Ask An Expert

Reprinted with permission from Ontario Bee Journal SPECIAL EDITION THE BEST OF TECH-TRANSFER

Melanie Kempers answers the question “Why did my bees die over the Winter?”

ANSWER: A colony of bees can succumb, over the Winter, for several reasons. The answer often begins at the beginning of the previous year.

VARROA Brood production begins in the early months, while there is still snow on the ground, which means that Varroa production is also beginning in the early months.

Did you monitor for Varroa last Spring and apply treatments if necessary? Varroa reproduce at an exponential rate, and small numbers in the Spring can equal high numbers in the Fall. This increasing population of Varroa can cause damage throughout the season. Bees that are weakened by Varroa emerge damaged, contract viruses, experience poor nutrition, and typically have low population growth. Reducing the level of varroa in the spring helps the colony thrive through the production season.

NOSEMA Did you monitor for nosema last Spring? This Spring, was there excessive fecal matter on the top bars and hive front? Studies show that nosema alone doesn’t directly cause overwintering losses, but it does affect population growth and feed storage levels, and can add to a colony’s overall stress.

NUTRITION Did the colony experience other points of stress over the course of the previous season? Were there times when nectar and pollen weren’t available? Were provisions provided during those times of dearth? Bees that are raised with poor nutrition may emerge stunted, and are less likely to last as long as well-nourished bees. Record keeping can help identify when these issues arise throughout the year. The BeeYardManager app is an example of a good record keeping option.

MONITORING Did you monitor throughout the season? Checking for pests and diseases on a monthly basis can really help identify when there are spikes in infection or infestation levels. Brood chamber checks should occur at least once a month.

Did you monitor and treat in early fall? Varroa can damage the Winter “fat” bees that are being produced before they emerge. Bees that are damaged during their development may not have the ability to process nutrition properly.

QUEEN AGE How old was your queen? Younger queens tend to have better chances of overwinter survival. A population size of at least eight frames of bees will also help the colony survive.

FOOD STORES Did the hive have enough feed stores to last through the Winter? Signs of starvation include a hive that is light in weight; dead bees found head first in the cells; empty frames, or bees “stuck” away from the feed stores.

MOISTURE Was there airflow to keep the hive dry throughout the Winter? Moisture is a by-product of the bees ingesting food and respiring, which creates humidity within the hive body. If moisture doesn’t have a place to escape (a tilted bottom board, for example) and the air flow is hindered (such as a lack of both top and bottom entrances), the resultant pooling of water can lead to mould growth and may also dampen the bees.

TEMPERATURE Was the hive sheltered from the cold winds? Was it wrapped for winter? Minimizing temperature fluctuations can help reduce the work the bees need to do to maintain a cluster temperature adequate for survival.

All of these aspects can be controlled by the beekeeper through vigilant management. While some factors cannot be controlled (i.e. environmental contaminants), doing what you can as the beekeeper throughout the season should help diminish Winter losses. There are publications that offer advice to beekeepers for decreasing Winter losses.

Less Eccles on Supplement Feeding in the Winter and Spring

QUESTION: I was watching some YouTube stuff on feeding bees and came across mid-Winter feeding of sugar cakes made of cane sugar, water and vegetable oil, plus another ingredient. On a mild day, a piece of cake would be put under the inner cover. What’s your opinion?

ANSWER: It’s hard to make it through Winter without thinking that there’s something you could be doing to help out your colonies. Feeding is usually the number one concern as you watch the temperature drop and wonder how much feed the colony must be munching down to stay warm (that cold weather feeding feeling hits a little too close to home, to be honest).

Hopefully, all of the Fall supplement feeding needed to get through Winter was done by late October, and a small amount of Spring feeding may be in order by mid-April. There are a number of reasons why colonies may need supplemental Spring feeding, including:

  1. Overly strong populations that could be draining resources.
  2. Cold Winters with little snow cover to insulate colonies.
  3. Poor Fall feeding conditions.
  4. Insufficient Winter protection.
  5. An early Spring that stimulates colony build up, followed by a cold spell that depletes the last of their resources before

Sugar cakes are commonly referred to as fondant. The catch with this sugar supplement is that bees need moisture to take down the fondant and make use of it. There is also a misconception that fondant is stored by honey bees – but it is likely only used while it’s being consumed. If there is adequate moisture and temperature for the bees to work the fondant, it can help to get them through a short stretch in the Spring, before a nectar flow begins to get them on their way. It will not, however, help them through midwinter when the temperatures are too cold to “liquefy” the fondant and provide access to the whole cluster.

Another method of Spring feeding is to top-feed with 1:1 sugar syrup. This supplements the colony that’s running short on feed, and also provides moisture for them to reprocess stored honey that may have crystallized over the Winter. This can be done using the baggie feeding method – fill a gallon zip-lock bag with ½ gallon of 1:1 syrup, then lay it across the top-bars; cut two slits into the top side of the bag, then add a rim spacer to give the bees enough space to feed. Depending on the season, a second ½ gallon feeding may be necessary to sustain the colony, as this type of feeding will also stimulate reproduction and growth.

Spring feeding should be a last resort to rescue colonies that did not receive enough feed in the fall to make it through to the Spring nectar flow. Ideally, the goal of spring feeding is not to prevent starvation, but to stimulate the colony to start reproducing and increasing populations quickly to get a jump on the first nectar and pollen flow. It also gives the anxious beekeeper an excuse get out of the house and see how the colonies fared through the Winter.

