Perspective on feeding bees

Homemade bee feeder

Perspective on feeding bees

Many aspects of beekeeping have the potential to be controversial and feeding honeybees is certainly one of those topics. The aim of this article is to lend understanding to the uninitiated and move beyond the emotional reaction to feeding, by exploring when feeding may be required and why it is normally considered a last resort by the beekeeper.

We will also discuss the pros and cons of the various types of feeders available to those who are actually practicing the art of beekeeping.

Where there’s a need…

So let’s begin by addressing some of the wild assumptions sometimes made about “sugared bees” and the so-called evils of feeding bees.

Many within our urban society considers themselves environmentalists. However, only a tiny fraction actually raise a significant portion of their own food. Few have first-hand knowledge of farming or ranching and the challenges faced with the arrival of each new season. The farmer or rancher experiences storms, untimely freezes and each year’s wet or dry weather. The presence of disease, pests and difficult weather are all beyond their control. And so it is with the humble beekeeper.

Before getting into the details of why feeding may be necessary from time to time let’s be clear on one thing…

Pure, natural honey comes from the nectar produced by plants, harvested by bees (Apis mellifera) and worked into honey.

Further, it is the position of this author and of PerfectBee, that a responsible beekeeper does not compromise the integrity of her honey by adulterating it with various sources of bee feed, including white sugar, corn syrup or other supplements.

You can’t feed junk food to the bees and expect to get an authentic, natural product.

Yet, there are still times when the conscientious beekeeper, bound by the principles of animal husbandry, must feed his or her bees. Just as the farmer or rancher knows that each season is variable and will present them with thorny challenges, so too must the beekeeper deal with a range of issues that are beyond his or her control.

Reasons Why a Beekeeper May be Required to Feed

Late winter through early spring is the time a colony can be in danger of starving and starvation is the main reason a beekeeper feeds. I suppose it’s natural to ask how this is possible if the beekeeper left the bees enough honey or in some cases didn’t take any at all. There are actually numerous potential causes for a colony to run short of stores.

  • Occasionally a colony does not reduce its numbers enough. The winter cluster that is too large will consume its stores before the nectar flow gets started in the spring.
  • At other times the spring nectar flow is late or, depending on the year, sometimes a summer drought may prevent the bees from storing enough honey.
  • The hive may even have been robbed by pests late in the season and the colony didn’t have the time required to replenish its stores.
  • The climate, weather, genetics, available forage, pests, colony strength and environmental stressors are all beyond the control of the beekeeper.

Yet, a dedicated apiculturist will not stand by and watch his bees starve to death, any more than those who condemn feeding would abandon a puppy to starve in their backyard (we hope).

A short period of feeding will usually save the colony from starvation. This supplemental food is stored and used deep in the hive. The beekeeper is months away from placing honey supers on the hive (these are the boxes in which the bees would store excess honey ). Since the boxes in which bees will store surplus honey will not be put on the hive until months later, there is simply no way for the sugar syrup, fed to prevent starvation, to end up in the honey the beekeeper might harvest. Further, colonies that are starving and in need of supplemental feeding don’t always produce extra honey anyway.

Other occasions that may require feeding include the following:

  • When a beekeeper is establishing a new package of bees the hive is empty of stores. It’s important to feed the bees so they can build comb and raise young. Not doing so might mean the colony could fail or at least be slow to get established and unable to put away enough stores to make it through their first winter.
  • A similar situation can arise if a colony swarms just prior to a dearth. Much like the situation described above, the beekeeper who has captured the swarm will need to feed the new colony to help it become established.

There are other situations similar to those described above, such as a hive being robbed out. It should be clear by now that the beekeeper is feeding only to prevent starvation and not for the production of honey that is to be gathered later.

It can be very beneficial for the person purchasing honey to get to know their beekeeper. They will gain an understanding of the beekeepers practices and know for certain if he or she is truly a beekeeper or a bee exploiter.

Preparing the Feed

The type of feed to use is another matter for discussion. It is the opinion of this beekeeper that only granulated cane sugar should be used. Beet sugar often comes from GMO sources. We won’t get into the GMO issue here but there are plenty of reasons, all having to do with bee health, to avoid them.

High fructose corn syrup should not be used as it can degrade into compounds toxic to bees. Molasses, beet sugar, brown, raw and organic sugar all contain impurities that can cause dysentery. And you should never feed honey (especially store-bought honey) unless it comes from your own hives.

When preparing the syrup mixture the solution should never be boiled. Burned or caramelized syrup will result in the formation of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) which is toxic to bees and is also not good for humans. Honey will also will also form HMF if overheated, something you may want to keep in mind when considering the purchase of store-bought honey which is heated for easy filtering and processing.

