Cut more losses

This is a follow-on to the post last week, this time focusing on feeding and a few ‘odds and sods’ that failed to make it into the first 3000 words on reducing overwintering colony losses.

Both posts should be read in conjunction with one (or more 1 ) of my earlier posts on disease management for winter. Primarily this involves hammering down the mite levels before the winter bees are produced, so ensuring their longevity.

But also don’t forget to treat your colonies during a broodless period in midwinter to mop up mites that survived the autumn treatment, or have reproduced since then.

Why feed colonies?

All colonies need sufficient stores to get the colony through the winter until suitable nectar sources and good enough weather make foraging profitable the following spring.

How much the colony needs depends upon the bees themselves – some strains are more frugal than others – and the duration of the winter. If there is no forage available, or the weather is too poor for the bees to fly, then they will be dependent upon stores in the hive.

A reasonable estimate would probably be somewhere around 20 kg of stores, but this isn’t a precise science.

It’s better for the colony to have too much than too little. 

If the colony has stores left over at winter’s end you can always remove them and use them when you make up nucs later in the season. Just pull out the frames and store them safely until needed.

Unused winter stores

In contrast, if the colony starts the winter with too few stores there are only two possible outcomes:

  • the colony will starve to death, usually in late winter/early spring (see below)
  • you will spend your winter having to regularly check the colony weight and opening the hive to add “emergency rations” to get them through the winter

Neither of these is desirable, though you should expect to have to check the colony periodically in winter anyway.

Feeding honey for the winter … and meaningless anecdotes

By the end of the summer the queen has reduced her laying rate and the bees should be backfilling brood comb with honey stores. If you assume there’s about 5 kg of stores 2 in the brood box then they’ll need about another 15 kg. 

15 kg is about the amount of honey you can extract from a well-filled super. 

Convenient 😉

Some beekeepers leave a full super of honey on the hive, claiming the “it’s better for the bees than syrup”

Of course, it’s a free world, but there are two things wrong with doing this:

  • where is the evidence that demonstrates that honey is better than sugar-based stores?
  • it’s an eye-wateringly expensive way to feed your colonies

By evidence, I mean statistically-valid studies that show improved overwintering on honey rather than sugar.

Not ‘my hive with a honey super was strong in spring but I heard that Fred lost his colony that was fed syrup’ 3.

That’s not evidence, that’s anecdote.

If you want to get this sort of evidence you’d need to start with a lot of hives, all headed by queens of a similar age and provenance, all with balanced numbers of brood frames/strength, all with similar mite levels and other pathogens.

For starters I’d suggest 200 hives; feed 50% with honey, 50% with sugar … and then repeat the study for the two following winters.

Then do the stats 4.

The economics of feeding honey

If I were a rich man …

The 300 supers of honey used for that experiment would contain honey valued at about £80,000.

That’s profit, not sale price (though it doesn’t include labour costs as I – and many amateur beekeepers – work for free).

The honey in a single full super has a value of £250-275 … that’s an expensive way to feed your bees 5.

Particularly when it’s not demonstrably better than a tenner or so of granulated sugar 🙁

But there are more costs to consider

The economic arguments made above are simplistic in the extreme. However, there are other costs to consider when feeding colonies.

  • time taken to prepare and store whatever you will be feeding them with 6
  • feeders needed to dispense the food (and storage of these when not in use)
  • energetic costs for the colony in converting the food to stores

Years ago I stopped worrying (or even thinking much) about any of this and settled on feeding colonies fondant in the autumn.

Fondant mountain ...

Fondant mountain …

Fondant is ~78% sugar, so a 12.5 kg block contains about 9.75 kg of sugar.

This year I’m paying £11.75 for fondant which equates to ~£1.20 / kg for the sugar it contains.

In contrast, granulated sugar is currently about £0.63 / kg at Tesco.

The benefits of fondant

Although my sugar costs are about double this is a relatively small price I’m (more than) prepared to accept when you take into account the additional benefits.

  • zero preparation time and no container costs. Fondant comes ready-wrapped and stores for years in the box it is purchased in
  • no need for jerry cans, plastic buckets or anything to prepare or store it in before use
  • no need for expensive Ashforth-type feeders that sit around for 95% of the year unused When I last checked an Ashforth feeder cost £66 😯 
  • it takes less than 2 minutes to add fondant to a colony
  • no risk of spillages – in the kitchen, the car or the apiary 7.
  • fondant is taken down more slowly than syrup, so providing more space for the queen to continue laying. In addition, in the event of an early cold snap, fondant remains accessible whereas bees often stop taking syrup down

Regarding the energetic costs for the colony in storing fondant rather than syrup … I assume this is the case based upon the similarity of the water content of fondant to capped stores (22% vs. 18%), whereas syrup contains much more water and so needs to be ripened before capping to avoid fermentation.

