Emergency Spring feeding: Best way to feed bees Quickly

Spring has sprung and the rain won’t let the bees come out to play. Have you ever done your first hive inspection in the spring, only to discover that your bees needed food; like yesterday?

Beehives can get dangerously low on food stores and possibly starve when the weather does not allow for early spring forage. Here’s the best way to get your bees some food fast, with the least amount of work involved.

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Here is a sneak peak at how efficiently this rainproof, open feeder works.

Open Feeder

Open feeding is a quick way to help your beehives gain some weight fast. And what’s great about open feeding in the spring is that they’re not getting ‘robby’ yet. But open feeding the way I’m showing you today is excellent for spring feeding.

I use large black totes with matching lid. I also get them for free! These totes used to have molasses in them. It’s what cattle farmers use to supplement their herds’ diet with. If you know any cattle farmers near you, and who doesn’t, they’re everywhere, I recommend asking if they could save some of these totes aside for you. If you don’t know any cattle farmers then maybe you could introduce yourself to one.

The other alternative is to take what you learn here today and modify it to the resources that you do have on hand. Now I’m going to show you how to make an open feeder.

cattle bucket converted into an open feeder for honey bees
Here is my 20 gallon capacity tote, ready for use. And though it holds 20 gallons, I only use a little over half the capacity. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

The cows mostly clean the totes out for you. You just need some warm water, some soap and a good rinse to finish the job.

Open feeder modification

The next step is to take a hole-saw and drill some holes around the top of the tote, just below the top rim. The hole sizes shown here in the pictures range from an inch and a half to two inches in diameter. Any drill will work but I use this Black & Decker Matrix because of it’s ability to swap out various tools on the same drill base.

Black & Decker Matrix drill used for making holes in open feeders
This is my Black & Decker Matrix drill with an inch and a half hole saw bit. This does the job wonderfully. Just make sure to drill in an area that will catch the plastic debris so that you can dispose of it properly. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

I like to be somewhat symmetrical and orderly about this part of the job, so I drill two holes side-by-side on all four sides. Then I drill one hole between each of these for a total of twelve holes. This gives the bees plenty of room to come and go very quickly. The tote is now ready.

Gathering the ingredients

I buy granulated sugar in my area for $7.60 per 25lb bag. That comes to 30 cents per pound which is very good. Sugar can be as high as 60 cents per pound which is NOT good. I use granulated sugar that I buy at Walmart as an alternative to high fructose corn syrup which I used while apprenticing. High fructose corn syrup contains pesticides and I will never use it again on my bees.

25 lb bag of granulated sugar used for feeding honey bees
Prices for granulated sugar vary from area to area. This same exact bag is $4 more in our FL Walmart than our GA Walmart. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

Since it’s spring, I use a 1:1 ratio mix of sugar syrup. This means that I mix one pound of water for each pound of sugar.

I put the water in first because it makes it much easier to mix the sugar. Since each gallon of water weighs 8 lbs/3.78 liters, and I’m using 75 lbs/34 kgs of sugar, I pour 10 gallons/37.8 liters of water in each tote. Then I start ripping sugar bags open and pouring them in until each tote has 75 lbs/34 kgs of sugar.

closeup of honey bees using open feeder
See all of those white speckles on the surface of the tote? Those are the bees’ sticky, sugary footprints. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

Also, I never heat my sugar syrup. The reason is two-fold:

  1. The sugar will granulate much more quickly. (You don’t want this to happen).
  2. And because heating sugar syrup creates a toxin. I learned about that from a beekeeping blogger named Rusty, at HoneyBeeSuite.com

So at this point we have 75 lbs/34 kgs of sugar and 10 gallons/37.8 kgs of water in our open feeder and it’s time to stir. There’s one more secret ingredient that you can put into this mix for improving the gut health of your honey bees and I’ll share that at the end of this post as an extra.

full open feeder with secret recipe of medication for prevention of Nosema
Here is what it looks like when it’s all ready to go. The scrap piece of lumber is what I use to stir it with. Photo by Jonathan Hargus

Mix it up

I use a five foot 1×3 board to stir the sugar and water but you can also use a drill with a paint stir attachment. Mix this really well until you no longer feel resistance from sugar sitting on the bottom of the tote. I like to stir for several minutes, stop and give undissolved sugar a chance to settle, and then stir again until I’m satisfied.

