All About Feeding Bees
When the hot, sweltering days of summer finally break, we southerners put down our fans and mint juleps, and welcome with open arms, the cool, crisp air of Fall. Not only are AC units starting to get a break but also, more importantly, so are our wallets. The days of sweat soaked shirts, wilting attitudes and heat exhaustion are nothing more than a fading memory. And more importantly for us, working in the bee yard has actually become pleasurable again. 2016 has been a tough year for most of the country with temperatures consistently souring above average and fields parched and cracked (or flooded). But today, the sun has mellowed, the humidity has dropped, and the day’s have begun their chilly march towards winter. However, there are still things to do before the frost settles and the greens on the horizons turn brown. We need to make sure our colonies are prepared for their long winter’s nap. There are three key principles (after of course you have lowered Varroa populations) that you must pay attention to if you want your colony to survive the winter.
- Large healthy population headed by a productive queen
- Sufficient food stores assessable to the winter cluster
- Protection from the elements (wind and rain)
Let’s get to work. The first thing we check during our fall assessments is whether or not there is a queen and second, her performanc. How is she doing? What’s her pattern look like? Is she even laying eggs? You want a viable queen, with a solid pattern, that will be ready to kick it into gear by mid winter (in preparation for the spring nectar flow). If she has been limping along all summer, it’s time to let her go, otherwise, the colony will suffer. Now remember, if the pattern is spotty, there may be other issues such as disease or mite infestation, so don’t just automatically assume it’s a poor queen.
There are several reasons your queen may no longer be performing well. She may have been reared from an older larva. She may not have been properly mated. Too few drones to choose from or the weather may have kept her from making the required mating flight/s. Other problems could be the queen is too old, not producing adequate pheromones or running out of sperm. Her physical condition may have been compromised due to our manipulations within the hive. Whatever the reason, colonies going into winter with a poorly performing queen is handing them a death sentence. Yet, finding a queen this late in the season will be a challenge. Most operations have shut down for the winter. Plus, if the colony isn’t very strong, it is best to just combine with another, preferably one that may need a slight boost. It’s better to take your losses in the fall when you can still save the bees, wax and equipment from possible demise!
A quick side note here. Be careful working your hive, especially if you have more than one colony per yard. October especially can be the worst month for robbing. That’s when bees from one colony (probably stronger) will “rob” or take the honey from another colony (probably weaker). Opening a hive exposes honey, which wafts in the air, stimulating bees into a frenzy. Plus, with all that dripping honey and exposed surface area, the bees are unable to defend it. If you’ve ever seen a robbing event, then you understand how horrible it is and will do whatever needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. Even the strongest of colonies left exposed can succumb to a robbing frenzy. Therefore, when conducting your fall inspections, bring several extra lids, covers, or even a towel to cover surfaces. You just need to keep the neighboring bees from gaining access to the supers.
And if you can help it, don’t pull out frames of honey. In the upper supers, which should be mostly capped honey, we pull just the center frame and maybe two outer frames to check on amounts. You don’t need to inspect each one. If we see it’s all or mostly capped, we put the frames back, cover it, and move on to the next super. Each time a frame is removed, you may break the wax coating, exposing even more honey, which attracts even more bees. Also, work at a diligent pace. Don’t dally. Put the cell phone down, and press on! If robbing begins, close up the hive immediately and reduce the entrance to a small hole, one just big enough to let one or two bees through.
After we’ve made sure the queen is healthy, it’s time to check on how much honey supplies the colony has. This is a crucial step in any honey bee management plan. Here at the University of Georgia Bee lab, we always assume they don’t have enough. That way we don’t get caught off guard when conducting our mid-winter inspections and find starving or starved colonies. If colonies are lacking the required amount of honey to survive the winter, you will need to feed. And if your colonies need a substantial amount of food, you must start feeding today! Once the temperatures drop, the bees won’t be able to break cluster to collect the food. All the syrup in the world will be useless if the bees can’t get to it. Here in the south we can experience a modest golden rod flow this time of year, depending on location. But our experience with the golden rod in the Piedmont region has been minimal to none. Don’t rely on it to supply their winter nectar needs here. Now pollen, that’s a different story.
