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

How do I do an Artificial Swarm?

You have just been through your bees and have found lots of queen cells. Most of them are probably along the bottom of the frames. These will be swarm cells and if you have been doing weekly inspections they should not yet be sealed and the original queen should still be in the hive and you should still have eggs. If however you have delayed checking your bees and its been longer than 9 days since you last inspected them you may well find you have sealed queen cells and no eggs and your queen has probably gone already with half the bees from the colony. If this is the case then you are too late to perform an artificial swarm. All you can do now is remove all but 1 queen cell, we would normally leave the best one we can find, we would normally leave an unsealed one if possible. By removing the other queen cells your colony is less likely to throw off any casts, (or anymore casts as it may well have thrown some already!) Now close the hive back up and leave the bees to it. All being well the new queen will emerge and go on her mating flights and start to lay. This can take a few weeks and you do not want to disturb them during this time. I always leave mine for a good 3 weeks but I do keep an eye on the entrance. If the bees are bringing in pollen this is a good indicator that all is well. Check them in around 3 weeks time and you should see some eggs. If you don’t see eggs look for polished cells as this means the queen is imminently going to start laying.

If you have been doing weekly checks then the queen should still be there and you can perform an artificial swarm, also known as the pagden method however this is simplified version. You will need an additional hive with stand and brood frames. Feeder and syrup.

What you are aiming for is to create the situation whereby your bees think they have swarmed but without them actually swarming. The main different between what you are about to do and what actually happens when the bees swarm is that you will be separating the queen and the flying bees from the main colony and the brood and you will leave all the none flying bees in the original hive, on a new location, with one queen cell and the brood.

When bees swarm naturally the swarm will consist of bees of all ages not just the flying bees. In a swarm the bees also fill their honey stomachs with honey just before they leave, this is ensure they have food to start off their new colony. In this procedure your bees won’t do this so you will also need to feed the bees.

So, you are checking your bees and you have lots of queen cells but the queen is still there and you may or may not have eggs. Gather all the equipment you need before you start and then move the existing colony to one side but over 3 feet away. Now set up your new hive in the exact spot where you have just moved the colony from. You should already see flying bees returning to this new hive. Remove 1 brood frame from this new hive and take it with you to the colony you have moved.

Go through the colony you have moved and find the queen, she should be on a frame of brood. Take the queen and the frame with open brood and put these into the center of new hive which is located where this colony was before you moved it. Check the frame to ensure there are no queen cells on it, remove any you see. If the original colony had super with honey you can move these over to the new hive as well. If you don’t have supers with honey in them instead you will need to feed the new hive. Use a rapid feeder or something similar with syrup. All the flying bees will be returning to this hive and thus you have created an artificial swarm.

Now go back to the original colony and go through each frame of brood thoroughly and remove all but one good queen cell. It is best to find your good cell first before you destroy all the others, to help with this you could mark the top of the frame with the good cell on as you go through then you know which one has the good cell on it. Once you have left only 1 queen cell close this hive up too. Once that has been done you can leave the bees get on with it. All being well the new queen will emerge and go on her mating flights and start to lay. 3 weeks is a good measure from the time you took the nucleus. Keep an eye on the entrance to see when the bees start to bring in pollen. Bringing in pollen this is a good indicator that all is well. When you do check them, you should see eggs. If you don’t see eggs look for polished cells as this means the queen is imminently going to start laying.

In pagans method a week after you have created the artificial swarm you move the original colony to the other side of the new hive. This is so that the flying bees return and their hive is not there, they will most likely enter the closest hive which will be the new one with the old queen. The flying bees will boost this colony but also deplete the original colony, which had all the brood, of more bees. The theory of this is that this colony may throw a cast and by depleting it of bees this is less likely to happen.

You now you have 2 colonies, if you intended on increasing your numbers then you have achieved this. If however you already had a number of colonies and you really didn’t want to expand you could unite the two colonies back together. This can be done more or less at anytime in the season. To unite them remove the old queen so that your united colony will be headed by your new young queen. Use the newspaper method to unite the bees, more can be read about this on our How to Unite Two Colonies page.

Swarm Control Nucleus Method

The nucleus method is good if you don’t have much spare equipment and you plan on uniting the colony back to one again.

This method may sound similar to the artificial swarm however its the other way around. In the artificial swarm you moved the parent colony away and left the queen and the flying bees on the original site. In the nucleus method you are removing the queen, a little brood and young bees and leaving the colony where it is.

You need a nuc box or full size hive with dummy board (so you can reduce the space the bees need keep warm). You have queen cells and your queen is still there. Find the queen and take her on the frame she is on, which most likely will have eggs, and also take another frame of sealed brood and a frame of food. If you are using a nuc box fill the rest of box with frames, drawn comb if you have it, foundation if you don’t but remember to feed them with syrup! You will also need to shake in a couple of frames of bees, you need to compensate for the flying bees that will return to the parent colony. Tomorrow check this nuc to ensure you have enough bees to cover the brooda and look after the colony. If one of your frames of brood had emerging brood on it then you will soon have new young bees in here as well.

