by Ralph Szur

Paraphrasing the Bard leads to a discussion about springtime management practices. As beekeepers, we are often driven by the desire to “help” our colonies. Sometimes it is about helping ourselves to achieve a larger honey harvest. Whether you are motivated by altruism and a desire to support your bees or you are driven by honey lust and want to luxuriate in golden nectar splendor, feeding can potentially help you achieve your goal. Notice that I said “potentially”. I will explain the tenuous nature of this concept further on.


What to feed


The most common manufactured substances to feed bees are refined white sugar in the form of a 1:1 syrup and pollen substitute patties. I won’t delve into the many forms of these 2 nutrients, suffice to say that a web search, beekeeping supply catalog, or beekeeping book will turn up a myriad of formulas and recipes if you choose the path of supplementation.


If you opt for the natural approach, you can feed frames of honey and pollen granules that you have collected and frozen. It is important to know the origin of what you are feeding to minimize the introduction of any harmful substances into your hives. These are the best options and are in keeping with the nature of the bee.


Method of delivery


Sugar is typically fed in winter:  in solid form loosely sprinkled, as sugar cakes, or in the form of fondant. This method of delivery allows the beekeeper to place the food directly on the top of the frame bars or on the inner cover.


In spring, when the temperature rises and the bees no longer form a cluster, the syrup can be delivered in numerous ways: inverted jars with holes in the lids, quail waterers, hive top feeders, Ziplock bags with holes punched in, in-line, or division board frame feeders, Boardman feeders in the front of the hive, or open pails in the bee yard. I am sure my “beek” colleagues can come up with even more methods but the above are the most common.


Unlike the fall when you want to get a lot of syrup into the hive quickly and large feeders with 2:1 syrup are utilized, the spring is not so critical. You are probably competing with nectar from red maple, pussy willow, witch hazel, or whatever else is blooming. The bees prefer flowers, but on cold, rainy, and windy days, when confined to home, the bees will gladly take your feed.


In cold temperatures, in-line feeders will put the syrup down inside the colony and closer to the bees. It is easier fo r the bees to access than jars and hive top feeders that are up above the colony or Boardmans that are out in front. I have used the Boardman for feeding my top bar hive by placing it inside on the hive floor. I had used this feeder to deliver medication years ago when I medicated my Langstroths. It was clear that when the jar was empty the bees had taken the medication. It holds a relatively small amount of liquid and needs regular replenishment. In dearth conditions, it is a stimulus for robbing so I rarely use it anymore.


I like the hive top feeders when temperatures are warmer. I can replenish without disturbing the bees and they don’t fly in my face. The bees come up and down the inside along a screen and don’t usually drown. Ants do like to dine also and the bees can’t get to them so beware. I have used 1/4” sticky back foam to form a seal between the feeder top rim and the outer cover. This keeps out the bees very well, but ants will chew entrance holes on occasion. These hive top feeders come in many materials, wood, polystyrene, and plastic are the most common. They are easy to clean, not too bulky to store, and can be left on in winter as a ventilating space.


I also have used gallon glass jars, with holes punched in the lid, poised over the center hole in the inner cover. Two little sticks between the inverted jar and the inner cover give plenty of room for the bees to come up and access the syrup. The jars are a little hard to find, I went to a deli to get mine. They hold a large amount of syrup and are a little messy to install. When you invert the jar, some syrup will leak until you pull a vacuum.  Don’t invert over the hive unless it is warm and they can easily clean up the dripped liquid. You can put an empty hive body around the jar and then the outer cover. The large jars can later be used to store extracted honey.


Pollen patties, pollen substitute patties, proprietary products like Mega Bee, can all be placed on the top of the frames in good contact with the bees. If there is a pollen flow, the bees will probably ignore your substitutes as inferior. Keep in mind that these patties are also loved by small hive beetle (SHB). If supplementation time is over, remove the patties to not encourage beetles.


I have experimented with syrup additives like Honey Bee Healthy but found the smell to be too cloying for my taste. The various mints and other proprietary ingredients purport to increase the health of the bees. I did use it as a spray when combining unrelated bees. The smell is so intense, it masks all natural odors of the hive. The bees all smell the same, making for a peaceful union.


When to feed


The above common list of supplements can be used to support a colony. If you are hiving a package of bees on new frames, either top bars, or Langstroth frames with foundation, you must feed syrup so that the bees can draw out the comb that becomes their nest. The comb compartments are like the ribs of an animal. They are needed to support the heart of the organism. For the queen to lay and the bees to store pollen, nectar, honey, and brood, they need comb.


Keep in mind that it takes 7 lbs. of honey to make 1 lb of wax! This is a very labor and energy-intensive endeavor for the bees so you need to help them. I have also had occasion to feed syrup during a summer flower dearth and in the fall when I feel the winter stores of honey are inadequate.


Now for the downside of supplementation: For overwintered colonies, spring supplementation accelerates the bees’ natural cycle. A second-year queen and her colony have an instinct to reproduce. They do this by swarming. When the weather has moderated, and stores of food and brood are sufficient, queen cells are started and the bees enter” swarm fever”.


A swarming colony is one of the most wondrous acts of nature that I have been privileged to witness. There is also a reluctance to experience this phenomenon as I know that half of my honey producers are 60’ up in a maple tree never to return. So be aware that you need to expect early swarming when you feed your bees.


The topic of swarming and techniques to deal with this splitting of the hive will be covered in future columns. So for now, evaluate your overwintered hives – “To dust or not to dust off your feeders -as you like it”.