties can be put on the colonies as early as the middle of January, to get the colony as strong as possible before the rape comes into bloom. However, very early swarm prevention measures are then required.

The standard recipe for pollen (substitute) patties,  used for feeding honeybees in the UK has evolved to:

*Defatted soya flour  60-75% (alternatively referred to as soya protein isolate)

*Brewer’s yeast        20-25%

Natural pollen        20-0%

Totals by weight:  100-100%  (* usually available in Health Food stores e.g. Click Here)

The patties are made up with a thick sugar syrup into a relatively dry, thick paste. If too much syrup is added the patty becomes too sticky & difficult to handle. The mixture is divided into  individual 1 to 2 lb patties. Each patty is then flattened out into 1/2 inch thick patties on to plastic sheets and then stored in plastic bags to stop them drying out.

Pollen substitute is also available, ready prepared & packaged, from beekeeping suppliers, although sometimes the labelling of the ingredients leaves a lot to the buyers imagination! If you are making your own, It’s importance to use de-fatted soya flour, rather than ordinary, soya flour (the latter has a high fat content unsuitable for bees).

To insert a patty into a hive, gently lift the crown board and puff a little smoke over the top of the frame to send the bees down. A patty can then be put directly on top of the brood chamber frames, with the cling film covering the sides and top film uppermost. Press the patty down so it squeezes between the top of the brood frames. If the patty doesn’t easily squeeze between the frames you may need to put an eke on top of the brood box, in order for the crown board to seal the top of the brood box. If you don’t adequately cover the patty with cling film, the patty will dry out & the bees are then unlikely to consume it. In February/March a healthy colony can consume a one pound patty in a week.

Making & Feeding Syrup

Syrup Mix RatiosSyrup consists of sugar and water, heated and stirred into a clear syrup. Both sugar syrup and nectar deliver sucrose to a honeybee colony, which provides carbohydrate for energy. 

The sugar must be pure granulated sugar. Do not use  brown sugar which contains impurities. Feeding bees the latter mixture causes dysentry in the colony. This can severely affect the health of the colony when they are confined to the hive during the winter.

Care must be exercised if syrup needs to be given to a colony in the active season and supers may need to be temporarily removed. The bees may need emergency feeding but, they may also store some of the syrup in the supers. You may finish up extracting sugar as well as any honey the bees have produced.   There are legal limits on the amount of sucrose honey can contain! Feeding syrup in the active season can also prompt robbing so it is safest to introduce a syrup feed just before dusk. Syrup can be fed to a colony in 3 different concentrations, depending on the purpose of the feeding.

Heavy Syrup

2 lb. (0.907kg ≅ 1kg) sugar to 1 pint (0.568L ≅ 0.5L) water gives 61.5% sugar concentration.  Heavy syrup is usually provided in the period from August to September to build up stores for the winter

Note: Do Not 

  1.  Heat this syrup mixture to boiling point…this can produce high levels of HMF which is deleterious to bee health.
  2. Feed heavy syrup when supers are on the hive. The colony may fill super frames with syrup!

 Medium Syrup

1 kg. sugar to 1 litre water gives 50% sugar concentration.  Medium syrup is provided for immediate consumption by the colony.

Thin Syrup

1 lb. (0.454kg ≅ 0.5kg) sugar to 2 pints (1.13L ≅ 1L) water gives 28% concentration.  Thin syrup is used for stimulative feeding.

Note: Feeding Honey

Feeding honey, unless it is stored comb from the same colony, has the potential for cross contamination of disease from one colony to another & is definitely not good practice.

See also “Making & Feeding Fondant

Making & Feeding Fondant

Feeding Fondant

Feeding Fondant via Crown Board

Bakers Fondant (or, Candy) was apparently first used to feed bee colonies in the 18th century, primarily because it was the purest form of sugar then available.

Many beekeepers use fondant to supplement dwindling winter stores or, for emergency feeding at any time of the year. It is important to understand that it is usually far too cold to feed sugar syrup to bees from November through February. 