Les Eccles Answers the Question “Are In-Hive Supplements Effective for Treating Pests and Diseases?

ANSWER: Over the last several years, a range of new products has appeared in beekeeping catalogues and magazines that claim to enhance colony health by providing a number of advantages. These range from feed stimulants to formulas that claim to treat pests and diseases such as Varroa and nosema. These products sidestep direct claims of treating honey bee pests and diseases, instead using catchwords such as “promote”, “enhance”, “accelerate”, “boost”, and “revitalize” to justify their claims of prevention, treatment, and control of various colony stressors.

Because these enhancement products do not make direct claims about treating a specific pest or disease, they aren’t currently required to be registered. There is a significant grey area that allows them to be sold despite the fact that they often share active ingredients with products that are registered for treating pests and diseases.

Our industry has maintained a high standard of approval for products meant to control pests and diseases, bees, and economic advantage for the beekeeper. Although this necessitates a significant investment by the manufacturers, it enables us to provide tested recommendations. Despite the fact that these supplements generally use botanical ingredients such as thymol (thyme), oregano, spearmint, lemongrass and other “natural” products, their unknown concentrations have the potential to contaminate hive products and negatively to beekeepers due to a lack of evidence supporting their claims.

The best evidence I’ve seen that enhancement products could provide an advantage is in their role as a feed stimulant, which is an important component of any live-stock nutrition program. Work by Frank Eischen at the USDA showed that Honey-BHealthy did, in fact, stimulate bees to consume sugar syrup more rapidly, which in itself could improve the overall strength of a colony. Eischen also saw a reduction in nosema that was comparable to Fumagilin-B.

There may be a place for these supplements in our industry, however we need more evidence about how they work. Their labels should also provide proven recommendations for treatment of specific diseases, as well as instructions on how to prevent hive contamination.

It is generally agreed that the USDA EPA needs to provide a position statement on these products to ensure they are safe, effective, and economical for use. This would also allow those who provide information and training to beekeepers to recommend their use. In the meantime, it is up to beekeepers to understand the risks associated with these products and the unknown benefit of their use. 

Ask An Expert- Daniel Thurston


I want to cull old brood chamber frames and replace them with new foundation. How often should I exchange brood frames? How do I tell which frames should be re-moved? What do I do with my old frames when culling equipment?


Periodically replacing frames in your brood chambers is a great way to incorporate Integrated Pest Management (IPM) into your beekeeping operation. Over time, brood frames accumulate material that can be detrimental to colony health. This accumulation may include the spores of AFB, Nosema, or acaricides from mite treatments. Furthermore, as brood cycles through the cells of each frame throughout the season, the individual cells become smaller in size because a cocoon-like structure is left behind with each bee’s emergence. You may have also noticed frames with significant portions of drone-sized cells in your colonies. While some drone production is advantageous, increased drone brood can also result in increased Varroa production.

To combat the accumulation of the above-mentioned colony health problems, it is recommended that beekeepers replace two to three old brood comb frames in a brood chamber per season. this level of exchange efficiency should ensure that the potential pest, disease, and chemical resistance influence on the health of your colonies is reduced. Color coding your frames is a relatively simple way of tracking the age of a frame. Using the industry standard for colour coding queen years can be applied to frame tracking. In the coming 2015 season, when adding new frames to your colonies, mark your frames blue to indicate the year they were added. During the next few years, mark your new frame top bars white (2016), yellow (2017), red (2018), and green (2019). Coming across a blue frame in 2020 will indicate it’s time to swap it out.

Identifying frames to cull out of your brood chambers does not require any investigative equipment or analysis beyond the naked eye. Older frames of comb will appear dark in color – even black, depending on their age – with seasons of brood having cycled through their cells. As a result of this brood cycling, the cell walls of these older frames will appear much thicker than fresh wax cells. As mentioned earlier, older frames may have significant patches of drone-sized cells to indicate their age. The next time you accidentally break a frame, or find a frame with holes chewed through it, evaluate the age of the comb and consider replacing rather than repairing it.

Disposal becomes your next concern, once you have decided which frames to pull. If the frames you’re removing are wooden with wax foundation, save them for your next bonfire. They make great fire starters, although you should keep the presence of wax and nails/staples they harbor in mind. If your frames are wooden with plastic foundation, or constructed entirely of plastic, disposal may be more complicated. While plastic foundation can easily be popped out of a wooden frame, and the frame reused or burned, you are still left with the plastic foundation – or the entire frame if culling plastic frames. For obvious reasons, it’s not suggested you burn old plastic frames or foundation, so as it stands, the landfill is the ultimate destination for these castoff frames. When sending frames to a dump site, they should ideally be placed in a sealed bag to prevent other bees from visiting them and picking up the spores you’re attempting to remove from your own hives.

Cleaning/recycling plastic frames is something our industry still needs to work on. While scraping down these frames achieves some level of removal, this practice alone does not entirely clean the foundation. Web content exists to suggest that a mixture of boiling water and lye, paired with a little bit of scrubbing, can return your plastic foundation to a nearly new state. This method, however, doesn’t appear to have any research behind it to assure its validity.

Drawing out cells on new foundation takes time and resources, and feeding (in the absence of a good nectar flow) helps the bees do it quickly. Using frames from deadouts or previous years’ deep supers – since they’re already drawn out – can minimize the time it takes the colony to get up to speed.

Winter provides an opportunity to plan equipment for next season, so consider stocking up on new frames to ensure you’ll have plenty to swap for old ones in the Spring.

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