So, how much food is enough? For every frame of bees, (in the southeast, NOT Vermont), they will require a frame and a half of capped honey for their winter survival. We used to say, 35-40 pounds of honey for a deep box of bees here in the south, but my experience has proven this is not enough.
Let’s back track a bit. The nectar flow, in the Piedmont region of Georgia, is usually completely over by July, and there’s not much after that. Oh, there may be a smidge of wildflower here, or a drop of Aster there, but basically, it’s done. That means your bees have to survive from July to April with what they have in the cells. That’s nine months. If your colony is shy on stores, then you need to start feeding, otherwise they will starve which is one thing we can absolutely, hands down, prevent from happening. And please, don’t get caught up in the rhetoric that claims… “if bees are too lazy or don’t have the genetic makeup in order to find and store enough food, then they’re not worthy of help; therefore don’t feed them, let them die, which lets the bad genes die with them”! This is hogwash! I have yet to see a lazy bee, people yes, but bees, NO!
There are many reasons why bees don’t have enough to eat, most of which have nothing to do with the bees, their genetics or otherwise. It has everything to do with the fact that the location that we choose for them may be poor, we extracted too much honey, badly timed swarms, we didn’t properly manage, it was a rotten year weather wise – it rained too much, or didn’t rain at all. All of these have nothing to do with bees being “lazy”. Bees have always needed attention to survive, so if they are light on stores, start feeding today.
There are many feeder options and over the years we have tried practically every type of feeder available on the market. And after years of trial and error, we have settled on a favorite. But before I reveal what we use, let me explain why the others have lost favor. The first feeders I was ever exposed to were entrance feeders. This may be your experience as well, since most starter kits come with an entrance feeder. However, these are my least favorite type of feeder even though they are very convenient to use. All you do is fill a quart jar, screw on the feeder lid, push the holder into the entrance, plop the jar on and walk away. And with it being in the entrance, you can see when it is time to re-fill the jar, never once having to open the hive. However, you are feeding only one quart at a time. This method could take months before you have any substantial amount of stores built up.
Another problem is robbing which I’ve mentioned before. The odor of the syrup will draw unwanted neighbors right to the front entrance. If conditions are right, the “robbers” can overwhelm the colony leaving them with nothing to eat and in a weakened state or worse, dead. Even if you only have a few colonies, take caution because there may be a neighbor down the street that has numerous hives you know nothing about.
Division board feeders are another least favorite feeder, but they do eliminate the problem of robbing since the food is inside the colony. Division board feeders are the width and depth of a deep or medium frame and are usually placed on the edge of a super. In addition to hive manipulation, and the lose of a functioning frame, bees can drown, sometimes by the hundreds, in the syrup. Manufacturers have added pieces of 8” hardware cloth floats or rough end the sides to help reduce the risk of bees drowning, but it’s not 100%. Plus beware, there’s still another issue lingering!!! Beetles love the dark, protected areas these feeders provide.
Next, we have hive top feeders, which as the name conveys, fits on top of the hive. To install, all you do is remove the lid and inner cover, place the feeder directly on top of the upper super, fill it with the appropriate amount of syrup, put the lid back on and walk away. There is little to no disturbance to the colony because you don’t have to dig around inside manipulating frames. The bees will crawl up the hardware cloth from the super below and down to the syrup pool to feed. They are made to fit a standard 10, 8 or 5 frame hive body. Most have a self-enclosed, plastic unit holding one to five gallons of sugar syrup depending on the brand. These feeders tend to work the best, because they prevent leaking. If you need to put on a large amount of feed on in a short amount of time, this may be a good option for you.