Typically, the spring feeding formula is one part sugar to one part water, 1:1. Two to one is used for fall feeding. Bees reduce the moisture content in honey to about eighteen percent prior to capping. Adding less water to the mix in the fall assists the bee’s efforts to prepare the feed for storage.

Feeders

There are four basic styles of feeder – the entrance, hive top, division board and pail feeders. We will also briefly review open-feeding.

Entrance FeederEntrance Feeders

Often referred to as Boardman Feeders, entrance feeders are placed at the entrance to the hive. They are easy to use, monitor and refill. The downside is that they are placed outside the hive and the bees will not be able to use them after temperatures drop to the low 50’s. They also tend to encourage robbing and don’t hold very much syrup compared to other feeders. For these reasons they are often shunned by experienced beekeepers unless used as a water source for the colony.

Hive Top FeederHive top Feeders

The hive top feeder looks like a medium super and is placed on top of the box containing the broodnest. Heat from the broodnest allows the bees to continue to make use of this feeder for a longer period of time after the outside temperatures drop. Hive top feeders probably hold the most of all feeders, thereby reducing the number of trips required to refill the feeder. They are convenient to use and the beekeeper does not need to open the hive to refill or check the level. To refill, the beekeeper simply removes the cover to the hive to pour in the feed.

Division Board Feeders

Sometimes referred to as frame feeders, this version of the feeder comes in one or two gallon sizes and fits in the hive near the broodnest. The beekeeper removes one or two frames in the hive to make room for this feeder. Like the hive top feeder, the bees are able to make use of the frame feeder a little longer at cooler temperatures because the feeder is located within the hive. Some downsides to consider with the frame feeder include the need to open the hive when refilling it and the feeder reduces the amount of room available in the hive for both brood and food storage.

Pail Feeders

Pail feeders are essentially any kind of container with a perforated lid that allows the bees to feed. The feeder is placed upside down over the hole in the inner cover. An empty hive body is placed on the hive to enclose the feeder and the outer cover added to prevent robbing. Preventing robbing and ease of access are the chief reasons beekeepers will make use of this style of feeder.

The major drawback with this type of feeder is they are prone to dripping on the colony underneath. Atmospheric pressure and temperature changes can cause these feeders to leak and if they drip in cold temperatures it could freeze the bees huddled below. These issues are less of a concern in stable, warmer weather. Holding the container upside down, outside of the hive and letting it drip until a vacuum forms helps, but it often does not entirely eliminate the potential for the bees to be drenched.

Open Feeding

Open feeding is as simple as hanging out a five gallon bucket, with tiny holes perforated in the bottom for the bees to feed from. You could also use a shallow baking sheet or even a bird bath as long as something is floated on top for the bees to land on. However, ease and convenience normally come with a price, and in this case the costs could be numerous.

  • The first and foremost issue is that you are not targeting the colony that needs the feed. In most cases the only reason to feed is to prevent starvation and with open feeding most of the feed is likely to go to strong colonies. They simply have greater numbers than the struggling colony and so the weaker colony is going to get a smaller portion of the feed.
  • Secondly, you will be feeding critters you don’t want bring into your apiary. Yellowjackets, ants, wasps and hornets can all turn to robbing once they discover the food source. Of course other honey bees will be attracted as well and the risk of exposing your bees to disease will increase. Colonies under too much pressure from robbers may abscond and that’s a high price to pay for the convenience of open feeding.

Summary

If the beekeeper finds themselves doing a lot of feeding then a thoughtful review of their management practices may help them find a way to reduce the amount of feeding that is required. The principles of animal husbandry apply to beekeeping, just as they do with other forms of livestock.

There are many factors outside the control of the beekeeper and it is the responsibility of the conscientious beekeeper to respond to these events with the proper care of his or her honeybees. This will occasionally mean feeding your bees to prevent starvation or when establishing a new colony. Feeding during these times will have little impact on the quality of honey that is eventually produced.

A variety of feeders are available to the beekeeper for those occasions when feeding is required. Each comes with its own benefits and downsides. Be it the boardman, hive top, frame, pail feeders or open feeding, a beekeeper has numerous options from which to choose the feeding approach that best fits their needs.

For those who want to purchase pure natural honey, it can be very beneficial to get to know your local beekeeper. There are many fascinating aspects to keeping bees and gaining an understanding of just a few of them can lead to greater enjoyment of the product you are purchasing. So the next time you take a teaspoon full of honey from the jar, remember that it took approximately twelve bees their entire lives to produce it.

About Ron Lane

Ron Lane is a beekeeper in the beautiful state of Oregon. He has many years of experience, regularly teaches beekeeping classes and has an "Outside the Swarm" mentality to life, as well as beekeeping.

