Whether or not to feed honeybees is an issue regardless of whether we take honey from them.
The Feeding Bees WAG booklet has some excellent information, I have added some notes here from my own observations and from the experience of others.
The honeybee diet consists of pollen, nectar/honey/honeydew and water.
In simple terms nectar provides the energy that the bees need being mostly sugars, the pollen provides them with protein. Royal jelly is made by bees from pollen.
The bees will eat the nectar as they need it, this might be as it comes into the hive and if there is a surplus of nectar being brought into the hive the bees will store it by evaporating off excess water to make honey in the cells.
Nectar is mixed with pollen to make ‘bee bread’ to feed to the larvae.
The colony builds up honey stores to last them the winter. To ensure that the honey doesn’t deteriorate the bees evaporate it’s water content down to a level of 18% or less.
At this point the honey is then sealed into a cell with a wax capping. Honey quickly re-hydrates naturally if not sealed and then yeast starts to ferment the sugars and spoil the honey
When the bees want to draw on their reserves of honey they must re-hydrate it themselves with water.
We can substitute honey by feeding fondant or candy. The bees have to add water to the fondant before they can eat it.
Feeding fondant is akin to feeding honey, feeding syrup like nectar.
With syrup as with nectar the bees won’t readily take it below 10’C. Whereas they will continue to eat fondant.
Some colonies can be small and not able to collect enough nectar to last them the winter. As beekeepers we want to help these colonies particularly if they have a good laying queen as they may become a big strong colony next year. General advice is to combine weak colonies together or with a stronger colony. I prefer to keep small colonies as their queen may work well in the following season. I find that these weaker colonies survive well over winter in a polystyrene nuc box. They are easily fed and start rearing brood earlier than in a wooden nuc box or normal hive.
In an ideal environment the bees will look after themselves to a large extent but of course we take honey from them. We can aim to leave them enough to keep them going through the winter but the question is what is enough?
Do the bees have insight into weather conditions in the long term? Well if we can’t predict it how can they…maybe one day we’ll know. I ask this very general question because in some years the bees collect much more nectar and hence honey than others years, is this natures way of preparing them for lean times ahead, not just for the winter coming but maybe the year ahead?
Anyway we’ve taken some of their honey do we need to feed them to make up any deficit? General advice is to give them 18-20kg. But some colonies are bigger than others, how do we decide how much we should give them and when? The advice given is to feed syrup to a colony after the honey has been removed.
Experience also shows that in warm winter weeks the bees can consume around 2-2.5kg whereas in cold times around 0.5kg a week (Information from Peter Guthrie). Winter can last from November to March in the UK around 20 or more weeks, so in a warm winter the bees can eat all their stores before the end of winter. Ideally winter is cold and Spring builds up getting warmer and warmer into summer. As we know this doesn’t happen and as I write this at the end of April it is cold and will be for several weeks!
To get around this we give them around 20kg and then check the weight of the hive periodically through any period of cold weather or indeed any dearth of nectar and feed appropriately with syrup or fondant.
When feeding we should be careful to remember that with fondant this is to substitute honey, the bees need water which in winter they get from condensation within the hive. It makes sense to put the fondant close to the top of the clustering bees so that they can reach it in cold weather without having to move too far. With syrup the temperature outside the hive needs to be 10’C or more before the bees will take it.
Syrup is a substitute for nectar and so can excite the bees into thinking that there is nectar flow on. A nectar or honey flow occurs when many plants, trees, flowers are secreting nectar (also insects secreting honeydew). In the UK this might happen 2-4 times a year starting with Spring blossom and ending with heather. In these times the bees are frantically collecting nectar not only to eat but to store for the lean times.
It makes sense then that the colony is a good size with plenty of foragers to take advantage of the nectar flow, this means building up the colony before a nectar flow
For the colony to be ready for a flow it will have expanded quickly starting in mid winter and gradually building up. It goes without saying that all the bees and larvae need feeding ideally from their own store and this is why some Beekeepers feed syrup in early spring to supplement the stores and encourage growth. This means that the beekeeper must be monitoring the colony regularly for the amount of food stores among other things (queen cells, space, health, queenright. Ted Hooper Guide to Bees and Honey).
The bees will continue to look after their young feeding and keeping the brood nest warm (35’C) right up to the point of starvation.
A quick calculation for a weekly inspection then would suggest that there must be more than 2.5-5kg of nectar and/or honey in the hive, enough to last until the next inspection with the worst case scenario in mind; a week of bad and/or cold weather when the bees can’t or won’t go outside.
Bees can starve at any time of year and can be existing on the nectar that they forage for on a daily basis. In this situation you may notice by observation that the colony has stopped growing, the queen may not be laying and the reason may simply be that they have very little food. We need to be aware that we may have to feed at anytime of the year.
ROB Manley a bee farmer of the last century and author of several books writes about feeding and mentions feeding syrup when the bees weren’t finding nectar even when there were supers with capped honey on the hive. He did this for two reasons the first being that he didn’t want to lose any honey and secondly because bees won’t eat honey if nectar/syrup is available. Of course this feeding is open to the bees storing the syrup as honey which isn’t really acceptable practice. However, it does show how important it is to get to know the bees. It shows Manley’s knowledge of the local forage such that he is aware of when there is a dearth of nectar.
If the colony has sealed stores only as they come out of winter it may be necessary to help them access the honey by scraping off the wax cappings.
In conclusion it is important to check that a colony of honeybees has enough food to last until the next inspection. Not taking care about feeding will and can drastically affect the honey crop.
In the UK the bees usually have plenty of opportunity to collect pollen all year round, but we should check at each inspection of the hive just to make sure. Pollen patties can be given in Spring to boost pollen supplies.
Here is chart showing the plants that secrete nectar and pollen in Breconshire. Please note this is not an exhaustive list Plants for Honey Bees – Chris Cardew October 2013 – Sheet1
This was created with help from two books Plants for Bees by Kirk and Howes and F.N Howe’s book Plants and Beekeeping, but mainly from my own observations of the plants that bees visited over several seasons.