Fondant block under inverted perspex crownboard – insulation to be added on top.

Whether this is correct or not 8, the colony has no problem taking down the fondant over a 2-4 week period and storing it.

What are the disadvantages of using fondant? 

The only one I’m really aware of is that the colony will not draw fresh comb when feeding on fondant (or at least, not enthusiastically). In contrast, bees fed syrup in the autumn and provided with fresh foundation will draw lovely worker brood comb. 

Do not underestimate this benefit.

They fancied that fondant

Brood frames of drawn comb are a very valuable resource. Every time you make up a nuc, or shift a nuc to a full-sized box, providing drawn comb significantly speeds up the expansion of the resulting colony.

Nevertheless, for me, the advantages of fondant far outweigh the disadvantages …

Finally, in closing, I’ve not purchased or used invert syrup for feeding colonies. Other than no prep time this has the same drawbacks as syrup made from granulated sugar. Having learnt to use fondant a decade or so ago from Peter Edwards (Stratford BKA) I’ve never felt the need to look at other options.

Let’s move on …

Ventilation and insulation

Bees can withstand very cold temperatures if healthy and provided with sufficient stores. In northern Canada bees may experience only 120 frost-free days a year, and cope with 3-4 week periods in winter when the temperature is -25°C (and colder if you consider the wind chill).

That makes anywhere in the UK look positively balmy.

Margate vs. the Maldives … a similar temperature difference to Margate vs. Manitoba in the winter

I’ve overwintered colonies in cedar or poly boxes for a decade and not noticed a difference in survival rates. Like the honey vs. sugar argument above, if there is a difference it is probably minor. 

However, colony expansion in poly boxes in the spring is usually better in my experience, and they often fill the outer frames with brood well before cedar boxes in the same apiary get there.

Whether cedar or poly I take care with three aspects of their insulation/ventilation:

  • the colonies have open mesh floors and the Varroa tray is only in place when I’m actively monitoring mite drop
  • all have insulation above the crownboard in the form of a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan (or Recticel, or Celotex), either integrated into the crownboard itself, placed above it or built into the roof
  • I ensure there is no upper ventilation – no matchsticks under the crownboard, no holes etc.
  • excess empty space in the brood box is reduced to minimise the dead air space the bees might lose heat to

In my experience bees actively dislike ventilation in the crownboard. They fill mesh with propolis …

Exhibit A … are you getting the message?

… and block up the holes in those over-engineered Abelo crownboards …

Exhibit B … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

Take notice of what the bees are telling you … 😉

Insulation over the colony

I’ve described my insulated perspex crownboards before. They work well and – when inverted – can just about accomodate a flattened 9, halved block of fondant.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

Finally, if it’s a small colony in a brood box 10 then I reduce the dead space in the brood box using a fat dummy

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy …

I build these filled with polystyrene chips.

You don’t need this sort of high-tech solution … some polystyrene wrapped tightly in a thick plastic bag and sealed up with gaffer tape works just as well.

Insulation ...

Insulation …

I’ve even used bubblewrap or that air-filled plastic packaging to fill the space around a top up block of fondant in a super ‘eke’ before now.

However, remember that a small weak colony in autumn is unlikely to overwinter as well as a strong colony. Why is it weak? Would you be better uniting it before winter starts?

Nucleus colonies

Everything written above applies equally well to nucleus colonies.

A strong, healthy nuc should overwinter well and be ready in the spring for sale or promoting to a full colony.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier … an overcrowded overwintered nuc in April

Although I have overwintered nucs in cedar boxes I now almost exclusively use polystyrene. This is another economic decision … a well made cedar nuc costs about double the price of the best poly nucs

I feed my nucs fondant in preparation for the winter, typically by adding 1-2 kg blocks to the integral feeder.

Everynuc fondant topup

Everynuc fondant topup

Because of the absence of storage space in the nuc brood box it’s not unusual to have to supplement this several times during the autumn and winter.

You can even overwinter queens in mini-mating nucs like Apidea’s and Kieler’s.

Kieler mini-nuc with overwintering queen

This deserves a post of its own. Briefly, the mini-nuc needs to be very strong and usually double- or triple- height. I build fondant frame feeders for Kieler’s that can be quickly swapped in/out to compensate for the limited amounts of stores present in the brood box.

Kieler mini-nuc frame feeders

My greatest success in overwintering these was in winters when I provided additional shelter by placing the nucs in an unheated greenhouse. A tunnel provided access to the outside. However, I know several beekeepers who overwinter them without this sort of additional protection (and have done so myself).

Just because this can be done doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.

I’d always prefer to overwinter a colony as a 5 frame nuc. The survival rates are much better, their resilience to long periods of adverse weather is significantly greater, and they are generally much more useful in the spring.