6 thoughts on “Perspective on feeding bees

  1. Hi Ron! Thanks for the info!
    I will be getting two packages of bees in April and want to state them off feeding honey, because I thik it is healthier for them! The pH of sugar water and honey are very different and my goal is too do all I can to help them survive naturally! I have always heard… “And you should never feed honey (especially store-bought honey) unless it comes from your own hives.” The problem is I don’t have any hives yet! I hope to find a beekeeper who has treatment free and disease free honey on natural comb, to start my bees on! I know there is a risk of AFB! What would be the difference in this beekeeper I find feeding his honey to his bees or me feeding it mine? Please help me if I am missing something!
    A couple of reasons that I want to avoid the sugar is that it is not natural. The pH of sugar is such that allows parisites thrive. I have read that it is probably not healthy for them! No disrespect meant to you or any who want to do things their own way.
    What do you think? Too much risk?
    Thanks again!

    • Robert,

      All good points, which for the most part I agree with. I certainly agree with the comment about avoiding store bot honey. Store bot honey is an entirely separate topic but store bot honey pretty much isn’t real honey and can contain a lot of different things including corn syrup that are not good for bees.

      I also agree that not feeding sugar water is a good thing if you can avoid it. I always carry over some “spare” or extra honey from last season to supplement colonies that may run a little short in the late winter or early spring. (Basically this time of year) However you may find it difficult to locate honey on the comb. Most beekeepers wont be willing to part with it and if so it will likely be very expensive if you do find some. If you do find honey then certainly it is the way to go, although there is always risk of disease, as you mentioned, when it does not come from your own source.

      So, if you cannot locate any honey from a treatment free source, don’t be afraid to go with a 1:1 sugar to water mixture. Use pure cane sugar (not beet sugar). It is commonly used to start up packages and usually without issue. As much as we all want to be as close to “natural” as possible, try to keep things in perspective. It is far more important that you get your colony off to a good start. With a package of bees the colony begins with no comb. It takes 8 pounds of honey to make a pound of wax. In other words it takes a ton of resources.

      Your new queen cannot lay eggs without comb and the bees in the package are growing older by the day. New bees are 21 days away AFTER comb that is usable to the queen is drawn. Personally, I would be more concerned about getting my bees off to a good start, than I would be about using sugar water. Ultimately the bees that feed on the sugar water will soon be gone (6 week life span on average) and without a good start you bees will have a difficult time making it through the first winter. For me personally, because I know what its like to lose colonies over the winter, I would lean towards making sure my bees got a good start.

      As much as most of us want to keep bees as naturally as possible, I like to remind my classes that “natural beekeeping” is an advanced skill and beginners should first focus on learning how to keep their bees alive for two or three years. Just my opinion of course, but the folks from last years beginner class whose bees did not winter are now waiting for more bees so they can start over. They miss out on the spring season which brings with it lots of new beekeeping experiences. Those who lost their bees simply don’t get to advance their beekeeping skills and the education like those whose bees winter and now come into the spring season.

      Best of luck with your bees and hopefully this is helpful.
      Ron

      • Very good points Ron! Thank you for all that you do for the bees and all of us newbees!I think I will take this very good advice! May we all give a boost to the bees that do so much for us!
        Best wishes to you and yours!
        Robert

  2. I agree with the many reasons to feed bee’s. My question is should you add anything to the sugar water as a preventative measure to keep your bees healthy or prevent deseases

    Guy

    • Guy, Good question. So lets backup just a bit. To begin with I only feed when necessary. Bees need to be on their natural feed. However, keeping bees in a man made box is anything but natural so there are times when it is necessary. Since I try not to interfere any more than I have to I don’t usually put anything in the sugar water. Basically feeding is to prevent starvation, or after installation of a new package of bees or to supplement a split. (Of course there’s winter feeding if needed but I don’t add anything then)

      It takes about 8 pounds of honey to make a pound of wax so in a split I rarely add anything. If the bees are healthy enough to split they really just need the carbs the sugar water provides so they can build wax. I sometimes supplement with one of the “bee health” products available on the market in late winter or early spring if the bees have dysentery and I think the addition will help their gut get healthy. However, these products are spendy rarely are they necessary.

      Keep it simple and allow the bees to do what they do. Good luck and hopefully that information helps.

  3. I don’t love having to feed my bees, but last year we didn’t really have a choice. When we pulled honey on the 4th of July, there was no indication that we were about to enter one of the worst droughts in my lifetime. We went 60+ straight days without rain. Our normal fall forage of goldenrod and aster was a complete failure. Good for my allergies, bad for my bees.

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