By Josh Vaisman — When I participated in the Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association beginning beekeeping class, I was exposed to more than 15 hours of education. Needless to say, much of it was new to my brain and I felt regularly surprised (in a good way!) by what I learned. Thinking back, though, I chuckle to myself by some of the things that caught me off guard.
During the section titled, “A Year in the Bee Yard,” the instructor began talking about feeding honey bees. “Feeding bees?!?” I recall being genuinely puzzled. I suppose I thought a wild creature whose survival depended on creating and storing an actual food product would be well-equipped to feed themselves. The truth is, they are. However, sometimes even the honey bee’s incredible talents are stretched too far when resources just aren’t available.
In this article, I’ll share with you my thoughts on why I feed my bees, how to feed honey bees, and when.
WHY I Feed My Bees
Let’s quickly review what resources bees consume to survive and thrive. When people think of honey bees they tend to first think of honey. Bees actually make honey. Honey begins its life as liquid flower nectar.
Bees collect this nectar and bring it back to the hive in a special storage organ in their body. During travel, it mixes with natural enzymes the bee produces. In the hive, it is stored in wax cells and dehydrated until it gets to about 18 percent water content. At this point, it’s delicious honey!
Nectar and honey are the carbohydrate sources bees need to produce energy for life and work. They store honey to eat during a nectar dearth in the environment.
Bees also collect plant pollen as their source of protein, primarily for raising their brood. Lastly, honey bees consume water just like you and I!
At its most basic level, the “why” behind my decision to feed my bees is simple — if they lack a critical food resource such as honey or pollen, I feed them.
WHEN I Feed My Bees
There are generally two times I feed my bees: fall and spring.
My bees live with me in beautiful Colorado. The first natural sources of nectar appear around February or March every year as early spring trees begin to bloom and dandelions appear. As spring picks up steam, more and more flowers appear and the bees forage more and more. By June we are typically in a full-fledged nectar smorgasbord for my bees. However, Colorado is known as a winter wonderland for a reason and by October, sources of nectar for my bees are few and far between.
To survive a Colorado winter, I feel my bees need a hive that weighs at least 100 pounds. Often honey bee colonies don’t succumb to the cold of winter; they perish due to starvation.
Most of the weight is in honey stored away in the hive. It’s that honey that allows them to survive the months without natural nectar.
After I pull my honey supers in late August, I focus on two things; making sure my bees have as few mites as possible, and watching the weight of their hive. If they aren’t heavy enough for me by the end of September, I start offering them supplemental food to up their stores. More on that later.
As the days grow longer and warmer and the trees begin to bloom, the queen begins laying more and more eggs as the colony strives to grow. In the mind of the hive, the more bees they have as the nectar begins to flow, the more they can collect and store for the following winter.
A rapid increase in the colony population means a rapid increase in the number of mouths to feed. Sometimes the rate of colony growth outpaces the available natural resources which results in the bees consuming most or all of their stores. This applies both to stored honey and stored pollen as they raise new brood.
Beginning in February, I start tracking the weight of my hives again by gently lifting the back of the hive with one hand. By feel I can tell if the colony is getting too light on honey stores. If they are, and if the ambient temperatures allow, I once again feed them supplemental food.
I also pay close attention to a variety of factors that may lead to a need for supplemental pollen. For example, has it been a warm winter allowing them to raise more brood earlier than normal? How did their pollen stores look in the fall? Are flowers providing pollen blooming in my area? Do I see many bees with full pollen baskets coming in? Depending on my assessment, I may also provide my bees a synthetic pollen substitute. You can add these questions to your spring beehive inspection checklist.
You’ll also need to feed bees when they are installed in a new apiary hive. Honey bees produce wax with specialized glands on their abdomen. It is these tiny sheets of wax that are used to build the comb their hive is built out of. Beeswax is a very expensive commodity. That is, bees need a lot of carbohydrates to produce wax. On average, for every 10 pounds of honey a colony produces, they are only able to produce one pound of beeswax. In a new hive, on new equipment, bees have to build a lot of wax comb. As long as they are building comb, you should be supplementing them with carbohydrate-laden sugar water. The general rule of thumb I go by for feeding new bees is this: My new colonies get supplemental sugar water until they have built comb in both deep brood boxes.
HOW I Feed My Honey Bees
When my honey bees need a boost in their honey stores, I provide it by way of a heavy dose of sugar water. My go to is 1 part sugar to 1 part water by volume with a little bit of Honey B Healthy for added measure. I’ll feed this mixture in fall or spring.
I typically buy a 1-gallon jug of drinking water, which I empty (usually into my belly). I then fill it about half way with granulated white sugar (do not use any other type of sugar!) and then top it off with hot water from the tap. I have found the hot water from my sink is plenty hot enough to mix and dissolve the sugar. To this mixture, I add about a teaspoon of Honey B Healthy.
This mixture is placed in a hive-top feeder. I like this style feeder as I can refill it easily without actually opening the hive. There are several other feeder types and most work quite well.
As long as the daytime temperatures are above freezing, I’ll continue feeding as long as the bees will take the food and until I feel the hive is heavy enough.
I have never used fondant for bees but some beekeepers have success with it. Fondant is essentially sugar candy placed inside the hive over winter. As the bees cluster, they create warmth and condensation which slowly softens the fondant allowing them a readily accessible supplemental source of carbohydrates.
In the situations I mentioned above, when I feel my bees need a boost of protein, I’ll offer them a pollen substitute. Please note, these are not actual pollen patties (though some do have a small amount of real pollen in them) so the bees do not always use them. Having said that, most are of good quality and can really boost a colony when used at the right time.
When I feed a pollen patty, I typically place it on the top bars of the top box in my Langstroth beehive. This leaves the patty between the top box and the inner cover.
I quickly learned feeding my honey bees isn’t such an odd thing after all. In fact, it can be the thing that keeps them alive through a tough winter or an odd spring.
What do you do to feed your honey bees?