Of all the world’s creatures, the honey bee is one of the most resourceful. The honey bee gathers her raw materials for life from far and wide and builds a society that is remarkably effective as a production line of honey.

The honey store is build through the year but is essential during the winter, when it represents the only viable option to sustain the colony through the cold months.

How much help should we give our bees?
Bees have been doing their thing for a long, long time, without human intervention. That is one reason why many supporters of natural beekeeping prefer a very hands-off approach to beekeeping.

Despite this, there are times when the beekeeper may be justified in helping his or her bees, by feeding them. This is an introductory lesson looking at the reasons the beekeeper may choose to feed his or her bees.

A philosophy on feeding

We will start with something of an editorial comment – the best situation with feeding is when you don’t need to do so!

It is important to emphasize that feeding bees should not be the norm. New beekeepers have a tendency to overuse their smoker. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to see an overuse of the feeder. Many consider it an insurance policy.

 

“What could go wrong?”

“There’s nothing to lose”.

Well, actually, there could be.

Homemade bee feeder

Depending on the method of feeding, the use of a feeder can attract pests or robbers. Some types of feeder run the risk of drowning bees, though many now incorporate design elements to reduce this possibility. Additionally, the consumption of too much feed can adjust the ratios of brood-to-honey cells in the hive, a series of events that could eventually induce swarming.

If you end up leaving a feeder on throughout the year and topping it up many times, you are doing it wrong!

The feeding of bees should be considered supplementary and as a way to address very specific scenarios. A need for continued feeding is indicative of a weak colony that isn’t self-sufficient. Dare we say it can also be indicative of a weak beekeeper?

A strong hive can stand alone
If the maturity, conditions, and situation for your bees allow them to take care of themselves, then that is exactly what you should let them do.

However, there are some situations where a feeder can still be a wise choice. Let’s take a closer look.

The nutritional needs of bees

Bees need a varied and complex diet. They collect pollen and nectar, which provide an incredibly rich set of nutritional components. They receive carbohydrates from the nectar they collect and the honey they subsequently make. They receive protein from pollen. Together these food sources provide the majority of what bees need.

Bee on comb

Variety is also essential. A focus on a single source of pollen or nectar can rob bees of important minerals. For this reason, the colony will intentionally collect nectar and pollen from a wide range of sources, if available.

Keep that in mind as you consider just how much you can “save your bees” with feeding. Nothing you can provide to them will have the diversity and natural elements of the resources available outside of the hive.

But you can indeed help and there are some scenarios in which this should be considered.

When to feed

Introducing a package of bees

This is the most obvious time to feed and the most easily justified. A package of bees is around 10,000 worker and drone bees – and a queen – in a box. That’s it. No honey store. No pollen. Nothing.

When you introduce the package into the hive, the bees have the foundations in place (the beehive itself) but the pantry is bare! Reasonably soon bees will organize themselves and start foraging and building resources, but this takes time. Remember, a single worker bee contributes 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her lifetime! So there is a lot of work to be done. Their pace generally is insufficient to sustain the colony and, as such, many beekeepers install a feeder at this time.

To help small colonies

Similarly, a captured swarm is likely a small colony and doesn’t come with any resources, so feeding may be justified here too. Even a nuc, which comes with a few frames of honey, is likely woefully under-resourced.

In both of these cases, installing a feeder is commonplace.

In the Spring

The scenarios above relate to colonies installed in a new hive. At the other end of the spectrum is an established colony that survived the winter months and is about to enjoy the warmer spring weather.

Despite that success, these colonies are not necessarily well set. The honey reserves they took into the winter may be almost exhausted by the winter cluster.

As the colony enters spring, brood production picks up. This is an expensive process and there are a lot of mouths to feed!

As a rough guideline, creating a frame of brood requires a frame of honey and a frame of pollen. That’s a lot! If the colony has reduced the honey reserves to the bone, then an accelerated brood production will cause problems.

To administer medication

The desire to add medications to a colony will vary, depending on the philosophy of the beekeeper. For many beekeepers, adding specific medications or nutritional supplements is justified and is done by adding to regular feeding regimes.

Entering the winter

Another common time to feed is as winter approaches. All being well, the honey flows through the summer and the industry of your bees have resulted in copious amounts of honey, ready to sustain your bees through the winter. Another contributing factor is patience on the part of the beekeeper – patience to wait for the second year before stealing honey from bees in need!

It isn’t uncommon for bees to find themselves unable to locate resources outside the hive in the fall, at exactly the time they are reducing brood production and gearing up for the winter. Another situation is a colony placed in the hive late (such as a captured swarm) and simply hasn’t had long enough to build reserves.

Feeding a 2:1 (sugar to water) syrup is common in these situations. There are, though, some important considerations.

Don’t leave this too late. Once the temperature drops too far (around 17 degrees C), the bees cannot reduce the water content to the level at which it is usually capped in a cell. This means the syrup may remain uncapped, which can in turn result in fermented syrup. This is is bad for the bees.

All this comes from feeding when it is too cold, so the exact time available to feed is heavily dependent on the local climate.

The bees will take the syrup as they need it. When they stop doing the syrup should be removed, to ensure it cannot mold.

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