Feeding Your Bees

Feeding Your Bees

This is a surprisingly large topic, and we will not cover it comprehensively here. Instead, we will outline some basics, including, why feeding is even necessary, what type of feed, how to feed, and when:

Why Feed:  Ideally, you should not have to feed an established colony at all. There a countless thousands of feral colonies than survive without a beekeeper feeding them.   This is because honeybees have their own remarkably sophisticated world where they balance food storage vs population vs forage availability.  However, for a non-feral hive, there are times when there is no option but to feed if you want them to survive. Which brings us to the next topic: when to feed:

When to Feed:  (1) When you place a newly acquired nucleus colony (or package of bees or a swarm) into a new hive with undrawn comb, it is crucial to feed the colony, particularly here in the Northwest or any other location that is not in full nectar flow. While nucleus colonies have some food storage in their frames, packages and swarms have none.  Check their food every few days, or more frequently, and give them as much as they will take. It is not unusual for a rapidly expanding new colony to empty a quart of syrup in one or two days.  After a few weeks, the new colony starts to ignore the food in favor of foraging, which is a good sign that you can ease up on the feeding.

(2) When there is a there is a protracted nectar dearth, which is increasingly the case in late summer in the Willamette Valley, the bees normally have sufficient food stores to survive for some time. So you could let the bees deplete these stores, but it is not a bad idea to provide supplemental food to help the colony conserve their stores for winter.  If you have multiple hives, you could also take the approach of allowing the strong colonies to rob the weak ones, and just accept the losses of the weak colonies.  However, robbing bring its own problems, particularly vectoring of diseases and mites. 

(3)  In winter and early spring, colonies can get low on food.  You can tell by weighing the hive (See our Hive Inspection Basics ebook) for details, or use an electronic hive scale.)  In cold weather, bees tend to not take up syrup, but you can feed them fondant or Drivert, or apply a candy board as described above.  Some beekeepers feed at this time regardless of food stores.  However, keep in mind that colonies moderate their expansion in part by the food availability, so heavy feeding might cause a rapid expansion, which must then be continued to sustain the burgeoning colony.  Heavy feeding that is suddenly stopped might cause a population collapse if there insufficient forage. 

What to Feed:  Like us, honeybees need carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water.  They naturally get their carbs from nectar, and the proteins from the pollen they collect.  Pollens also contains vitamins and minerals, and water often contains minerals.  But that is not the whole story. You will notice that honeybees often drink from what we would consider dirty water, or seek out mushrooms, rotten wood, and soil.  Clearly, they are getting some kind of nutrition from these sources.

Beekeepers supplement the natural food described above with substitutes such as sugar and pollen substitute. We deliver these in a numerous ways, but we will simplify it into two food categories (carbs and proteins) that are delivered by two types of feeding (liquid and dry):

Carbs: The carbs can be delivered as granulated sugar, or fondant sugar, or Drivert sugar, or as sugar syrup. Commercial beekeepers generally use high fructose corn syrup or a fructose/sucrose syrup blend, but hobby beekeepers generally use store bought sugar.

Proteins: The proteins can be provided as a pollen substitute, which might contain soy, brewer’s yeast, sugar, vitamins and minerals added.  This is available as a powder or a pollen patty.  For hobby beekeepers, the patty is probably the most convenient and is fed inside the hive.

Some beekeepers feed pollen substitute powder outside the hive. This saves labor by avoiding installing the patty in every hive, but it has some potential to spread pests and disease as bees from all over the neighborhood might be in contact at the feeder. Such open feeding can also invite hive robbing for the same reason.

Feeding stimulants: Honey-B-Healthy is one feeding supplement that is commonly used with liquid feeding. More recently, several probiotics have come on the market.  We believe it is premature to either dismiss or recommend these products.

Liquid Feeding

How to Feed:   The problem with feeding liquid food to bees is that they have not evolved well to drink a sticky liquid from a source that has both an open surface (such as a pool or a bucket) and has vertical walls. They can do it, but their drowning rate can be high.  In nature, their water sources are typically somewhat sloped or have convenient ledges to drink from. So over the years, beekeepers have come up with many types of feeder to get around this problem.  We will not discuss all the feeders here. Instead, we break them into two types: tray feeders and vacuum feeders, and give examples of each.