The last step is easy. You need something that will float on top of the syrup to give your bees a place to work and you need some brush for them to climb out on which also helps to prevent drowning. As you can see, I like to use an old Styrofoam lid from a cooler with long leaf pine needles packed around it. Place the lid on top and you’re done! If you have high wind and the lid doesn’t snap on securely then you can simply place a cinder block on top.

full open feeder with landing boards for honey bees to take emergency feed
These long-leaf pine needles and Styrofoam cooler lid offer three things: a place for the bees to sit and drink up, a place to groom before they head back to the hive, and it helps to keep them from drowning. This method of open feeding has the least amount of bee deaths than any I have ever seen. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

Given the right circumstances, and enough bees, they could empty one of these totes in two days. That’s 150 lbs/68 kgs of feed roughly divided among how ever many hives you have. The stronger hives will always get more and the less populated ones will get less. Of course, if will be slightly less after the bees have finished evaporating the moisture down to 17-19%, but now they have a much better chance of survival till something starts to bloom.

Spring Pollen

Fortunately, maple grows in many different climates and is one of the first things to bloom. My bees finally had the chance to forage Maple Pollen after weeks of rain. Pollen is essential for hive growth. It is the primary food source for developing brood and young nurse bees 5-10 days old.

Many of our beehives rely on maple pollen when spring starts to bloom. Maple offers more pollen than nectar. Watch closely and you will see the pollen coming in from maple.


Now for the secret ingredient: gut health

Okay, now for the secret ingredient to help improve your honey bees’ gut health. This will be something that you add to your totes of sugar syrup during the mixing process. It’s something that helps to prevent Nosema, a gut disease that leads to over-consumption of honey stores and eventual death-by-diarrhea. You may also learn more about this in my post: Tired of losing your beehives?Put the ‘Keep’ back into beekeeping: Nosema.

Secret Spring Blend of Goodness

You will need the following: (click on each item to be redirected to Amazon.com)

the essential oils and lecithin used for making a treatment for protecting the gut health of honey bees
These are the ingredients that I use. And because I use this formula twice a year, once in spring and once in the fall, I buy the 4 ounce bottles. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

Blender time!

Instructions: You’re going to mix all ingredients straight into the blender and the end result is going to be our concentrate. Fill your blender with 32 ounces of water/80 drops of each of the three essential oils (total of 240)/and literally two pinches of lecithin. The lecithin helps to emulsify the oils and water together.

Blend these together on a low setting for 5 minutes. Afterwards, pour the concentrate into your dark glass, 32 ounce bottle. I use 1 cup (8 ounces/236.5 mL) for each tote of feed. And remember that each tote is equal to 75 lbs/34 kg of sugar plus 10 gallons/37.8 liters of water. This comes to a total of 150 lbs/68 kg of feed.

Your bees will probably pick up the scent of the lemongrass before you’re even finished mixing. Together, these essential oils fight against things like bacteria, fungus, virus, and other pathogens. It’s my favorite way to help prevent Nosema in the fall and the spring.

open feeding tote filled with sugar syrup to emergency feed beehives
This tote was empty in two days! Sometimes it takes longer, but it is definitely my favorite way to open feed. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

What have you come up with?

So go ahead and try it for yourself. If you have any questions then leave them in the comments below. I will answer your inquiries quickly. And if you have an ingenious modification on this that you would like to share then please share. Beekeepers are some of the most creative inventors ever.

Until next time remember,

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee~

Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire

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