This week’s post is all about how we fed our hives this summer and what we learned as first year beekeepers. We started the year with 2 nucs that were installed on April 20th. (I posted previously about the installation.) We began feeding our bees immediately. We placed a Boardman entrance feeder on the front of each hive. Why did we chose this type of feeder? I was starting to feel overwhelmed with all the gear we were buying as new beekeepers, and the simplicity and low cost of the Boardman Entrance feeders were appealing to me. What I learned over the course of the year is that there are pros and cons for every type of feeder. The great thing about the entrance feeders is that you can easily see syrup levels without having to put on a veil and go near the hives. This feature makes it much easier to know when you need to replenish the syrup. One drawback is the reservoirs are small, so you will be filling the feeders frequently especially during a dearth. As our colonies grew, we quickly saw that we needed larger reservoirs for the syrup. The bees drained the quart jars used on the feeder every 1 to 2 days. Along with the syrup, we placed a pollen patty in each hive to make sure the bees were getting protein.
What I did not know when we started this adventure is that a new colony of honey bees can blow through more sugar than Willy Wonka and his candy factory. My name brand baking sugar kept disappearing as Doug prepared larger and larger batches of syrup. We decided that the bees could feed on bulk, generic granulated sugar and didn’t need the good stuff I use for making cookies. We purchased and installed top feeders on the hives since they hold more syrup and aren’t so easy to rob. Each feeder came with a wooden lattice float to prevent bees from drowning in the syrup.
In mid summer, we stopped feeding pollen patties. The flowers were blooming and the bees were finding plenty of pollen. We also found small hive beetle (SHB) larvae in the pollen patties. At first, we thought this was a good thing. One article we read said that you can simply dispose of the pollen patty, which removes the larva and thus helps to control the SHB. We found that the SHB numbers were increasing, and we saw other articles stating that pollen patties can promote SHB growth in the hives. With an ample supply of natural pollen, we opted to discontinue use of pollen patties. We noticed that when the top feeders became empty, the SHB seemed to congregate there. When we open the top cover to fill the feeder, we take a few minutes to smash as many SHB as we can with our hive tools. We can usually eliminate about a dozen on each hive inspection.
We split our strongest colony (Alpha) on June 30th. We didn’t have a top feeder for this new hive, so we used the Boardman entrance feeder that we had previously put into storage. We fed all three colonies 1:1 syrup throughout July and most of August. The feeders did occasionally go dry when we couldn’t access the hives due to weather. Sometimes we simply underestimated the rate at which the bees would consume syrup. We never went longer than 1 week between hive checks and syrup additions.
By the end of July, our colonies appeared to be super charged. The comb was getting so thick that it was difficult to manipulate frames, and we were rolling bees when we pulled out frames, which is never a good thing. Doug started asking questions in various on-line forums, and the consensus was that we were over feeding our bees. Based on this information, we proceeded to make a first year beekeeping mistake. We continued to feed the colony started as a split (Echo) but stopped feeding the strong colonies (Alpha and Bravo). We began noticing that our little Echo hive was consuming 1 quart of syrup a day. What was most likely happening was that bees from Alpha and Bravo hives were robbing the syrup from Echo hive. For about a week we fed Echo like crazy but saw very little stores being added or comb drawn out on the foundation. Things evened out once we resumed feeding all the hives. We should have either kept syrup in all the hives, or we should have added a brood box to Echo and kept the feeder within the empty brood chamber to help deter robbers from Alpha and Bravo.
Let me take a break here to discuss the preparation of 1:1 syrup. I am analytical chemist. Doug is a pharmacist. We both were taught to be very precise when making up solutions. When we see instructions to make 1:1 syrup, our first question is, “Is this ratio by volume or by weight?” You really don’t know how much it hurts me deep inside when I read comments that say the difference between weight:weight and volume:volume is negligible. No dear reader, this is not in this case. The density of sucrose is about 1.6 times the density of water. A 1:1 solution by volume is about a 1.6:1 solution by weight (8:5 if you prefer whole numbers). The trick is knowing that the exact concentration of sugar in water doesn’t matter to the bees. The bees are not analytical chemists, and they are robust enough to dine on syrups of varying sucrose concentrations. Syrup prepared in a 1:1 ratio by volume or weight are not the same, but they both work. One of my favorite blogs has a great post about sugar syrup ratios.
The wild asters are in full bloom in our part of Kentucky. Golden rod is too, but I haven’t seen that much of it this year. Last week Doug watched the bees and couldn’t believe the quantity of pollen the bees were carrying into the hives. We noticed a significant decrease in the consumption of syrup, which makes sense given that bees prefer natural nectar over syrup. We will continue to feed and may at some point add more pollen patties.
Doug and I spend lots of time reading other people’s beekeeping blogs, reading chat groups, and watching YouTube videos. There is a small but vocal percentage of beekeepers that believe in natural beekeeping, which means they don’t treat for pests like varroa mites and they don’t think feeding bees is necessary. Call me Dr. Spock, but I hate it when emotions override logic. Honey bees are not native to North America. Europeans brought them to the continent, so it isn’t really fair to turn European honey bees loose and expect them to consistently thrive on their own in a place where God didn’t originally place them. For the sake of argument, let’s just ignore the fact that I live in Kentucky and have three hives full of Italian bees. When you go into nature, you don’t see naturally occurring Langstroth hives packed full of frames with plastic foundation. Modern beekeeping utilizes technology to allow bees to thrive in the modern world, where bees are increasingly threatened by pesticides, climate change, loss of habitat, and foreign pests such as varroa mite. With all those environmental pressures, is it really fair to expect your bees to find all the necessary food they need to survive the winter and supply you with honey? Oh, and honey harvesting isn’t really natural either. I know bears and other animals take honey opportunistically, but in the wild honey is not systematically stolen from the hive once or twice a year. My philosophy is to work with nature as much as possible but to utilize modern technology to give our bees the best chance of survival in the modern world.
We would love to hear about your experiences feeding bees in the warmer months. All comments are welcome.