Tray Feeders: In a tray feeder, the liquid sits in a container, which might be any shape from round to rectangular, with shallow walls to tall ones.  The tall ones are often frame feeders because they are shaped to fit into the space of a frame inside the hive. Without some sort of ladder system, bees drown heavily in these feeders.  So manufacturers generally provide some sort of internal ladder or footing from which the bees can access the food. These can be in the form of wire mesh, or plastic ladders, or even plastic floats.  These devices do greatly mitigate the drowning most of the time, but drowning still occurs at least a little, and occasionally a lot. In the worst case, bees crowd on top of each other to access the syrup, drowning the lower bees in the process. 

Apart from the drowning, we find another attribute of frame feeders to be unattractive:  In order to access the feeder, you have to open up the hive.  This might be OK in warm weather, but becomes less attractive when the weather is cold or rainy. 

Another form of tray feeder is a plastic internal top feeder that sits above the frames.  This makes it far more convenient to inspect and refill without disturbing the bees.   This feeder still is subject to drowning problem described above, but less so than other examples.  We feel it is one of the better choices in tray feeders.

Vacuum Feeders: Another approach to feeder design is to let the liquid hang “upside down” in the container.  A good example is the simple Jar Feeder.  This comes in several forms, but any jar can be made to work if its lid has a good seal.  Several small holes are punched in the jar lid.  When it is filled with liquid and the lid is replaced, the jar is turned upside down, and initially a small amount of liquid dribbles out, but this depletion of liquid in the jar creates a vacuum at the other end of the jar, which stops the liquid from leaking.  The bees draw the syrup from the lid holes with their proboscis.  In this setup, the bees cannot drown in syrup.  It is possible for a leak to occur if the jar seal is defective. In our experience, this is very rare and in the few cases we have encountered, the problem was fixed by simply washing the jar lid in warm water to dissolve a build-up of crystallized syrup.

One version of jar feeder is the Entrance Feeder, sometimes called a Boardman Feeder.  This product is useful for beginning beekeepers when they first get their bees, as it is very inexpensive and the beekeeper can see at a glance when the syrup is getting low in the jar.  However, as it sits at the entrance of the hive, it creates a big invitation to robbing bees, yellow jackets, etc.  Our recommendation is to use this only in the spring, if at all.

Another implementation is to put the jar inside the hive, in the same position as the plastic top feeder described above.  One approach to this method is to use a double jar feeder that sits over the center hole of the inner cover.   In this case, you would use an empty honey super as a spacer shim on which the outer cover would sit. 

If your hive has a Vivaldi Board, you can place even more jars in the hive as depicted.  As described above, you would need to use an empty honey super as a shim. However, if you have a Deep Vivaldi Board, you will not need a shim. One jar sits over each of the three holes without a shim needed.

Dry Feeding

In cold weather, liquid feeding does not work so well, as the bees tend to ignore it.  So if you are faced with the need to feed in winter, there are various options for dry or semi-dry feeding:

One of the time honored methods is the granulated sugar on newspaper method. It is simple, and can be quite effective.  The idea is to lay a sheet of newspaper on the top brood box, and place a spacer shim on that. Then you fill the resulting cavity with granulated sugar.  With the outer lid placed on the spacer shim.  As the colony generates moisture, the moisture softens the granulated sugar, and the bees will chew through the newspaper to access the sugar.  As the moisture penetrates the sugar, it will tend to clump, which helps prevent it falling through the chewed newspaper into the brood chamber.

Another traditional method is the candy board.  This also uses a spacer shim but with a panel attached on one side so as to create a container.  Various recipes are available online, but the idea is to mix up a sugar fondant (often some mix of granulated sugar, a bit of vinegar, and water) into a thick fondant that you then pour into the candy board and let it set.  Once cooled, it will be hardened, and is ready to place upside down on the top hive box.  The moisture generated by the bees softens the mix, enabling them to eat it.

A third method is to use Drivert sugar.  This is a partially inverted sugar that has a consistency like powdered sugar but more clumpy.  Because it is soft, the bees can eat it directly with little effort.  This method is a little more expensive but works really well with Vivaldi Boards and Deep Vivaldi Boards.  See our other tutorial on feeding with Vivaldi boards.