Miscellaneous musings

Hive weight

A colony starting the winter with ample stores can still starve if the bees are particularly extravagant, or if they rear lots of brood but cannot forage.

The rate at which stores are used is slow late in the year and speeds up once brood rearing starts again in earnest early the following spring (though actually in late winter).

Colony weight in early spring

As should be obvious, this is a Craptastic™ sketch simply to illustrate a point 😉

The inflection point might be mid-December or even early February.

The important message is that, once brood rearing starts, consumption of stores increases. Keep checking the colony weight overwinter and supplement with fondant as needed.

I’m going to return to overwinter colony weights sometime this winter as I’m dabbling with a weather station and set of hive scales … watch this space.

An empty super cuts down draughts

Periodically it’s suggested that an empty super under the (open mesh) floor of the hive ‘cuts down draughts’, and is therefore beneficial for the colony.

It might be.

But like the ‘overwintering on honey’ (and being a pedant scientist) I’d always want to see the evidence.

There are two claims being made here:

  • a super under the floor cuts down draughts
  • fewer draughts benefits the colony which consequently overwinters better

Really?

There are ways to measure draughts but has anyone ever done so? Remember, the key point is that the airflow around the winter cluster would be reduced if there are fewer draughts. 

Does a super reduce this airflow significantly over and above that already caused by the sidewalls of the floor?

And, even if it does, perhaps the colony ‘reshapes’ itself to accommodate the draught from an open mesh floor.

What shape is the winter cluster?

For example, in an uninsulated hive (including no insulation over the cluster) with a solid floor the cluster is likely to be roughly spherical. They minimise the surface area.

With an open mesh floor are they more ellipsoid, so avoiding draughts from below? If so, is this improved much by an empty super below the open mesh floor? Does the cluster change shape or position? I don’t know as I’ve not compared cluster shapes in solid vs. open mesh floors plus/minus a super underneath.

And anyway, an open mesh floor looks very like a baffle to me … how much better can it get? How draughty is it in the first place?

Is this example 8,639 for my ‘Beekeeping Myths’ book?

I do know that top insulation tends to flatten the cluster against the warm underside of the crownboard.

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

Having worked out that draughts are (or are not) reduced … you still need another couple of hundred hives to test whether overwintering success rates are improved!

More winter bees

Finally, always remember that the survival of the colony is dependent upon the winter bees. All other things being equal (stores, disease etc.), a colony with lots of winter bees will overwinter better than one with fewer.

This is one of the reasons I stopped using Apiguard for mite control in autumn. Apiguard contains thymol and quite regularly (30-50% of the time in my experience) stopped the queen from laying, particularly in warmer weather. 

Apiguard works well for mite control, but I became wary that I was potentially stopping the queen at a time critical for late-season colony development. I worried that, once treatment was finished, a cold snap would shut down brood rearing leaving it with suboptimal numbers of winter bees.

I never checked to see whether the queen ‘made good’ any shortfall after removal of the treatment … instead I moved to Scotland where it’s too cold to use Apiguard effectively 🙁


 

Footnotes

  1. Go on … treat yourself!
  2. And I’ve not measured it, so this is very much a guesstimate.
  3. Maybe Fred is a lousy beekeeper? Perhaps he didn’t control mite levels? Maybe the colony was destroyed by a woodpecker?
  4. And even then you might well not have enough hives in the study. If there is a difference I suspect it will be very, very slight … so necessitating large numbers of colonies to generate statistically valid results.
  5. All I’m considering here is 15 kg of honey sold (minus costs of jarring and labelling) for about £6 for 340 g … ((300 x 15,000)/340) x 6 = £79,400. Yes, I know there are many other costs involved … I’m using a bit of artistic licence and simply trying to emphasise the point that honey is an expensive way to feed your bees.
  6. I realise I excluded time from my costs estimates above, but now I’m including it … it’s my blog, I can do what I want :-)
  7. The last of these reduces the opportunities for robbing, the middle one keeps my vehicle slightly less messy than it would otherwise be and the first saves my marriage.
  8. And I’m happy to be corrected …
  9. Stand on it to achieve sufficient ‘flatness’.
  10. Which I should have united before autumn … take your losses before winter.

38 thoughts on “Cut more losses

  1. Archie McLellan

    Thanks for this, David. Lots of useful info in the one place.

    I’ve just taken delivery of a pallet of fondant. I was surprised to see that it has come in 12.5 tubs (plastic buckets) and is called ‘fondant icing’ (76% sugar). It feels less stable (more soggy) though this might just be the warm weather. I may have to use containers in the hives in case it seeps through a queen excluder.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Archie

      Interesting … never seen it in tubs. I suspect it will store a bit better than the cardboard boxes I get. If you stack these they tend to s p r e a d under the weight. Not a dealbreaker, but it does mean the plastic-wrapped inner takes a little longer to extricate. I assume they are shorter than the depth of a super? If not it’ll be a bit of a pain. If they are I might be tempted to replace the lid with a sheet of thick plastic with a 1″ wide slot in it and simply invert it over the top bars, with the slot perpendicular to the bars.

