“The Candidate shall be able to give a detailed account of:-
the principles involved in feeding honeybees, including types of feeder, amounts of food, types of food and timing of feeding;”
Uh oh. I know that whatever I say here, someone will disagree with me. Feeding is one of those sensitive topics that beekeepers tend to argue over. I will just go through the tips I’ve picked up from the my bees, my books and the Ealing beekeepers and hope I get it right for the BBKA exam judges.
Why feed bees?
- To try and build the colony up in time to take full advantage of a particular crop, such as oil seed rape or heather.
- Emergency feeding if the colony is short of stores.
- To help the bees out if they need to draw comb, for instance if you have hived a swarm or just carried out a shook-swarm.
- To give certain treatments such as Fumadil B for nosema.
- To help replace their winter stores if you have harvested their honey supers.
Some beekeepers do not feed their bees and prefer to operate on a ‘survival of the fittest’ approach, leaving an appropriate amount of honey for the bees overwinter but not providing extra food such as sugar syrup or fondant. I think this is probably psychologically easier to do if you have plenty of local forage and plenty of colonies. Our two hives are very precious to me and I would hate to lose them, particularly as they are very gentle bees and seem to overwinter well.
Methods of feeding differ during the year, so I’ll go through them by season, starting with spring.
Up till carrying out an annual shook-swarm/Bailey comb exchange procedure in late March, I usually have fondant on my hives. Between about November – March in the UK it is generally too cold to give the bees sugar syrup, as they have difficulty processing it whilst the temperature is still cold, and the liquid feed causes them to need to defecate, a bad thing when they are confined in the hive during cold weather.
A shook-swarm involves shaking the entire colony into a new brood box full of fresh foundation. Their old brood combs and the honey stores within the combs are then burned, to ensure that any AFB/EFB/nosema spores are destroyed, along with a load of varroa mites busy reproducing in the brood cells. The process is quite an extreme one, so some beekeepers prefer to use a Bailey comb exchange instead to provide new combs, especially if the colony is a small one. Ensuring that brood comb is replaced annually in these ways is good for the colony’s health. However, immediately after the shook-swarm, the bees need to be provided with 2: 1 ratio sugar syrup, otherwise they will starve on the foundation. The syrup enables them to draw out replacement comb fast. You can usually stop feeding the syrup after 2-3 weeks or so, once they’ve drawn out & filled a good number of brood frames.
Photo of wax building below from the ‘Bee Photographer‘ website, an amazing collection of photos. The caption for this photo says “Bees use 8 to 9 kilos of honey and pollen to produce one kilogram of wax. Wax is produced by eight abdominal glands turning out tiny 0.2 mm specks. The building of 80,000 cells requires 80,000 hours of work and 991,000 specks of wax.”
For general stimulative spring feeding for a colony that hasn’t been shook-swarmed, 1 pound of sugar can be dissolved in 1 pint of hot water to make up a 1:1 ratio syrup mix, which is usually used in spring (rather than the 2:1 sugar-water ratio used in autumn). The weaker solution replicates early nectar coming into flow and encourages the queen to increase her laying. The sugar must be white granulated sugar, never brown which upsets the bees’ digestive systems. I have also been taught to use cane sugar rather than beet, although some beekeepers say beet is fine.
If using a rapid or other type of feeder that sits above the crown board, trickle a small amount of syrup down through the feeder tunnel so the bees know it’s there. As Clive de Bruyn bluntly says in Practical Beekeeping (1997), “Why on earth the honey bee, with 30 million years of collecting its food from flowers, is expected to know that suddenly there is a lake of food on top of the hive is hard to credit.” Flowers have the benefit of scent and colour to attract foragers to them, sugar syrup in the darkness of the hive does not.
Below is a photo of feeding sugar syrup in a Rapid feeder to my bees after shook-swarming them last year. Unfortunately I didn’t cover the other crown board hole up and some of the bees managed to get in the feeder and drowned. I’ve learnt from this to cover up crown board holes and to weigh the feeder lid down with a brick just in case!
Most healthy colonies will not need feeding during the summer. If you have honey supers on which you plan to harvest, feeding is a big no-no as you will end up with sugar syrup stores rather than honey, which you could get into trouble for if you attempted to sell it.