But there are a few pitfalls. One, if not properly sealed they can allow bees, yellow jackets and other snooping insects to get trapped in the inner chamber of the feeder and drown. Bees are able to squeeze their way through the smallest of openings like under the inner cover/lid or they slide in-between the narrow openings in the wire mesh and outer wall. The newer hive top feeders have tried to eliminate this issue by making the feeders flush with the super and leaving no space for the bees to enter the syrup chamber from the outside.
Then if the slightest amount of sugar syrup leaks outside the colony it can draw in bees by the thousands. Even the strongest of colonies can be overwhelmed once clouds of bees force their way inside. Finally, there is the issue of cost; they are expensive. If you have more than one colony to feed, the cost goes up considerably.
Another major issue, entrance, division board and top feeders will not deliver the needed syrup if temperatures are cold. The food delivery method needs to be right on top of the cluster; it cannot be to the side, at the entrance or in a top feeder where the bees have to traverse up and around cold surfaces to access cold syrup. If temperatures are frigid, the bees will not be able to move any distance at all. Bees in cluster can starve with pounds of honey or gallons of syrup just inches away. This usually occurs when warmer weather is followed by extreme cold that sets in for days. The bees eat all surrounding honey and can’t move to access the rest. Or if brood is present, they will NOT come off the brood since it’s their job to keep it warm. Normally, larger clusters are not as susceptible to this, but smaller clusters can loose the battle quickly if they get separated from the honey source. That’s why it’s a good idea during your fall assessments to move honey frames in closer to the side and on top of the cluster. Remember bees prefer to move up and will do so during the winter so a good supply of honey above (not below) is required.
There are other methods of feeding, for example one, two, and five gallon buckets, Ziploc baggies, plastic soda bottles, and trays. We’ve tried them all, and found issues with each, which is why we’ve settled on the good ole standby to feed our bees: two-holed (with 2 7/8” apertures), migratory covers with inverted half-gallon mason jars. The small holes punched through the lid to allow access to the syrup and once you turn the jar upside down, vacuum suction prevents the syrup from pouring out. Yes, there are issues with this method as well, (glass breakage, leaks, jars being knocked off) but at some point you just have to settle on one and go with it. And no matter what time of year, if colonies are close to starvation, place the opening of the jars or bucket directly on top of the cluster. This allows the bees to use minimal effort to collect the syrup, especially if the weather outside is frightful.
There’s also the question of what ratio (cane sugar to water, by weight) to feed this time of year: 2 to 1, or 1 to 1? We’ve never been as meticulous at the bee lab (or home) as to weigh components; we just have a feel for it. Granulated cane sugar is added to about the ¾-full point in a five-gallon bucket and then hot water stirred in until full. I imagine that our concoction is somewhere in between.
The last chore we need to perform before settling in for winter is to inspect our equipment. First of all move brood frames with old comb (3+ years) or nasty black comb in honey supers to the outer edge for removal next Spring. Research has shown, old comb is a reservoir for numerous contaminants, which is detrimental to the developing brood. Next replace old, decrepit hive bodies, supers, lids, inner covers, and bottom boards with newer equipment. They don’t have to be pristine palaces, but they do need to protect the bees from the upcoming winter weather. Holes, cracks, and crevices allow cold winds to wick away at the cluster. Plus, cold rain dripping down on bees and brood is a recipe for disaster. These holes also allow access for critters to come and go. Mice especially love to make a beehive a home. Continual food supply, plus a warm cozy environment, makes hives a suitable rodent dwelling. Structurally tight equipment along with mouse guards will deter these issues.
A viable queen, strong healthy populations, ample food stores and sound equipment going into winter is what’s needed for your colony/ies survival. It may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. We accepted responsibility for these creatures when we brought them into our lives and sometimes they’re going to need a little assistance; but just think what they give back in return. So, I’m willing to help out, I hope you are too.
Take care of you and your bees.
~Jennifer Berry— is the research director at the University of Georgia Honey Bee Research Lab.