Contrary to what most people think, bees do not subsist on a diet of nectar and pollen. Rather, these are two nutritious pantry ingredients necessary for the bee’s use in preparing recipes vital to colony survival: honey & bee-bread. Another essential food is the royal jelly stimulated into production from the bees’ bodies when honey and pollen are consumed. Plant resins and water also play vital roles in honey bee nutritional health.
Bees need a place to store their food and the new beekeeper is often faced with the dilemma of an absence of drawn comb for them to do so. Feeding a nectar substitute - one cup sugar to one cup water - on installation of a package of bees, stimulates the drawing of comb on new frames.
Even with the presence of drawn comb, feeding is the best practice approach to installing a package or a nucleus colony. It helps alleviate some of the stresses the colony endures in any transfer; however, if installed during a nectar flow, it is quite amazing how fast the little colony cooks are rushing back to the hive with their bounty.
Our nectar season is less than six months in most places here in Northern New England. If a beekeeper harvests any honey from their hives they should do so with consideration for the long winter to come; but all winters are different. Oddly, a mild winter can be the most problematic. Bees, being more active in such conditions could eat through all their stores before spring.
Although beekeepers do not have the edge an evolutionary Honey Bee-cooking school provides their girls, recipes appear online for supplemental pollen feeding as well as strategies to help out should the beekeeper & colony miscalculate the bees’ natural food stores going into and coming out of winter.
Survival of the Fittest?
There is a survival of the fittest school of thought that counsels beekeepers not to feed their bees. This only makes any sense at all if #1 - the beekeeper has not taken a harvest and if #2 - the bees still fail to prepare for times of dearth when left in a naturally abundant environment for their particular geographical area. This location would also be free from manmade or other unnatural environmental challenges.
In other words, survival of the fittest means the beekeeper is breeding healthy bees that have evolved with skills that allow them to survive our long winters and diseases unique to such challenges; but the breeder also appreciates that modern environmental changes impacting their colonies will take some evolutionary time for bees to adapt to, if they can at all.
Organic Certification, where present, usually dictates bees not be fed substitutes but only receive back the honey harvested from their hive. Some organic beekeepers store frames of honey pulled from the hives when prepping them for winter, as a precaution.
For the practical beekeeper who would rather not pay the sometimes hefty fees for new quality bees in the spring, feeding may be vital. Commercial companies have put together their own bee-feed formulas for sale as patties or powdered pollen to supplement as well as substitute protein. They also provide liquid feeds and fondants to take the place of the colony’s carbohydrate source in honey. Field studies with these feeds may be found at Randy Oliver’s Scientific Beekeeping website.
Short Term Simulation leads to Stimulation IMPORTANT: No supplemental feeding routine is meant to be a long term solution. It will help for those desperate few weeks between early spring and the 1st nectar flow by extending a colony’s chances - or serve to provide them with some extra stores in the late fall.
Simulation leads to Stimulation ~ Feeding bees simulates a condition in nature stimulating the colony into production. For instance, if the colony perceives a nectar flow is on and lots of pollen is out there to be gathered more nurse bees will mature faster into foragers. So feeding can stimulate maturation in young bees and tasks performed by worker bees throughout the colony become impacted. Conditions in the colony’s natural environment may not be ready to sustain an increased number of foragers. It can leave the nursery abandoned in extreme cases, as well as create a colony-wide life threatening imbalance in its workforce roles.
In anticipation of such conditions the beekeeper strives to maintain a measured flow of the right kind of seasonal food supplementation to the colony during the winding down of activity going into late winter. In the early spring period of March through April feeding should be appropriate to spring conditions and measured out until the nectar flow is on. This is a balancing act that varies from year to year, apiary to apiary, beekeeper to beekeeper.
March is indeed the beginning of the greatest worries for the beekeeper. Colonies seemingly alive and well in March often die before the end of April. Paying close attention to the colony and having strategies in place, especially being prepared to act instead of react, is vital to successfully raising bees in a Northern climate.
Another reason for feeding bees is for the purpose of dosing them with medication. An antibiotic for a common confinement related disease like “nosema” is often treated by mixing nectar supplements with an antibiotic called Fumagilan-B. This practice has some cautions attached due to an increase in drug resistant strains of the disease.
What & How I Feed My Colonies I’ll include here some links to some favorite online resources as well as explain what I use myself and have available for the small apiary in my shop in Center Ossipee, NH. I started beekeeping in Northern New England like most: with southern bred nucleus colonies and/or packages. They are much more labor intensive when it comes to feeding issues for any beekeeper, novice or experienced.
Today my apiary is made up of some excellent northern bred bees with winter and varroa mite survival genes; still, I have a feeding routine worthy of any weak colony. I take a minimum of honey in the summer by selecting frames, rather than whole supers, from colonies flush with honey. I also always anticipate feeding in the spring.
My bees rarely take the extra food, but after previous years of heartbreak, it puts my mind to rest. I also enjoy being practiced at emergency feeding strategies as well as peeking in to see how the girls are doing after our months apart.
In spring I’ve tried making my own dry pollen for an open feeding station but have since begun to rely on the pollen powders called Bee Pro and Ultra Bee. I also use the pollen patty called Ultra Bee. These products seem well received by the bees and have been field tested by others in my geographical area with positive results. That is very important. Always look to your local successful beekeepers for tips and insights.
