Emergency Feeding

Thursday 19 January 2023

The year ended with unusually warm temperatures in Atlantic Canada. Colder weather and snow are starting to settle in, but the impacts of late-season warm weather may have lasting repercussions within our honey bee colonies. In this week’s blog, we will discuss the dangers of winter starvation and how to care for your honey bees by providing emergency food resources. 

Emergency Feeding

Traditionally in Atlantic Canada, the rule of thumb has been to have honey bee colonies wrapped in preparation for winter by Remembrance Day. This year, warm fall temperatures lasted well beyond November 11th. During November in Truro, Nova Scotia (where ATTTA is based!), daily high temperatures were as warm as 15°C with an average daily high of 9.8°C (AccuWeather 2022). Historically, the average daily high for November in Truro is 7.2°C (Government of Canada 2022). Furthermore, if 10°C is considered to be the minimum flying temperature for honey bees, theoretically, there were 14 flying days! This does not consider apiary microclimates, which likely allowed for even more honey bee flight. December was warmer than normal, as well. The average daily high was 4.2°C, compared to the normal average of 1.5°C for Truro in this month (AccuWeather 2022, Government of Canada 2022). Temperatures reached 15°C and there were at least seven potential honey bee flying days! 

Honey bees are warm-weather creatures. High ambient temperatures allow colonies to continue activity. However, colony activities are energy demanding and in November and December, Atlantic Canadian vegetation offers little to no forage resources for honey bees. This means that foragers could have flown in search of food but returned with none; expending unnecessary energy and unable to replace those resources within the hive. Colonies could, potentially, have continued brood rearing later into the season, as well.  Brood rearing generally stops when temperatures are steadily less than 10°C and when resources begin to dwindle (Sammataro and Avitabile 2011). With an average daily high temperature of 9.8°C in November, it is possible that the brood period continued later than expected. Brood rearing is another energy taxing activity, which would further use up the limited resources in a fall honey bee colony!

Beekeeper performing the heft test ©ATTTA

Fortunately, as managed livestock, honey bees have beekeepers to support them. It will be important to play an active role in supporting the food reserves of honey bee colonies this winter, because there is a greater risk that stores will be quickly depleted. The simplest way to tell if your colonies have food available is by hefting individual colonies. Perform regular heft tests this winter to monitor the weight of your colonies. At the beginning of the winter, colonies in Atlantic Canada typically need about 30-35kg of stored feed to survive the until spring. If you feel that your hives are already quite light or are losing weight fast, it may be important to provide emergency feed to your colonies. 

Below around 10°C, honey bees cannot reduce liquid feed into a usable, storable food source. Therefore, emergency feeding in the winter depends on solid sugar forms. Fondant is the most common form of emergency honey bee feed. It is a specially prepared mixture of a particular form of sugar and water in solid form that can be placed within the honey bee colony for easy access to quick calories. Fondant patties can be made at home or, as is the recommended option, purchased as preprepared feed at beekeeping stores. Patties should be placed as near to the cluster as possible, for accessibility. They can be placed on a candy board feeder or on a piece of newspaper laid on the top bars of the colony. To feed a large amount, a feeder rim can be placed on top of the hive body to create more space. Once you have started emergency feeding, it is important to continue monitoring that colony.

Beekeepers are currently dealing with unprecedented weather and climate which will have, yet to be determined, implication on honey bee health.  Through the process of adapting to climate change, vigilance and precaution will be necessary! Take care to remember your bees this winter and provision them with additional food sources, if necessary! 

AccuWeather (2022) Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada Monthly Weather. Available at: https://www.accuweather.com/en/ca/truro/b2n/november-weather/54699?year=2022 (Accessed: January 17, 2022)
Sammataro, D. and Avitabile, A., (1998) The Beekeeper's Handbook. Cornell University Press.

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