Fondant (fondant & candy are used interchangeably in many beekeeping circles & for simplicity, I will henceforth only refer to fondant) is recommended at this time of the year, rather than sugar syrup, which normally cannot safely be given to a colony after September until the warmer temperatures of March.  Blocks of bakers fondant can be purchased from confectionary suppliers however, sometimes, added ingredients in “confectioner’s” fondant make it unsuitable for feeding to bees. If you are unsure it’s probably best to source fondant from a reputable beekeeping supplier.

However, it’s also relatively easy to make your own fondant.

This recipe comes from Ron Brown’s book ‘Beekeeping A Seasonal Guide’ (adapted from imperial to metric bags of sugar).   The essential equipment is a large pan ….preferably a preserving pan & a cooking/kitchen thermometer The ingredients are:

  1. A 5Kg bag of granulated sugar
  2. 2.75 pints (1 litre) water (preferably hot)

Making Fondant

Making Fondant

This combination fits comfortably in a preserving pan and allows room for the liquid to boil.   It will produce enough fondant to feed 4 – 5 hives.


Put the water and sugar in the pan over a medium heat; slowly bring to the boil, stirring the syrup occasionally.


The 'Foamy' stage

The ‘Foamy’ stage


Boil until it reaches 234 °F (soft ball stage). This temperature is reached 5-10 minutes after the syrup begins to boil and at the point when the foamy syrup settles to a clear, gently boiling liquid.



Fondant Stage

Fondant Stage

Remove the pan from the heat and leave it to stand until the fondant begins to set and forms a white streaky mass (160°), this takes a couple of hours but can be hastened by standing the pan in a sink of cold water.

Then stir vigorously and pour the mixture into storage containers to solidify. It’s usually best to use aluminum food containers for storage. Beware pouring hot fondant into plastic containers since these may heat deform.

Feeding Commercial Fondant

Feeding Commercial Fondant
Note: The underside of the plastic package is “cut out” to allow bees to access the fondant

To feed a colony from end October to March, invert a slab/package of fondant over the tops of the frames where the bees are clustering (you will then need an eke on the brood box to be able to replace the crown board). Alternatively, place an inverted carton or, slab of fondant over the feed hole in the crown board (Note: a slab of fondant needs the exposed top & sides of a slab to be covered with cling film to stop it drying out). Opening up the hive, inserting the fondant & closing up the hive should be completed quickly to avoid chilling the colony.

Feeding Fondant via the Feed Hole in the Crown Board

Feeding Fondant via the Feed Hole in the Crown Board

 If it is really cold and emergency feeding is required, inverting a tray of fondant over the feed hole is less intrusive & doesn’t risk the colony getting “chilled”.

If you feed too soon, it doesn’t really matter because, fondant doesn’t spoil and will just sit in the hive until the bees need it. However, fondant is more normally used by beekeepers in early January as insurance against low existing stores and for the same reason in February, as insurance against a late or, wet Spring. However, fondant can safely be used at any time of the year.

Some beekeepers advise that a low threshold for feeding fondant is much ‘safer’ than hefting a hive and thinking there are adequate stores.   Cold winter weather reduces a colony’s ability to move laterally in the brood box so it is possible for a colony never to find frames of stores ‘beyond’ the cluster.

Note: Feeding Honey

Feeding honey, unless it is stored comb from the same colony, has the potential for cross contamination of disease from one colony to another & is definitely not good practice.

See also “Making & Feeding Syrup

In Defense of Icing Sugar (and IPM)

Dusting with Icing SugarAndrew Cornwall continues the discussion about the use of icing sugar which appeared in the April edition of BeeNews.

I read with interest the article on using icing sugar to combat Varroa in BeeNews last month. It was thorough, but I want to tackle some possible misconceptions that members may have.

Icing sugar dusting was neither  devised to be used in isolation, nor as a one-off procedure. It is merely one technique that should be deployed as part [Read more…]