      I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with them … if they’re a disaster then you’ll be making a lot of iced buns 🙂

      The empty tubs might come in useful for your bulk honey sales 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Janet

      I remember you struggling to source fondant last season. Vino Farm have a pretty good video on preparing fondant at home – sugar and water (4.5:1 by weight) and some white vinegar, followed by lots of work with vats of boiling sugar solution (118°C) which they, very accurately, describe as Freakin’ hot, followed by a lot of mixing. Ample opportunities to burn yourself badly and/or cover the kitchen in a sticky mess (or both). But the finished product looks much like the stuff I buy.

      However, in a standard domestic kitchen I don’t think it would be practical to produce the amounts I would need in the season. This year it’s only about 150 kg as I’ve significantly reduced my colony numbers on the east coast. In the last few years it’s been over 250 kg. Even making one tenth of this would be taxing.

      But … if you can’t buy it perhaps it’s the only way 🙁

      Good luck
      David

      Reply
    2. Mark Haworth

      Janet,
      If the rough rule of thumb is fondant is twice the cost of sugar (that’s what is quoted in the article) then there are a number of US sources at about that price. Just look at the bakery wholesale companies. I buy fondant in the US for 130 hives or so but the economies of scale kick in way lower than than.
      And if you can pick it up rather than have it shipped it can be a better ratio than that. I’m basing my estimates off a Walmart price of roughly 47c/lb or roughly 77p a kg.

      Reply
      1. David Post author

        Thanks Mark, very helpful.
        The bakery wholesale companies are typically the ones that supply it here … you can even sometimes buy from an independent bakers.
        David

        Reply
        1. Archie McLellan

          There has been an energetic and interesting thread on Beekeeping Forum over the weekend (The truth behind fondants – https://beekeepingforum.co.uk/threads/the-truth-behind-fondants.51532/) on whether it was safe to use Bakers’ fondant (12.5kg blocks) rather than beekeeper’s fondant (1-2kg packs) on the grounds that the heat involved in manufacturing Bakers produced a level of HMF (toxic to bees) that could be a cause of colony deaths in winter. The manufacturers of beekeepers fondant claim that little heat is used in making their product. I think it’s safe to say that no one changed their mind in this discussion! Rather than ploughing through all 6 pages of the thread, you can cut to the chase with ITLD’s post on page 6.

          Reply
          1. David Post author

            Hi Archie

            Many thanks. Very interesting.

            I think it’s safe to say that no one changed their mind in this discussion!

            So, things never change on the BKF 😉

            I agree with ITLD that there are some pretty spurious claims made by the manufacturers/vendors of beekeeping fondant that simply do not stand up to any level of scrutiny. For example, some claim that the presence of anti-caking agents is ‘very bad for bees’. Really? There are anti-caking agents in Api-Bioxal and there are no anti-caking agents listed on the side of the packets of baker’s fondant that I’ve ever used (usually from Südzucker). The former doesn’t of course mean that the stuff isn’t bad for bees, but the latter rather undermines the claims being made for their £3/kg bee-specific fondant.

            I commented on this a couple of years ago at the end of a post on feeding fondant.

            Cheers
            David

  2. Mick Coen

    I’ve been keeping bees for 12 and am quite successful at getting them through winter. I’ve usually used syrup to feed my bees and have used fondant, this year I have experienced with dry sugar and it’s been as good as either syrup or fondant. What do you think are the disadvantages of using just white granulated sugar on its own to feed bees?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Mick

      I’ve also used dry sugar, but only for emergency feeding. One of the old tricks was to take a bag of sugar, stab a few holes in it, dunk it in a bucket of water and leave it over the hole in the crownboard.

      I think my concern about using dry sugar for autumn feeding would be the need for water to process and store it … if the weather turns bad and the bees can’t fly they are likely to struggle to put away sufficient food before the temperature drops and foraging becomes impossible.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Brian Sullivan

    Too late for this year, but what do you use for late summer mite treatment instead of Apiguard? I live in the US Midwest, and put Apiguard on after my August 7 honey harvest. I did two two-week treatments, and pulled out the few remaining crystals on Sept. 5. One hive was blazingly strong with brood and eggs in both brood boxes; the other three were noticeably weaker, though they, too, had brood and eggs. Do you recommend a substitute for Apiguard? I sublimate oxalic acid in late December. No other mite treatment, other than a screen bottom board. I have started feeding 2:1 and will continue until they stop taking it, which is usually mid-October.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Brian

      I use Apivar (amitraz) in the autumn to treat mites. I get very good results with it. It’s worth emphasising the importance of treating in the winter when the colonies are broodless. Here, that’s well before late December. By then they’ve usually got brood again.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Richard Searle

    Hi David

    What are your thoughts on feeding supplements/ additives such as Hive Alive.

