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.

Winter Loss – What happened to my bees?

If you are reading this the chances are you have lost your bees over winter, you are feeling upset and saddened and you want to know why they have died and most beekeepers think “What did I do wrong?”

There are always winter losses and there are many reasons why colonies don’t make it through winter. It stands to reason that the more colonies of honeybees you have the more likely you are to suffer with winter losses and it may not be anything you have done so before you go blaming yourself see if you can see why the colony has died. It may be that you can’t work out what has happened, below I have given some examples of winter losses.

Starvation – there are two types of starvation, one is beekeeper error, you took too much honey off your bees and didn’t bother to check them through the winter and they have starved. The bees will be found with the heads in the cells because they are desperate for food. This is your fault entirely and yes you should blame yourself, this was completely avoidable and its because you were greedy – sorry but that is exactly what this is. The early spring is often when we see this, the bees become active, the beekeeper sees the bees flying and assumes they are collecting nectar. Well have a look around you, how much flower is there and is it warm enough for the nectar to flow. Yes they are bringing in pollen, but they need nectar and now they are active and the queen is laying they need more and more of it. They will be eating more than they can forage and so they starve.

The other starvation is “Isolation Starvation“. This happens when the winter cluster of bees moves away from food instead of with it. The result is the same, dead bees with heads in cells but you will also have frames of food in the brood box and even more sadder is that the food may only be a couple of inches away from the dead cluster. This is not your fault, do not blame yourself, there is nothing at all that you could have done to help these bees. Sadly nature has a weird way of working at times.

Queen issue – If your colony was queen-less going into winter they are not going to survive, even if there are still some alive in early spring they are not going to live long enough to support the colony until you can get a new mated queen to go in with them. If you are lucky enough to find mated queen early the bees will be too old to support her. It could be that you had a late supercedure happen and she didn’t manage to mate. A colony with a drone layer is not going to make it, again this may make it through winter but, sad as it is, the colony is doomed.

Varroa / Unhealthy colony – An unhealthy or stressed colony is unlikely to make it through winter. Varroa causes much stress on a honeybee colony, to avoid high varroa levels going into winter make sure you treat your bees at the end of the season. I have a post on Varroa which will give you much more information on this topic. Make sure you look at the brood throughout the season to see that it looks healthy. Also look at your bees, do they look healthy? Varroa damage can be seen at larvae stage and also at capped stage, your bees will detect infected cells, they will uncap them and remove the infected larvae, so look for chewed cell capping’s. You could take some blame for this if you didn’t treat your bees.

Unusual winter with temperature changes – With climate change we are seeing winters with more and more temperature fluctuations. The bees cluster in winter during the cold weather, if we have warm days they will break this cluster and maybe even go out to forage in the warmth of the sun. The winter days are short and the temperatures drop quickly, this can have a big affect on the bees, some won’t make it home because they get too cold and in the hive they may not make it back to the main cluster and they may die from the cold. A small weak colony will almost certainly die in a big hive as they won’t be able to generate enough heat. You definitely can’t blame yourself for this, no one can control the weather!

Predators – Mice are big winter predators to honeybees, the bees offer a lovely snug warm environment with lots food for them! If they get into the broodbox they will cause lots of stress to your bees. By fitting a mice guard or simply reducing the hive entrance to a single bee space you can stop mice getting into the brood chamber.

Moisture – moisture by way of condensation can cause detrimental effects at any time but especially during the cold winter months. Make sure your hives have appropriate ventilation, many beekeepers make the mistake of covering both holes in the crownboard, this stops the airflow and causes condensation. This may cause the demise of your colony. If you think your bees have died due to excess moisture have a look at the hive ventilation and also look at the location of the hive, does it very wet/damp where the hive is located?

Blocked entrance – Your bees need to be able to get out of the hive, even in winter they will take short cleansing flights if the sun is out. If the entrance is blocked by something they won’t be able to get out. It could be heavy snow fall causing the blockage or it could be early spring, there will have been natural bee deaths over the winter months and if the colony was big going in these numbers will also be big and could block a small entrance.

Season Update: January Blues (but not really)

Hello everyone! The team and I hope that you all had a lovely New Year and are looking forward to the beekeeping season ahead. It has been extremely mild over the winter (she says whilst the temperatures have plummeted over the weekend) and whilst inspecting our colony’s feed situations last week the girls have come out to greet us, as well as spotting a few bringing pollen back to their homes.

The workers looking far too busy for January, they may be bringing pollen from the catkins

It has been quite exciting being back after some time off, as some of you may know I had a short time away in Bulgaria snowboarding and only escaped with a few minor injuries! We’re receiving more and more nuc orders now we are into 2020 so if you would likes bees from us this year please don’t leave it to late to get your orders in.

We are really trying to be more in tune with social media (our facebook, instagram & twitter). We started our in depth ‘Beginner’s FAQ‘ with our first post being an analytical piece ‘How Much Does it Cost to Start Beekeeping in 2020?‘ which has already proved to be extremely popular! We’re so pleased that there is more interest in our blog which has always been present but not the most viewed part of our socials, we’re hoping that our experience as bee farmers will be able to help others in the long run.

Sian and I headed to our first talk of 2020 at our local beekeeper’s association which was very illuminating! The talk was called ‘Wings, Stings and Other Things’ and involved honeybee dissection to show us honeybee anatomy and it was absolutely brilliant. James Donaldson manipulated the honeybee to show us how the wings and stinger operates and talked us through the digestive system, I think I can say for the whole of the association that we all learnt something new!

Me trying my hand at carefully dissecting a honeybee

We’re now looking to attend a microscopy course this year to enhance our skills as beefarmers, not just to advance our understanding of honeybee anatomy, but hopefully to analyse our own pollen and possibly diagnose diseases (though fingers crossed we’d not find the need for that!)

We had a huge(ish) overhaul of our unit and decided to move some of our shelving units upstairs and move our glass jars downstairs (yes we were stupidly carrying box after box of jars up and down the stairs). It is certainly much more spacious and is making it much more of a pleasure to work there.

Rob refitting our shelving upstairs (Sian’s bunkbed)

Our Rob is currently in Spain where it is unfortunately raining! Can you imagine? After all that rain here he thought he could escape to warmer climates but the rain had followed him! He is only away for a week but that means no collections from Headley until 27th January.

A terrified looking commercial brood box D:

To those who haven’t started feeding fondant, please make sure that you continue checking the weight of your hives, in the warmer weather the colony can burn through their stores super quickly. We always recommend putting a pack of fondant on at this point in the year. If your bees don’t need it you can remove it wehn you do your spring checks and wrap it back up again. However it may save your colony if they do need it! Remember some weight can be attributed to late flowering ivy which the bees may not be able to break down since it sets so solidly in the cells.

We hope things are looking good for all our fellow beekeepers and bee farmers, fingers crossed for minimum winter losses.