Feeding bees, what, when and why?

What you feed your bees will be dictated by the time of the year and why you need to feed them. In most cases, with the exception of the winter months, you will feed your bees with a syrup, this may be a manufactured product designed especially for the honey bee, or you may decide to make your own syrup using sugar and water. There are advantages and disadvantages to both which I have listed at the bottom of this blog.

As a rule of thumb, you will feed fondant during the winter months. You can use fondant all year round but if your bees are desperate for food, close to starvation, then offering them fondant is not going to be effective. Offering a starving colony syrup can save them, before you put the syrup in the feeder, trickle some syrup directly onto the bees and onto the tops of the frames. The bees will be able to use it straight away and it can make the difference between life and death for your colony. Make sure you check the colony the next day and top up the feeder as necessary.

Ideally you will always leave your bees with enough stores to get them through the winter months, but if something has gone wrong and you find, as you are preparing them for winter, that they are short of stores, then you must feed them. There will be no forage out there for them once the Ivy has gone, so if they are short of stores, they will not survive. At this time of the year you should be offering your bees a syrup feed in a rapid feeder or some other sort of top feeder. They can easily move the syrup down and store it in the brood area ready for when they need it. A colony needs roughly 40lb honey/stores to get through winter months, I have a blog dedicated to how much stores do my bees need for winter.

Winter – If your bees are short of food during the winter months you offer them fondant, not syrup. You assess what stores they have by weight, the process is called hefting. Read the blog mentioned above for more detail on this, you must feed them fondant which is placed directly over the central hole in the crownboard. The bees will not leave the cluster to move up into a feeder to take syrup, they will only be able to access food that is directly over them.

Spring – Spring feeding is often needed most because the colony has come through winter and is starting to expand. The weather is unpredictable and we often find that stores are down to a minimum. If your bees need feed in the spring this is most commonly done with syrup however I do know of some bee farmers that only feed fondant all year around. I don’t really understand this as fondant is more expensive for the bees and generally, but not always, they will feed off the fondant from the packet rather than move it down into the brood nest.

Mid-Season – You may need to feed mid-season if there is a dearth in the nectar flow. There is something called a “June Gap”, it’s not always in June, some years its earlier and some years its later. The June gap can be for just a few days, and you barely notice it, or may last for a few weeks. It’s the time of the year when the spring flowers end but the summer ones have not quite got going. This is a critical time for honeybees as the Queens will now be laying at the maximum, the colonies will be full of brood which needs feeding, and the bee numbers will also be very high. If you have taken a spring harvest off and not left enough on the bees and we do get a June gap your bees may be a risk of running out of stores. At this time of the year you should be feeding syrup. I recall one year we didn’t do a spring harvest, as we just didn’t have time, and that particular year the June gap was long, some of our sites were more badly affected and the bees had eaten through all the spring forage. It was fortunate that we hadn’t harvested or we would have had to feed the bees.

Nucs/Splits – If you are making up a nucleus/split then the chances are your going to give the bees new foundation to draw out, or you may have drawn comb but it won’t have stores in it. In this situation you will need to feed your bees, again, syrup would be the best feed for them.

Swarms – Offer any swarms you take in a feed by way of syrup but, don’t feed them for a few days. If you feed them straight away you may find they have gone when you next check! A swarm carries enough food with them, in their honey stomachs, for 3 days. Leave them to settle into the new home you have chosen for them for a few days then put a syrup feed on to help them. If they are on new foundation they will need a lot of food to draw the comb.

Shook Swarm / Swarm control – If you carry out a shook swarm onto new foundation you will also need to feed the bees. Likewise, if you carry out some swarm control methods like an artificial swarm, and you use new foundation, you will need to feed the bees; syrup would be the choice.

Pollen Substitute – This is a type of fondant that also has pollen in it, your bees need protein and carbohydrates, the pollen is the protein. If your bees are short on pollen stores this will affect colony growth and colony development. You can offer your bees pollen patties on the crown board or directly onto the tops of the brood frames. You will most often hear of pollen substitutes being fed in early spring. It will help the colony to get going.

I have listed below, what I consider, to be the advantages and dis-advantages, of feeding honeybees syrup that is made especially for them, against making syrup with household sugar and water.

Pre-made Syrup for Honeybees (Ambrosia)

Made for bees, is close to nectar in composition, therefore could be considered to be better for your beesSlightly more expensive than mixing your own
Has a very long life
No aroma so can be fed anytime of the day
Is ready to use, no mixing required
Bees can use if straight away it has very low water content

Mixing your own Sugar and Water

Marginally cheaper than buying pre-madeDoes not keep long before it starts to ferment – fermented syrup can give the bees dysentery
 Has an aroma so can encourage robbing if fed during the day
 Needs preparation time. You don’t to make too much and waste it
 Can be toxic to bees if overheated
 In order to store it they need to be reduce the water content, this uses more energy, which in turn means they consume more

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