At the end of the summer, once you take supers off to harvest, keep an eye on your colony’s remaining stores. If there is a period of bad weather colonies could starve if they don’t have sufficient stores in their brood area. Make sure small colonies and nuclei have their entrances reduced to the minimum whilst you feed them, in case robbing begins. Only ever provide food inside individual hives, not by leaving honey frames or other food out in the middle of an apiary, which can provoke a robbing frenzy and spread disease.
A captured swarm will benefit from a weak sugar solution, but wait 48 hours, until wax-building and foraging are under way, before feeding. This ensures that any disease contaminated honey brought in the bees’ honey stomachs is used as energy for wax secretion and not stored in the frames.
September is the month to begin preparing bees for the winter ahead. At this time of year the colony begins producing bees that will overwinter until the following spring. These winter bees are physiologically different to summer bees. They develop fat bodies which are reservoirs of protein in their abdomen. These fat bodies allow the bees to produce brood food in their hypopharyngeal glands in the late winter and early spring at times when it is too cold to forage or even for the bees to move away from the cluster to reach pollen stores in other parts in the hive.
To ensure that these winter bees have well developed fat bodies, make sure the colony is well provisioned with food to last well into the following spring. The bees will need at least 20kg/40lb of stored honey in the hive (just over one British National hive super’s worth) to survive the winter, especially if there is a wet spring. Protein from pollen is important as well as carbohydrates from nectar; if bees suffer from poor pollen supplies, they age more quickly and will die sooner. My colonies usually seem to have plenty of pollen stores in autumn, but it is something to be aware of and keep an eye on. If you have a garden, putting in suitable (plus pretty!) early and late pollen sources, such as crocuses, hazel and willow for spring and Michaelmas daisies and ivy for autumn, is a good idea.
Photo below from the ‘Bee Photographer‘ website. The caption for this photo says “Pear trees bloom from mid-March to May. The pear flower is not really attractive to bees but its early blooming makes up for its poverty for bees in need of pollen to feed the brood.”
In the last sugar syrup feed of the year, in late September/early October, many Ealing association beekeepers treat against nosema using Fumadil B. Nosema is a parasite that multiples in the gut of adult bees; it has no obvious symptoms but its main effect is to shorten an infected bee’s life by about 50%, so dwindling colonies which are slow to build up may be suffering from it. Fumadil B is a naturally occurring antibiotic which is dissolved into sugar syrup and fed to the colony. You can use a microscope to test a sample of your bees for nosema first to see whether you need to treat or not.
Feed the sugar syrup in the evening, using a stronger 2:1 (e.g. 2lb-1pt) sugar-to-water ratio to help them build up their winter stores, rather than the weaker 1:1 mix recommended in spring. This lower water to sugar ratio takes less effort for the bees to lower the moisture content down to under 20%, ready for storage. Large feeders can be used in the autumn; for instance the Miller or Ashforth type feeders, which hold between two and three gallons. They are efficient in warm conditions and are used to get a large amount of syrup onto the hives in one go.
The Miller feeder sits over the brood box and enables the bees to come up and feed from a central slot.
Ideally colonies will now have their required minimum 20kg/40lb honey stores, which they will have built up with the help of the sugar syrup and ivy nectar. Sugar syrup feeding should have been finished by early October in Britain, as if syrup is fed too late in the year the bees will have insufficient time to evaporate the excess water, and the syrup will be stored and could ferment, causing digestive problems for the bees when they come to feed on it later.
As a just-in-case precaution, I like to give them a slab of fondant over the crownboard in early December, although it usually won’t be finished until February/March. If the colony was desperately short of food the fondant could be placed directly on the top of the frames with an eke to provide space. Ambrosia fondant is shown below; this is a sucrose, fructose & glucose fondant paste which can be bought in for around £6-£12 for a 2.5kg bag, depending on where you buy it from.
- Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper (2010)
- Keeping Healthy Honey Bees, David Aston & Sally Bucknall (2010)
- Module 1 Study Notes, Mid Bucks Beekeeping Association (2012)
- Practical Beekeeping, Clive de Bruyn (1997)
- The Honey Bee Around & About, Celia Davis (2007)
- Bees at the Bottom of the Garden, Alan Campion (2001)
- ‘Flower power‘ by Dr Sally Bucknall, p11, BBKA News November 2013 – an article on the benefits of ivy for bees. It explains that because of its high glucose content, pure ivy honey crystallises easily in the comb and is not useful to the colony when stored. However, if the honey contains a mixture of nectar from other late flowers such as Himalayan Balsam, it may not crystallize.