Beekeeping is an amazing adventure, but it does come with some ups and downs. The past few weeks, I’ve been talking to you about nutrition and how important it is. You don’t want your bees to starve and fortunately, there’s a way you can help prevent this disappointing outcome. When your bees need a helping hand, you can whip up a supplemental feeding. Whether you’re installing a package that needs some extra resources to get started or your bees need more nutrition for winter, you need to know how to feed safely and successfully.
That’s where we come in!
Let’s review what supplemental feeding is, when you should do it, how to do it safely, and how to mix up a sugar syrup for your colony.
Supplemental feeding is simply honey, sugar syrup, beet sugar syrup, or corn syrup that beekeepers give to their bees to fill nutritional gaps. Beekeepers also feed their bees to give them extra resources in the spring, improve brood rearing, and bolster nutrition in the fall.
Unfortunately for your bees, they are at the mercy of their surroundings. If the weather is extreme (hot or cold), it can spell disaster for the colony. When there are exceptionally wet springs, they can’t gather enough pollen and nectar to sustain their numbers. If there’s not enough quality forage close to the hive, your bees may starve over the winter.
But, there are some ins and outs you need to know in order to feed your bees effectively. For example, you need to know when to do it.
There are lots of reasons you might feed your bees. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (1977), the following reasons qualify for the educational or backyard beekeeper:
Let’s break some of these reasons down further.
When you feed your bees in the spring, it’s typically because the weather is not cooperating, you installed a package that needs a little help getting started, or you want to stimulate brood rearing.
Feed a mix of 1:1 (one part water to one part sugar) in the spring, which yields a thinner syrup. The thinner syrup stimulates the queen to produce brood, which is exactly what you want heading into nectar flows.
Keep in mind you need to feed a significant quantity of sugar syrup – 1-2 liters – in order to do the trick. It’s a misconception that leaving out a small quantity, like a tablespoon will do much good at all for your bees. Remember, there are thousands of them in a hive and the sugar syrup should last them for a few days up to a couple of weeks of feeding. Some beekeepers will feed for 2-3 weeks in the spring, depending on the status of their colony.
If you’ve been feeding for a few weeks and the bees are not showing much interest, remove the syrup for a few days, then replace it with a small quantity of syrup again. If the bees start consuming the syrup again, they need to keep feeding.
How do you know when to actually stop? Inspect your hive! If the honey bees begin building comb and you see capped honey, they are ready to be on their own. Note that if you start with a nuc or you are feeding a preexisting colony, they may need less syrup; honey bee colonies that are just starting to build their own comb need more assistance.
Even bees that have a busy and productive spring and summer can sometimes start to struggle in fall, and that’s another time when you may need to feed.
Honey bees need 60-90 pounds of honey to make it through the winter. That’s why we recommend you leave the honey for the bees in fall, especially if you live in northern climates. Northern living is tough on the European honey bee, and one of the main reasons they perish over winter is due to starvation.
Supplemental feeding in the fall can ensure your bees make it through the winter.
When you feed in fall, mix 1:2 (one part water to two parts sugar) to create a thicker syrup. What this does is creates a solution that’s similar in viscosity to honey, which means the bees don’t have to work as hard to condense and consume it.
Your bees were busy all summer foraging and they know winter is coming. They are invested in preserving energy and resources. Don’t make it any harder on them than you have to.
Besides knowing how thick to make the syrup to feed your bees, there are some important safety notes to keep in mind as well.
One of the biggest concerns with supplemental feeding is actually robbing behavior from neighboring bees. Yes, even bees can have bad neighbors.
When you set a delicious, sugary snack out near your hive, nearby bees cannot resist the allure; they may also be struggling to find forage or doing their best to prepare for winter. You can’t blame them, can you?
Fortunately, there are a few pointers that prevent this from happening:
If your supplemental feeding draws in robber bees (or other critters like bears, rats, and mice), it can have the opposite effect to what you were intending; instead of well-fed bees with plenty of resources, you will have stressed out bees with less than they need. Plus, all the mingling and partying of different species and colonies of bees can spread diseases.
Preventing the spread of disease in your colony is a topic for a later blog, but equally important to supplemental feeding. But it’s not just other insects and mammals you have to worry about, it’s also what you’re mixing up for them
When feeding your bees, you can’t feed them anything that’s sweet. There’s a whole laundry list of sugar derivatives that bees just can’t have, including brown sugar, which contains molasses and causes diarrhea in bees. Yikes. Here’s what to avoid:
Got it? Now let’s talk about what they can have:
All of these words might mean nothing to you, so let’s break this down even further. Here are the substances you can use for supplemental feeding:
Isomerized corn syrup
Honey is the ideal form of carbohydrate-based nutrition for bees as it contains important vitamins and minerals and denying the bees honey can be hard on their health. It’s like telling a Wisconsinite they can no longer have cheese. It ain’t natural.
Whenever possible, feed your honey bees, honey. Always feed honey that’s harvested from your own hive. This ensures you minimize the spread of disease. Unfortunately, honey from another hive other than your own can contain bacteria, such as the one that causes American foulbrood. This can cause big issues in your hive.
Beyond safety issues, you need to know how to mix up these sugary solutions for your bees. Read on to find out how.
To start with, make sure your supplemental feeding is in the hive itself. In fact, leaving extra honey outside the hive, even if well-intended, is illegal under the Livestock Disease Control Act of 1994. Don’t break the law, folks!
There are various feeding apparatuses you can use to feed your bees, and what kind you use depends on what hive design you have. However, you don’t need anything fancy to feed the bees in a top bar hive. In fact, we often crush comb in a sandwich-style ziplock bag, cut slits in the top, and set it on top of the bars for the bees to snack on.
You can also whip up some honey tea. We have recipes that are good for any season.
Honey can be expensive and there may be times when sugar syrup makes more sense. Here’s how to create some for your bees:
That last point is an important one. Think about it: Your bees don’t heat their honey up before they eat it.
Your options are somewhat endless for how you distribute the syrup to the bees – jars, cans, plastic containers. If you set out a plastic container with syrup, make sure you place twigs, corks, etc. inside so that the bees don’t experience a drowning by sucrose.
Furthermore, you can actually feed your bees sugar granules or homemade sugar candy. This can be especially useful in winter leading into spring and with colonies that are already fairly strong. Basically, strong colonies can take the sugar crystals and use fresh water from near the hive (that you’ve left out for them because you’re an excellent beekeeper) and they mix it all together to create their own syrup. Amazing!
This works better during humid times of the year, like fall and spring, as the moisture in the air can speed up the process.
Ultimately, it’s every beekeepers’ right to decide if and when to feed their bees, and like anything else, any beekeeper you ask about this subject will give you a slightly (or vastly) different answer when it comes to supplemental feeding protocols. That’s why you will benefit most from understanding the basics, talking to your mentors, and knowing your colony’s unique needs.
By beekeeping for YOUR bees, you will set your colony up for success.