I’ve learned that the world of beekeeping has more questions than there are answers for. One of the most common questions among beginners has to do with feeding their bees.
“When should I feed?” OR “How often should I feed my bees?”
This post is structured as basic guidelines for beginner or struggling beekeepers
I’m about to break down the mystery of feeding your bees. You’re going to learn WHEN to feed your bees, WHY you feed them, AND when feeding is NOT necessary.
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There’s something crucial that you must first understand about the concept of feeding bees: Feeding beehives has almost become a fad; an impulse to do simply because you have bees.
Most ‘experienced’ beekeepers tell you to feed them without the explanations…because they don’t have any. No, feeding bees has become an impulse, a knee-jerk reaction and a sad unnecessary chore of regular beekeeping.
Why we’re told to feed our bees
Just like anything in society, there are always elements that affect how things are either viewed or accomplished.
Beekeeping is no different. The commercial beekeeping industry is pretty much responsible for the ‘fad’ of feeding honey bee colonies among several other things.
It is common practice in the commercial industry to harvest as much honey as possible and replace it with either high fructose corn syrup or sugar syrup by feeding it to the bees as a replacement food.
There are several methods for feeding bees but those are beyond the scope of this post. These commercial beekeepers are the same ones you buy your package bees from. And though it’s true that package bees should probably be fed, it’s actually not always necessary. I’ll explain why shortly.
Beekeepers have become bottle feeders and permanent nurses to their colonies mostly because the beekeeper has become out of touch with several key, important factors that should have never been removed from the beekeeping experience.
Essentially, feeding bees gives them a head start. This is mostly important for smaller colonies or ones that struggle getting their feet under them. The most crucial situation for feeding is when introducing package bees into a hive.
The reason is simple: package bees have no home. They have to build all that comb from scratch in order to have somewhere for storing pollen and nectar, but even more important is having a place for the queen to lay.
*If you’re a beginner beekeeper, feed your package bees. You’re knowledge and experience is going to grow as you learn more and as you do you will develop a better understanding of your particular environment BUT…
*If you’re an experienced beekeeper and you know that at the time of package bee installation that there is plenty of forage, during a honey/nectar flow for example, then you probably do not need to feed your bees and will end up with a hardier stock of bees as a result of them having to forage for themselves.
-Either way, I do not recommend buying package bees….EVER. Learn why here.
*Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced beekeeper, a 5-frame nuc is much less likely to need feeding. In fact, if you’re acquiring your nuc in the spring, then most likely your bees will soon be outgrowing their little box and find themselves in need of something larger.
Full colonies can generally fend for themselves when the beekeeper treats appropriately for Varroa mite.
Sometimes beekeepers get the urge to feed a weak and struggling colony. But this can be iffy at best.
Sometimes it helps and other times it hinders. One way that it hinders is when dealing with Small hive beetle. Beetles love moisture and humidity and they thrive in it.
So when you splash a feeder in or on that already-struggling-hive, you’re also inviting the beetle to come on in. That’s not good.
There are 8 basic times of the year for general reference only. This will not apply to all climates:
-Spring buildup, spring flow, spring harvest in between flows, summer flow, summer harvest, dearth in between flows, fall flow preparation, & winter.
Here are some basic tips listed below. In general, I encourage you to learn what’s blooming in your area and when and for how long. This will be your gauge, coupled with the conditions of your hives, to help you know if feeding is necessary.
Healthy colonies do not need to be fed during this time and weak colonies don’t either; they will use this time to gather resources and grow.
In between flows
Again, healthy colonies do not need to be fed during this time, especially if you have harvested from them in a sustainable manner. They should have more than enough to get them from the spring flow to the summer flow.
Drought is a problem. No water means no nectar. You will need to judge and observe your environment and act accordingly. I have seen Sourwood trees bloom for a flow but the previous drought caused a complete absence of nectar.
This is the time of the year when virtually nothing is available for your bees. It’s also when they tend to get more ‘robby.’ Ideally the bees should still have plenty of food from the last honey/nectar flow but if you deem that feeding is necessary during this time then you must take precautions and be careful not to incite robbing.
For example, try not to splash or spill sugar syrup or honey, whatever you use, in any way. This will cause a frenzy in the apiary. Keep things sealed tight and be neat and careful with your work.
Too much rain
This is the biggest problem in my area. High areas of rainfall pose a threat by not allowing your bees to forage on rainy days.
The population in the hive is still growing everyday, there are more mouths to feed and eventually the food runs out.It’s during this time I will emergency feed my bees. Learn more about that here.
Feeding is not necessary most of the time. Plus, you’re going to come out with a higher quality product by not feeding. I know beekeepers that feed their bees almost year round…and get this: they are always struggling with their hives.
This is because they cannot read the trees, the wildflowers or the weather. This kind of knowledge takes time and that’s okay.
At the time of this post, I have not fed my bees in over two years. However, we are currently in a honey/nectar flow and it’s raining a lot. I will have to keep an eye on this and possibly feed after the flow which is when our area’s dearth occurs.
*What I mostly want to convey to you is this message: Do not feel that feeding is a normal part of beekeeping AND do not be afraid to feed your bees if you must.
…everything in moderation and balance.
~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee!~
Jonathan Hargus/beekeeper still learning