    We used Hive Alive in syrup for autumn and spring feeds for a few years and now have 4 Nucs going into Winter with new Hive Alive fondant in place.

    So anecdotally our Bees ‘appear’ to benefit from it, and our Bees have never had any dysentery issues. ( to the relief of our neighbour and their washing line)

    My own thoughts are that like us humans, if you have healthy gut bacteria, then this always going to be a plus.

    But as you say in your piece ‘ but what is the evidence’

    Do these additives do ‘what they say on the tin’?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Richard

      I’ve not used Hive Alive or any of the other commercial supplements. I seem to remember this came up in a comment a winter or two ago and the manufacturer/distributor (forget which) wrote and asked if I’d like to try any. I declined … not because I don’t think it works, but simply because I buy my own beekeeping ‘stuff’ so I can write about it without any real or perceived conflict of interest.

      The claims made for it are striking. A 40% increase in honey production (lots of graphs, but no primary data) would be amazing. For me this season that would have been more than a full super extra per hive. If you ran 5 production hives that extra alone would sell for £1600-1900 … making £16 a bottle (for 10 hives) a bargain.

      I note that it can also be added to pollen patties. That is a supplement I have been testing (all home made) so perhaps I’ll try some next season.

      Sorry I can’t provide more insights … there’s only so much time in a beekeeping season and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s never enough 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Chris Tomlins

    I have insulated the crown boards of my hives for many years. I now leave the insulation, (squares of wooden blankets about 1.5-2″ thick) on year round. I have both cedar and poly hives. For some years I modified my floors such that the inserts remained in but allowed ventilation to diffuse in an attempt to minimise draughts from below. I nearly lost all my colonies in the harsh winter of 2013/14 with the inserts out as is the recommended practice. I found that whilst I thought I was providing good ventilation when I started using the poly hives I had to run the hives through the winter with the insert out as humidity levels rocketed, which I could now see under the transparent cover supplied with the hive. Not happy with this situation I now affix a skirt of Mypex weed suppressant membrane around my hive, which allows adequate ventilation without the damp, cold blow we can experience in Guernsey and of course no high humidity levels

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Chris

      Interesting. I meant to add to the post that my top insulation stays on all year. In the bee shed I don’t even bother with a roof, but just have a block of Kingspan over the crownboard.

      Here on the west coast of Scotland we also have high humidity levels and I’ve noticed that the poly hives are noticeably moister than the cedar boxes. I’ve previously commented that the presence of a Varroa tray and a block of fondant on a poly hive can result in the fondant absorbing a lot of the moisture and dripping down between the frames.

      I suspect your ‘harsh’ Guernsey winter is a bit different from our harsh winters in Scotland 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Mel Rowland

    Great article and very thought provoking… re thymol based treatment and the fact it may put the queen off laying ( heard this several times lately) what mite treatment do you use?

    Reply
  7. Mark Haworth

    Unfortunately I know of a few people who take your estimate of the value of a super of honey to one logical conclusion, to shake out all the bees at the end of the season, because the value of the honey they will consume over the winter is a lot more than the cost of the early spring 3lbs of bees and a queen. If you have a cheap early (Southern US in this case) source of bees and a decent flow from spring to early autumn it’s an unwelcome (in my view, but I’m not thinking wholly commercially) profitable choice “and we don’t need to treat either”.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Mark

      No one should just accept my guesstimates of value, at least without some very thorough checking 😉

      I’m aware of the practice you write about and think it’s deplorable. Whether it’s more profitable or not, it simply uses bees as production units and shows zero regard for acceptable levels of animal welfare.

      Queens and packages early in the year are too expensive – at least for amateur beekeepers – to make this a sensible (mis)management approach to successful beekeeping in the UK. At the time of writing imports of packages and nucs from warmer climates (primarily southern Europe – this might be the only good outcome from Brexit) are banned, and the demand and price for overwintered nucs has therefore rocketed.

      However, there are too many beekeepers who lose bees overwinter – by not managing mites correctly, or sometimes not managing them at all – and then just repurchase more bees the following spring. It’s slightly different from the approach you describe, but the net result is the same. Bees perish at the end of one year and new ones are purchased to make up the losses.

      Successful management doesn’t involve a huge amount of work and certainly does not cost a lot of money. I estimate that miticide and feed costs are probably less than £25/hive/year. That’s a small price to pay for a healthy and productive colony the following spring.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. Roger Gill

    “fondant is taken down more slowly than syrup, so providing more space for the queen to continue laying.”
    “But like the ‘overwintering on honey’ (and being a pedant scientist) I’d always want to see the evidence.”
    “Is this example 8,639 for my ‘Beekeeping Myths’ book?”