The parent colony is inspected and all but one good open queen cell is removed. It is best to find your good cell first before you destroy all the others. You will need to check this colony a week later and remove any new queen cells your bees may have started, so do mark the frame that has your good cell on it so you don’t accidentally remove that one! Once you have only 1 queen cell and no way for the bees to make more you can leave the bees get on with it. All being well the new queen will emerge and go on her mating flights and start to lay. This can take a few weeks and you do not want to disturb them during this time. I always leave mine for a good 3 weeks but I do keep an eye on the entrance. If the bees are bringing in pollen this is a good indicator that all is well. When you do check them, you should see some eggs. If you don’t see eggs look for polished cells as this means the queen is imminently going to start laying.

Your nuc will also be growing in size over these three weeks, so you now have the option to keep this as a separate colony and hive it when necessary and increase your number of colonies. Or, you can unite this back with your original colony using the newspaper method.

Quick Update

Thanks to those that pointed out to me about the broken links in Swarming-Management; Prevention & Control. I made an error on timings; the subjects are not yet published which is why the links are not working – rookie error!!

Nucleus Method is due to publish this Wednesday 1st March 2023

Artificial Swarm is due to publish March 6th 2023

Thanks again, hope you are enjoying our blog and that you find useful information within.

Becky and the team

Swarming – Management; Prevention & Control

If you have honeybees, you have a duty of care for them and that includes some sort of swarm control. You must also assume that your bees will swarm every year. Why? I hear you ask. Well, swarming is the way honeybees naturally produce. Every year I get the odd customer who is buying bees from us, ask me if they can have bees that don’t swarm. The answer is no, all honeybees swarm, it is an essential part of their life cycle, if we were to breed bees that don’t swarm that would lead to there being no honeybees.

So, it is essential that as part of your honeybee management that you plan, learn, understand, and have the equipment to carry out at least one swarm control method. The idea being that if you carry out regular inspections on your bees, give them enough space at the right time, you will reduce the chances of them swarming at all because you will be in control of what is happening within the colony. However, you won’t always get it right so you must be prepared for them to lose a swarm now and then. Even if you do give them all the space in the world, a colony will still swarm as this is their natural way of reproducing just like every other animal on the planet.

Prevention – When we say Swarm Management and use the word “Prevention”, this means controlling what is happening within the colony to give them space, and therefore prevent them from swarming. The most obvious thing, at the beginning of the season, is to add supers so that the bees have storage space to put all that lovely nectar they are foraging for. You also need to keep an eye on the free space in the brood box. A good colony will move honey up from the brood box, into the space above, to allow more free cells for the queen to lay in. However, sometimes we need to help them. If your bees are actively bringing in nectar and filling supers but you have full frames of food in the brood box, which is taking up valuable laying space, you can scrape the capping off these cells which will encourage the bees to move the honey up. Or you can remove them and replace them with drawn comb, if you have it, or if not, then give them frames with new foundation.

If your colony is expanding its brood nest at a rate of knots, you will either need to offer more space for brood to be laid by adding another box, you can double brood or brood and a half: this is where you use a super as part of the brood box. This will allow more space for the brood nest to expand. If, however, you do not want to run the colony this big but want to do something to prevent them from swarming, due to lack of space, you will need to remove some frames of brood and bees and thus reduce the colony size. This will mean making up a new smaller colony as a swarm prevention method – Nucleus method. Leave the queen in the original colony to carry on, either let the nucleus make its own new queen or, if you have another colony that you have had to do swarm control on, you can take a queen cell from that and carefully press it into the top of the brood frames. Personally, I don’t like this method, but it will gain you at least 8 days for this colony to become queen right. You will need to go through the colony and remove any other queen cells they start to make, and of course, there is every chance they may pull down the queen cell you put in. If this happens just let them make their own queen. Alternatively you can introduce a mated queen to this colony, advice on how to do this can be read on my page How to Introduce a Mated Queen.

Control – When we say Swarm Control, this usually refers to how we carry out a control method on a colony that already has swarm cells, and, if left to its own devices, the colony will swarm. By controlling the swarming process, we will allow the colony to swarm, but we have the control. By controlling it we won’t lose the swarm and it will not be a nuisance, or a danger to others. You may laugh at me using the word danger but remember; your neighbours may not be quite as keen on honeybees as you are! To some people a swarm of honeybees will be very scary, so, if you have honey bees, you have a responsibility to control them. Having said that even the most skilled beekeepers and bee farmers will lose the odd swarm here and there.

I have a post that explains an artificial swarm control method that is quite simple, and you should have all the equipment you need. There are other methods such as the Demaree, which can sound quite complicated but in reality it’s not, you just need more specialist equipment. The Demaree has been modified over the years and there are now a few other versions to the original method. We use a modified version ourselves. I will write a post on this another time.

Another control method is to remove the queen from the colony to make up a small nucleus. This may sound like the artificial swarm however it’s the other way around. In the artificial swarm you are removing the colony, and leaving the queen on the original site where the flying bees will return. In the nucleus method you are removing the queen, a little brood and young bees from the colony. The original colony is left with a queen cell, or left for the bees to make a new queen if they haven’t already thrown up queen cells. I don’t use this method as I find it less affective and a lot of the time original colony still swarms a little later in the season. You can read about the Nucleus method of swarm control in a separate post.

Summary – You need to plan ahead as to how you are going to manage swarm prevention. Always remember though, no matter what method of prevention you use, if your bees need to go through a natural reproduction method, no amount of space or manipulation will prevent this. So, make sure you are equipped and ready to carry out a swarm control method. It is not fair on others to just allow your bees to swarm and cause a nuisance.