Monday, October 24, 2016

Random Thoughts (Mostly Complaints) about Feeding

For the past few years, I've generally avoided feeding my bees. The exceptions to this policy were new colonies (if I didn't have any nectar/honey to give them) and bees that were starving. This year, though, has been rough. Really rough. None of the bees had stored honey by late September, and I wasn't alone in this predicament. A late frost that killed the early spring flowers and a hot, dry summer meant a pitiful flow for the bees this year. As a result, I've been mixing so much syrup lately that I'm starting to feel like Willy Wonka.

I truly hate messing with syrup, especially now that I have so many bees. It's not so bad mixing up syrup for 1 colony now and then, but 8 thirsty colonies drink a lot of syrup. Each one can easily suck down a gallon overnight, and I have a feeling they'd take more if they could get it.

Making up gallons and gallons of the sweet stuff is a pain because:

  • It's expensive. I go through at least 100 lbs of sugar every week (approximately $19 for a 50 lb bag at Costco). I don't even feed everyday. If I did, I'd need closer to 300-400 lbs. Of course, sugar is still cheaper than new bees, so I feed.
  • It's time-consuming. Mixing up syrup, bottling it, and feeding -- that's a huge time investment. Just opening the hives and swapping out feeders takes about 40 minutes.
  • It's inconvenient. As a working mom, I'm busy all day, but the real craziness starts when the kids get home -- there's so much to do -- homework, snacks, dinner activities, baths... However, because I like to feed inside the hives, I have wait until about an hour before sundown (or a rainy day) to feed in order to avoid setting off robbing. Unfortunately, that's also the same time of day that at least one of the little people in my house requires Mom's Chauffeur Services.
  • It's a pain. Literally. The bees are not particularly happy this time of year, and they're not shy about making their feelings known. They also act like crackheads when I lug all that syrup out to the beeyard, which again, is not always fun.
On the other hand, I've found a great tool to help out with feedings -- my DH's beer brewing pot. It holds 4 gallons, which is awesome because it cuts down the mess in my kitchen & time spent making syrup considerably. Before, I'd make 2 batches of syrup in 2 large pots (4 pots total). Now, I only need 1 pot (though I still make 2 batches.) I'd love to try his bottle filling siphon to fill up all my jugs with syrup, but I have a feeling that it might not clean up well, so if you've ever done that, please, let me know!

The gallon markers on the pot are very helpful for knowing how much water/sugar to add.
Another reason why I don't like feeding is that sugar really isn't that great for bees. Bees raised on/fed sugar syrup don't live as long as bees that get honey. I suppose this is sort of ironic when you think about it -- the autumn bees are the ones that need to live a good long time so that the colony can survive until spring, but they're the ones that get the syrup. Additionally, my understanding is that bees that are fed syrup are more susceptible to diseases. It's like living on Twinkies. You can do it, but you're going to have a lot of health issues.

Even though I follow a treatment-free beekeeping philosophy, I have a gray area when it comes to feeding. Although I don't use supplements or essential oils, I do use bee tea as the base for my syrup in order to add some extra nutrients. I also add a pinch of sea salt for the same reason. It's probably like adding nuts and cherries to your ice cream sundae -- The nuts and cherry are alright, but you're still eating a sundae.

Anyway, on a whim, this year, I started adding seaweeds like wakame and kombu to my bee tea. In Korea, seaweed soup is one of those essential foods for nursing moms because it's supposed to provide lots of nutrition and help increase milk production. Ok, I'm not planning to milk any bees, but the micronutrients can't hurt, so into the pot they go.


After making the first pot of syrup with some seaweed, I figured I should at least see if there was any research on bees and seaweed. Wouldn't you know it, but the company that makes ApiVar also sells a supplement called HiveAlive that contains seaweed?! (I supposed I would've known this years ago if I shopped for mite treatments.) Although I'm not intending to purchase HiveAlive, I did find out what I wanted to know -- a little bit of seaweed's not going to kill my bees and may even be beneficial. So I'll probably continue adding some seaweed to the bee tea from now on.  (BTW, if you want to try adding seaweed to your syrup, you can usually find it at Whole Foods or a health food store, but a tiny bag of the stuff is kind of pricey. Instead, if you have a good Asian grocery nearby, you can usually find huge bags of the stuff quite inexpensively.)

Until last week, the weather was staying steady in the 60s. We even had a few days in the upper 70's. This week, temperatures have plunged into the 50's, so the window of opportunity for bulking up the hives is quickly closing.

Chow time. Elsa had some nectar, but I want to bulk her up as well, so she gets crystallized honey.

P.S. I'm not shilling for HiveAlive. I've never tried it and don't even plan on trying it. However, if you're curious, the American Bee Journal Aug 2016 edition ran a short (though not particularly informative) blurb about it. You can also read about the study performed with HiveAlive in The Journal of Apiculture Research vol 54, 2015, Issue 5



  1. I agree, I am only feeding a few hives and its a pain. I can't imagine 8! I'm lucky that I haven't had any robbing issues so far.

    A number of beekeepers here in Virginia say they feed in August and September. I wonder if the bees feed off the sugar and save the honey? If so, then they would keep the better food (honey) for the winter when it is really needed. Never thought of it before, though I've seen them prefer the sugar syrup over capped honey.

    Good luck!

    1. Interesting observation about timing feeding. I think most of the commercial beeks up here remove their supers around the middle of July when the clover is over. Then they feed July - August so that the bees don't dwindle and can bring in the goldenrod, which usually blooms Sept-Oct. Then they remove the fall honey and feed up for winter.

      Since you treat, feeding in during the dearth would probably make sense for you. However, since I don't treat, I usually let them dwindle a bit during the summer because it gives them a chance to clean out mites and stuff.

    2. Good point on the dwindle. Around here we don't seem to get much fall flow, so many beekeepers assume what they have in mid-July is it for the year. So it makes more sense on that regard as well. I managed to save three frames and re-fed them back to one hive, hopefully in the future I can stick with saved honey and not have to use any sugar.

      Farming, agriculture... What a slow-moving train we are on. You only get one shot each year to get the month right, and then it is gone. Next year will be different, I am sure.

  2. In addition to the drought, having your requeening issues over the summer probably kept them from building up stores. Kind of a double edged sword - the brood break is good for mite control, but not for making honey! I've been trying to keep honey combs in storage for feeding and so far that's worked out. But it's so tempting to harvest it for myself sometimes! But, if I didn't have that and was in your situations, I'd be making syrup, too! As one beek around here says, you wouldn't let your kids starve, so why would you let your bees starve?

    1. Oh my goodness, yes! You hit on one the huge issues I had this year, and you couldn't be more right! The difficulties I had requeening -- and the subsequent lack of brood at critical times during the year -- is absolutely a key reason why the bees were out of stores. Good idea to keep some back-up honey. I didn't keep combs, but I kept some honey from last year, and that's what I've been feeding to Elsa.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!