    I have heard lots of imprecations against overfeeding because doing so denies the queen room to lay eggs. Are you aware of any evidence (not anecdotes) to support this? Is a colony not able to judge how to apportion available space?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Roger

      I think it’s undoubtedly true that a colony takes fondant down more slowly than syrup. It’s a long time since I used syrup but seem to remember the colony would be heavy enough within a fortnight or so. Fondant might take 3-4 weeks for the 12-18 kg that my colonies get. The syrup has to go somewhere and it has to be the brood box. It then has to be processed by evaporating off the excess water before it can be capped. Fondant has to be processed but there’s less water to remove and they have a bit longer to do it (or does it take longer because there’s more to do? I doubt it.).

      I’ve not done the experiment … you’d need to monitor the laying rate of equivalent queens in multiple hives fed either fondant or syrup. Has anyone? I don’t know. I suppose you might be able to do it by simply studying the amount of new capped brood for a 2-4 week period starting ~9 days after feeding. Not in itself difficult, but getting sufficient balanced colonies, with Q’s of similar performance is a lot of work.

      An alternative way to think of it would be to work out the volume of syrup and the numbers of cells it must occupy, coupled with some sort of factoring of the rate at which it is ripened … would this occupy all (or a significant proportion) of the available cells. We do have some data on Q laying rates through the season that could then be used to see if – at least theoretically – the brood nest might be blocked.

      However, think about the experiment the other way round. When the colony should be expanding in spring it’s normal to add addition frames (foundation or drawn) at the edge of the broodnest i.e. between the stores and the brood. This provides the Q more space to lay that she previously did not have because the space was ‘blocked’ (or at least occupied) by stores. Not quite the same thing, but the underlying reasoning is broadly similar. There are any number of discussions online about unblocking the brood nest to speed up spring expansion.

      Perhaps mine is anecdote, but I think it has a sounder basis than the overwintering on honey.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    2. Archie McLellan

      ‘Is a colony not able to judge how to apportion available space?’

      My experience from two days ago is that this is yet one more example of how the bees at times are NOT the experts.

      A couple of weeks ago, I placed 3-6 kg blocks of fondant in hives with lots of brood and very limited honey stores. Two days ago, I found empty fondant wrappers and that some colonies had resolutely filled every cell with liquid stores (what’s the word? not nectar, not syrup) as the bees emerged. It was pathetic to see the queen wandering around looking for just one empty cell!

      I don’t know if this is a trait of some colonies. It doesn’t seem to occur in your colonies, David.

      Reply
      1. David Post author

        Very interesting Archie … I’ve just taken the heather supers off some colonies here and swapped them for fondant. I checked the level of stores and brood. I’ll try and have a peek at a couple in the next few days to see what they’re doing.

        Cheers
        David

        Reply
        1. Archie McLellan

          Just back from a morning with some other hives. Some which had not had
          ANY supplement feeding showed the same condition that i described above with every empty cell in the brood box filled with liquid stores. This time I think I can safely call it nectar. There has been a terrific flow recently here. So the problem lies not with feeding sugar, but with the bees urge to store nectar, no matter what.

          Reply
          1. David Post author

            Crafty blighters 😉 At this time of the year I presume it’s Himalayan balsam? It’s probably a bit soon for the ivy.
            It’s always nice to get a late season nectar. Up here the heather has finished. It was like a tap being turned off. Busy one day and then, with a damp day and a drop in temperature, nothing. They’re now munching down the fondant and I’m about to extract the heather honey 🙂

            If the Q is looking for space to lay (as opposed to being happy to shutdown for a bit) then it goes some way to answering Roger’s question (elsewhere in these comments) Is a colony not able to judge how to apportion available space?

            Cheers
            David

            Cheers
            David

  9. Martin

    Hi David
    Thanks for this blog,enjoy your coffee…
    I tried home made fondant last year.
    I cant say they did better or worse than syrup fed hives but they survived a harsh spring and my ineptitude.
    One thing Idid notice though is the wasps had a good time on the crumbs that fell through the meshes- but I guess my stuff was brittle whilst store bought fondat is soft.
    At least they left the other colonies alone!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Martin

      Old tired commercial fondant goes hard and crumbly, but the fresh stuff is pretty soft and pliable. I’ve not made fondant – altogether too much hassle for the amounts I use, and altogether too much chance of me scalding myself or making a huge mess of the kitchen. Or both 🙁

      The main thing though was that your bees got through the winter OK … and you can’t ask for much more than that.