I carry in the WHBee shop smaller 1+ pound portions of Ultra Bee & Bee Pro for use by the beekeeper with one to a few hives. Bee Pro is basically non-GMO soy and yeast meant for use in a recipe, usually with white sugar and non-HF Corn syrup (100 percent glucose). This syrup can also be found in the WHBee shop in small 1 quart units.
Caution: Regarding High Fructose Corn Syrup (part of its glucose converted to fructose enzymatically). Avoid it. The USDA has established that when HFCS is heated, it forms hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a chemical that can kill honey bees. A hot day in the sun or baking inside a feeder in the top of a hive, is enough to do that.
Unlike Bee Pro supplement mix, Ultra Bee is a complete protein nutritional substitute in either powder or patty form. I’m very happy to have found these resources well documented as affordable, successful, and safe for use as a temporary feeding option for my bees should they need it.
Feeding Stations – Fall & Spring
I have begun to enjoy using feeding stations in my apiary these past two years. This is taught by successful beekeepers in my climate and usually is accomplished with a rain-proof plastic bucket set up. There are many examples online. The down side is having to take the feeders in at night as a precaution due to our local black bear population. To make this easier I use something small and manageable: a chicken waterer for liquid and a hanging feeder for the pollen. Even though I have an electrified fence I don’t’ want to draw attention to the hives.
My hanging powdered pollen feeder has been working out very well, adding as much natural foraging behavior to the honey bee feeding experience as possible. The bees fly into the opening and their wing beating causes the pollen to fly up onto their furry little bodies, allowing grooming to take place. It’s also lots of fun to watch. These hanging feeders, also made with the small apiary in mind, are available in the shop.
Drops in night time fall and spring temperatures could lead to freezing of supplemental bee food. I replace chilly syrup in the morning with fresh, and usually the sun warms it up well. I try to be mindful of the shade temperatures that time of year and place open feeding stations to take advantage of the sun. Remember to use feeders that are BPA free. Most are these days. I carry my favorite water-syrup feeder for small bee yards in the shop.
SPRING ~ As most beekeepers I make a one part sugar to one part water syrup for package or nucleus colony installation. Sometimes I put this mix on a mature colony when days are above freezing in the spring and I know the flow is just around the corner. I usually use a small boardman feeder in the spring, set on top of the inner cover and protected by an empty super under the telescoping cover. I have also used ziplock baggies with needle holes. This works very well, but in recent years I’ve found it easier to get in and out of the top of the hive with the boardman feeder and a tall standard style jelly jar. I just go down the line, hive to hive, with a pitcher in the morning and replace the jars with fresh syrup.
Feeding too thin of a syrup too early can all too easily simulate that the nectar flow is on and lead to adverse consequences, so timing is very important.
FALL ~ In the cold days of fall after the nectar flow is done for the year, I put out a thicker batch of syrup, fresh daily, at a feeding station. This is two parts sugar to one part water in the hope they will have time to evaporate the moisture off before clustering at 50F degrees in preparation for winter. Some beekeepers gradually thicken the syrup and even add a slight amount of pollen.
Full on pollen supplement feeding in the fall is not recommended as it can stimulate brood production at a time of year when the colony should be shrinking in numbers in order to maximize its limited resources over the long New England winter to come.
In freezing weather I have used a variety of sugar recipes in the tops of my hives. This year it was a Capital Area Beekeeper's Club fondant; other years it has been a top feeding wet sugar mix learned from Karen Thurlow of New Moon Apiary in Maine. She makes up a batch of sugar with enough water to make it crumbly and inserts in into her winter top super set up. I like slipping in a piece of fondant when needed or this sugar mix as a precaution. Toward the end of this rather dry, mild winter of 2015-16 three of my colonies ate the fondant or sugar up, seven others did not touch it.
Note: Except for Karen's loose sugar method, I am not a fan of what are called 'candy boards'. I have had them melt down and drown my bees or create moisture issues with my hives. This is not the usual experience. Most beekeepers love them.
In warmer bee-flying weather or the early sunny days in spring, I use Ultra Bee powder in both fall and spring in open feeding stations. In spring when clustering is still happening with below 50F degree days and nights, I also maintain at least a small section of an Ultra Bee pollen patty supplement in each hive.
Feed Until the Flow
I never let too many days go by without checking on the bees once I have started to feed. A beekeeper strives to be aware of all the environmental and seasonal challenges facing the apiary but it takes time. At the very least it is important to be prepared with a feeding strategy and method of how to measure it out in accordance with the winding down of winter. Choose one to start with and see how it works for you and your bees, then tweak it as needed.
I’ve followed many beekeeping blogs across the U.S. and around the world, but when it comes to implementing a practice in my apiary I look for those keeping bees successfully in my community. This was the best advice I have ever taken in my beekeeping. Everything I do out there has the voice of another beekeeper attached to it who has faced similar challenges with their colonies.
Beekeepers are never truly alone in their efforts to master the art of beekeeping. Striving to meet the challenges of raising honey bees in northern New England by adding feeding techniques that work for their fellow northern beekeepers is essential. It will eventually lend to a full enjoyment of the privilege it is to work in partnership with these amazing super organisms.
For a valuable resource of feeding recipes and strategies see this Maine State Beekeeper's Association page. I welcome any feedback, especially if you see any way this article can be improved.