Bees are incredible creatures that can fly up to 13 km from the hive, in search for food. Their main menu is composed of nectar and pollen. When these options are scarce or not available, the beekeeper must intervene and save them from starvation. How, when and what to feed them, is very much dependent upon the particular climate and flora the bees are kept in, but there are some general rules to follow.
We sat down with our experienced beekeeper, Willi to learn more about bee feeding.
Why should you feed the bees?
Honeybees keep honey in the hive as food and then draw on the storage when there are no other sources of food available. A well-balanced bee diet consists of proteins and carbohydrates, which the bees get from nectar, pollen and honey. However, when there are no more flowers or flora to collect from, and no more honey in the hive, feeding is the only way to ensure the survival of the bees.
Feeding should however only be done when there is an obvious need for it. According to Willi, feeding in the wrong season has the potential of mismanagement and it can attract pests, predators or induce swarming and robbery. Even in literature, the famous LL Langstroth compared bee feeding to the “noxious influences under which too many of the children of the rich are so fatally reared” .
Although feeding is a common practice in the beekeeping community, it is more of a safeguard. It should not be the rule, but the exception.
When to feed the bees?
«The best scenario for the bees is that they do not need human intervention and can sustain themselves (Willi).»
Enough pollen, honey, and water equal healthy, self-sustaining bees. Even though water is generally available all the year around, pollen and honey production are limited to flowering season. As regions have different climates, feeding must be adapted to the region your bees are in.
When to start:
«My central dogma is to not feed until you have taken all the honey and then just feed enough.»
Feeding takes place once a week, over a 4-week duration. For an EU climate, this period is from the end of August till the end of September. Feeding over this period provides a sufficient winter supply, which ensures the survival of the bees until spring.
Before the feeding, you must perform an inspection and check the honey reserves in the beehive. Based on the inspection, you can decide if you need to proceed with the feeding, and how much you need to add. A normal beehive needs between 15 and 20 kg of feed. Keep in mind though, that there is always 3-5 kg of feed in the brood section, so add your feed accordingly. A good rule is to never allow the quantity of stores to fall under 5kg.
When to stop:
Each hive has specific needs. Remember that bees can transport 4-5 litres of liquid feed into their combs in one night. Perform an inspection of the hives and decide the quantity required for each one. Examine your hives after the feeding to check if your estimations were correct. If the bees have leftover food, or it takes them more than 2 days to finish the feed, it means that that hive does not require more feeding.
«Bees tell you when they have enough, you just need to listen to them.»
There are other periods when feeding is necessary
- When you collect a new swarm: Willi’s advice is to feed the swarm 2x2 litres of liquid feed, to enable combs to be built upon quickly. The downside is that you need to wait 2 months to develop the hive with honeycomb. A normal swarm can run as well without any feed, however it should be brought immediately into a hive box.
- When there is a gap in honey flow ( usually mid-June in central Europe): Willi’s advice is not to use a liquid feed, but a feed which has been processed by the bees such as honey, pollen, or artificial substitute already processed.
- Emergency feeding (mid-end June in central Europe): This can happen with big hives, which need triple amount of feed (up to 9kg). Signs of emergency feeding are: light combs, no food in the hives and aggressive bees.
What to feed the bees?
Sugar syrup or honey-based feed is the substitute for the nutrients found in the nature and is the most common artificial feed used in beekeeping. You can obviously not ask your bees what should be on the menu tonight, but you can follow Willi’s formulas to create a delicious dinner for your bees:
Willi’s liquid feed formula: Blend of 1,5:1 syrup = 1.5 kg of sugar and 1 litre hot water. Stir well until everything is dissolved. This will create something the beekeepers call molasses.
Willi’s solid feed formula: Mix of honey and powdered sugar 1:1. The advantage of this feed is that it is taken up slowly by the bees, enabling the queen to have a longer flow of honey coming in. The bees will therefore make a bigger brood nest, as they have the impression that there is a second honey season approaching. However, this brood nest is artificial.
Other types of natural feed: A common practice in beekeeping is feeding honey and pollen. If one hive has too much pollen, you can give it to another hive. You can also use honey from your own production, but never a store-bought honey since it can have different types of bacteria or chemical additives.
Artificial substitutes: a store-bought mixture of inverted sugar called Api invert. The advantage of this type of feed is that it makes the bees job easier. They do not need to convert the sucrose into fructose as they do with the home-made liquid syrup (molasses).
One thing to take in consideration, is that making the feed at home is time consuming and therefore, if you do not have a lot of hives, purchasing artificial feed could work well. Another thing is that you need storage space for all the sugar and the equipment to mix the feed.
«I would say that the best way to choose the type and style of feed depends on how many hives you have. Also, the type of feed and feeder can make a difference in the time you spend making the feed. For example, a in hanging feeder needs honey and powdered sugar 1 to 1, and that will take approx. 30 minutes to make 5 litres, in comparison to a sugar and water combo which will give you 90 litres in 30 min.»
How to feed the bees?
Feeding equipment is crucial for every beekeeper. There are many types of feeders available on the market and each one has its advantages and disadvantages. It is safe to say that each beekeeper has their preferred one. These are some of the most popular feeders:
- Entrance (Boardman) feeders: a tray inserted at the backdoor entrance of the hive. A part of the tray is outside, making it easy to restock and see how much feed is used. The downside of the feeder is that is not suitable for all types of bee boxes and can cause robbery, as the tray has an opening to the outside.
- Division board feeders: a vertical tray, that looks like a frame is placed inside the hive. Advantages of this feeder is that it is accessible for the bees, not exposed to weather conditions and it reduces robbery risks.
- Top feeders: these feeders can be both internal and external. The internal feeders are placed on top of the brood, while the external are placed on top of the hive. The internal ones are safer from potential robbing, easy to fill and have a large capacity. The external feeders are mostly used in commercial beekeeping and they are quite heavy but can hold a large amount of feed.
With so many options available, you can try them all and find the one that fits best to your beekeeping practice. You should remember though to remove the feeders once you are not using them anymore.
Extra tips from Willi:
- Where possible, avoid artificial substitutes.
- Bees rob from other hives, so feed all the hives in the apiary at the same time.
- Even if a hive has enough, give it a bit.
- Avoid open feeding. It is an attraction for bees from other apiaries and you will have a high chance that the bees distribute diseases.
- Feed in the evening because bees do not fly overnight. They will have the night-time to place the feed into the comb cells where it is protected from robbery.
- Reduce the entrance to the hive when feeding to ensure that there is not enough space for wasps to enter.
- Always monitor the amount of honey in the brood sections or in the exposed boxes.
- Wait a minimum one month after emergency feeding to collect the honey, as feeding can negatively impact the quality of the honey.
Remember that feeding is a supplementary but sometimes necessary solution. Even with the multiple downsides such as attracting predators, potential bee drowning, and robbing, it is essential to ensure the survival of the bees, especially in the cold months. If done properly, feeding will add value to your beekeeping. Go ahead and use our guide to improve your beekeeping practice.
Langstroth, L. L. (Lorenzo Lorraine), 1810-1895. (1922). Langstroth on the hive & honey bee. Hamilton, Ill. :The American bee journal, p.318