      Thanks for the coffee 🙂
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  10. Julian Cox

    Thanks David
    I followed your suggestion about fondant last year, sat on top of a QE in an Eke. They ate through it slowly. In February, a little remained. Beginning of March, all gone. But they had used the brief warm spell to build a beautiful array of comb in the eke, through and around the plastic the fondant came in. Next time, I inspect a little more often and remove that eke!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Julian

      They do that if there’s any headroom over the cluster and the weather warms enough for a nectar flow. It’s happened to me many times. I usually try and remember to remove the empty ‘husk’ of the fondant before the weather closes in. If it isn’t empty I check they’ve got sufficient stores and then take it away and close them up. Often this is the same time I remove the Apivar strips. The leftover fondant keeps fine if protected from drying out (and mice etc). I’ve sometimes dissolved in 1:1 by weight in water to make a spring stimulative feed.

      Here’s what happens when you leave a deep eke on too late into a good flow in early spring.

      Brace yourself

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  11. Jeremy Quinlan

    As usual, some very useful thoughts. Thank you! I don’t know how you find the time.
    The Suffolk Association buys 72% fructose syrup in bulk (12 tonnes) & sells to members who bring their own containers @ 71p/kg. This does not go mouldy. Colonies do not draw comb on it.
    And I think it is quite possible to feed to such an extent the queen has nowhere to lay.
    A super under the brood chamber is not solely there for draught reduction; the bees will eat any stores in it first so that in the spring it will be empty and when queen excluders are replaced, it can be moved back to its usual place.
    I agree with you; the bees like ventilation solely from the entrance.
    Didn’t Marc Greco show that the shape of the cluster tended towards an inverted cone?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Jeremy

      It’s the caffeine and donut/pizza diet that does it 😉

      Interesting that they don’t draw comb on fructose syrup. I’m not sure what Murray Macgregor feeds his colonies on in autumn, but I know he stresses how well they do draw comb in September/October on a syrup diet.

      I’m aware that stores can be left in a nadired super as you describe and sometimes do this with supers known to be tainted with Apivar (two full supers this season on a research colony we had to put an early treatment on for some late-season experiments). However, some suggest leaving an empty super there from the outset because it reduces draughts. All I was doing was questioning whether it did to a measurable extent when you consider the mobility of the cluster and the baffling (not confusing!) activity of the open mesh floor.

      I’ll look back more carefully at Marc’s imaging studies. My recollection was that he didn’t compare different hive types or insulation. I think I remember discussing this with him in about 2013/14 when he visited the University of Warwick.

      Thanks for the reminder.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  12. Steve Riley

    Some excellent stuff as always – I particularly like the changing shape of the winter clusters and “Craptastic” trademark! Your comment on bees eating their own honey rather than sugar water derivatives feels wrong…. After 30 million years or so of surviving, adapting and thriving on honey, the onus is on the more recent sugar water providers to prove that is as good for honeybees (sure it’s cheaper). No anecdotal examples please! There’s plenty of scientific research to show the opposite is the case.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Steve

      It might ‘feel’ wrong, but the real point is whether it ‘is’ wrong … I don’t disagree that evolution has resulted in bees storing honey rather than, say, fructose syrup or whatever. However, that doesn’t actually mean that honey is best. Evolution generates compromises that work. I’m also unaware of any scientific research that shows that honey is better than a suitable form of sugar. I know there’s lots of evidence showing that certain types of sugar are less good – for example HFCS – but that’s different again.

      Is colony survival and build up the following season demonstrably better on honey? Does this benefit – if it exists at all – outweigh the financial benefits (admittedly to the beekeeper) of extracting honey supers and feeding sugar?

      If survival on honey or sugar was 81% and 80% respectively I’d argue that the 1% difference was irrelevant (unless you were the bees in that colony 🙁 ). Conversely, if survival on sugar was 5% and on honey 95% then leaving them honey would both make economic sense and be ethically sound.

      I’m perfectly happy for beekeepers to feed as much honey as they want back to their colonies. It means there is less competition for those of us who sell local honey 😉 What I’m uncomfortable with is being told that honey is ‘better’ for the bees, with the implicit criticism that I’m not looking after them properly by feeding them sugar.

      I’ve searched for peer reviewed evidence that honey is better for colony survival. I can’t find any. If it exists at all, I’ll happily read it and post something about it here.

      If it’s convincing I might even stop feeding fondant and start leaving them honey … though it’s too late for this season 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Martin

        David -Im struggling with the honey vs fondant thing -Im sorry.
        I fully get the expense of honey feeding and I know all about the ‘Do As I Say’ brigade-I gleefully avoid the local affiliates……
        Other than some foamy, black-flecked dregs of honey at the bottom of the bucket I would always feed using my own material but surely honey will contain nutrient that Tate and Lyle or pollen substitute cannot?

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hello Martin

          Certainly it will be different. But will it be better? If so, I’d like to see the evidence. I might well make a similar assumption to you … after all, the bees made it, so surely it’s better?

          But the proof of the pudding is a demonstration that the bees overwinter better on honey rather than syrup that they process and store in pretty much the same way they do with nectar. Despite loads of assurance that this has been proven time and time again I’ve never actually seen the evidence.

          At which point the economic argument starts to become important (at least for some people). I don’t keep bees to make a living. I don’t need honey sales to fuel the Ferrari (Ha!). But if I do sell some of the honey, then some of the proceeds undoubtedly get ploughed back into my beekeeping, and in doing so benefits my bees. Replacement polystyrene hives in place of my homebuilt (and shockingly bad ply ones), premium organic foundation rather than the cheapest stuff I can get, a bee shed to house the hives and protect them from the ravages of the weather etc. All of those probably directly benefit the bees in a way that is measurably better than feeding honey rather than sugar.

          However, as I say in the post above “It’s a free world”. I’m not going to stop anyone feeding honey if they want to.

          Go for it.

          I don’t claim that feeding sugar is better for the bees.

          The point I’m trying to make is that beekeepers that assure me – and themselves – that honey is better, and that bees overwinter better on honey, are making an assumption rather than a factually informed decision. It might be logical, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually correct.

          It’s a free world. Fortunately we can do what we want when it comes to feeding bees (though you might want to read some of the claims made in the BKF thread that Archie McLellan kindly highlighted earlier).

          In my view the absolute priority at this time of the year is to prepare the colonies in a way that will ensure that they overwinter successfully. For me, that involves feeding baker’s fondant. I’ve used it for a decade, probably using 2-3 tons of the stuff in that time. It works extremely well for me. My overwintering survival is good. None of the losses I see could be attributed to feeding syrup/sugar/fondant rather than honey.

          Please use whatever you think is best for the bees …

          … but remember that the ~3 tons of honey that I didn’t use to feed my bees, when jarred and sold, would sell for about enough to purchase a 2003 Ferrari Spider 😉

          Cheers
          David

          PS I don’t have and I’m not interested in having a Ferrari. I don’t routinely buy organic foundation but prefer foundationless frames. I do buy polystyrene hives and I’m convinced of the benefits of bee sheds.

          Reply
  13. vince poulin

    Interesting discussion David on the pro’s and con’s of feeding sugar, fondant vs honey. Two seasons ago I had 4 hives that went into winter. 3 were NUC’s created from queen rearing attempts and splits. None of the NUC colonies stored sufficient honey to get them through winter. The main hive was fine but clearly I had no options other than figure a way to feed them an alternative to honey. Sugar for me was the obvious alternative. I also stacked the colonies for heat-sharing. This prevented me from being able to inspect them or easily top-up food supplies should they be needed. My solution was to build a portal much like one of your ekes where I could add sugar blocks as they were consumed over-winter. Honey vs sugar? All the colonies survived. In each colony bees clustered inside the portal where a ball of bees pretty much remained all winter sitting immediately on top of the sugar block. There was never a risk of them running out of “sugar”. From time to time a new 0.5 kg block of sugar was added. In my area condensation is a serious issue that requires management. It also means bees in the portal had access to water all the time. Water + sugar = something like fondant. Key here is all colonies survived. In spring I inspected every colony. A surprising finding was honey placed in the hives was mostly not used! Each brood box was given 2 frames of honey and placed in positions #1 and #8 at the onset of winter. Most was not eaten! I extracted whole honey frames the following spring. It wasn’t as if the frames were a great distance away from the wintering cluster. These were Warre brood boxes – smaller than your Nationals. Observations throughout winter made it pretty clear bees happily clustered in the portal sitting immediately on top of sugar. Food was never more than a few centimeters away at any time from winter – spring. It is fair to say the warmest place in the colonies was also where they had access to the sugar blocks. Each colony is fitted with a “quilt” which is a box filled with wood shavings. The shavings insulate the hive while allowing moisture to bleed off as it rises up and out below the roof. Throughout winter bees remained suspended from the bottom of the quilt to the top of the sugar block often cascading over sides and down. These are only a small set of observations but they clearly show bees will happily sit tight on top of a lump of sugar all winter long and by the looks of it not fret about the difference between sugar and honey. Lets see what happens this year!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Vince

      I often find my nucs need more frequent topping up during the winter. They’re often pretty strong in late summer and, perhaps for that reason, often don’t store enough in the frames. I just keep a close eye on them during the winter and slip in another kilogram or so of fondant as needed.

      More fondant

      In August I often am faced with the dilemma of overwintering a really strong nuc, or moving it to a full hive when it’s likely to have space to spare. I generally prefer the strong nuc. These days I only overwinter in poly nucs.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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