Feeding the Bees

by Daisy

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When checking inside my horizontal top bar hive the other day I found this, an empty comb.  Not sure what was going on, I showed the comb to my neighbor, an experienced beekeeper.  In his opinion, this showed that the bees seemed to be chowing down on their own honey, and that they probably could do with a feeding of some sugar syrup.

It has been quite dry here lately (and record heat for September), and the natural sources of nectar may be as depressed as we have been to have 100 degree temps this late in the year.

He let me borrow a feeder stand and I cooked up a batch of 1:1 sugar and water and placed it in the hive.

I’ll be back in to check on the feeder and the combs soon.

All this makes me a little uncertain about how I feel about feeding bees.  The “natural” ways of beekeeping recommend refraining from supplementing with sugar except during times of stress such as when establishing a new hive and times like this when the bees seem unable to find sufficient nectar and pollen because of conditions outside of our control, like the weather.

One way they avoid the need to feed is by taking the main honey harvest in the spring after the bees have made it through the barren season and the remaining honey is shown to be in excess of what they needed to overwinter.  Indeed, honey produced largely as a result of sugar feeding is considered almost fraudulent, and not suited for sale.

I once attended a beekeepers association meeting where a curiosity being passed around was a jar of blue honey.  The explanation was that a supply of syrup had been contaminated by blue dye (I believe it was “food grade” dye–I hope so, anyway), and the bees had somehow gotten into it by mistake.  It highlighted to me the direct relationship between what bees are fed and what makes it into the honey itself.  I had so much rather my honey direct from the flower, not from the sugar factory via a short trip through the honeybee.

I hope my interference is only giving the bees a temporary leg up during a lean period and not upsetting their apple cart in a significant way.  Nature is so overwhelmingly better off without our best efforts to intervene the majority of the time and our ways of propping them up to offset our other bad choices often have all the finesse of a bull in a china shop.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Kimberly September 23, 2010 at 11:00 am

I agree that we probably shouldn’t be feeding the bees, but if they are eating their honey now, they are sure to starve this winter. I am feeding my bees right now. I am letting them fill a super with this sugar honey. I hope they can pack enough in to be able to make it through winter. It’s a lot harder to feed them when the cold weather gets here because you risk them when you open the hive to feed and cool them down to much. If I remember right, your bees are new this spring like mine are. They probably need an extra push.

Frugal Kiwi September 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm

It’s a worry that your bees are needing so much honey at this time of year. I hope they winter okay.

Tomato Lady September 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Yes, I’m worried about them, too. I’ll continue to feed and see how the hive looks going into the fall. Fingers crossed.

John Hablinski September 24, 2010 at 1:38 am

I found your posting about your bees strangely disturbing. If I ever knew your geographic location, I have forgotten where you are. Just from the temperature stats I’m guessing somewhere in the south. I’m in South Texas and it is and has been hot. But DUH! I’m in South Texas and it has been summer and while to Autumnal Equinox has happened that doesn’t mean much here. We can expect low 90s for a while yet. What I find so disturbing, is you’re your story seems to meld so well with the fact that Honeybees have been behaving strangely around the world, hive decline and such. Frankly your posting sounded as if it could be the first chapter of a Sci-Fi end of the world horror tale.
I think you are in the US due to your spelling and idiomatic expressions. I am afraid I have to say a few rather unflattering words about my fellow countrymen. I doubt 99 % of us has any grasp of just how very important those little creatures are to the world. And I would bet an even smaller number of us know of or care the honeybee is not native to our continent. Being, as I am, in Texas we have been dealing with the Africanized (Killer) Bees for years now. Just today our local news reported a story of a man stung over 1200 times by the varmints. He lived, but his photo was scary to see. Every place he had a place was swollen his face most of all. We lose several people a year, and other animals as well chained dogs, livestock in pens, most people can’t run fast enough of far enough to escape them. We and by “we” I mean our scientist don’t know how far north they can go before the weather is too extreme for them to survive. It is troublesome and worrisome indeed.
I don’t mean to alarm people unnecessarily, but without them we (humanity) can’t eat. Something I’m rather fond of doing on a regular basis. We do have other native pollinators but with Big Agra and their practices of spraying the millions of acres under cultivation once the rented bees have been carted to the next producer we have too few natives left to do the job.
I hope you will keep us all posted as you deal with this situation. As others have said in the responses, bees shouldn’t be eating their own honey at this time of year. I wish you and your bees well. John

JavaLady September 24, 2010 at 5:38 am

Exactly HOW does one feed bees?? Sure, sure , you made the sugar syrup. But how do you transfer it to the bees? Do you leave it out in bowls or pour it on their honey combs ? Or what and how? My grandfather raised bees and so did his sons, in central Louisiana… many decades ago. I remember the bee yard, and the Honey House, but I don’t remember if they ever had to ”feed” the bees in a drought. As I would like to be a hobby bee keeper in my retirement years, I need to know how to feed the bees so please share exactly how you do that. Thanks and keep up the good work !!

Ninabi September 24, 2010 at 8:29 am

Here in Tucson, Africanized bees seem to be thriving. It seems strange to me that there are bee removal companies galore down here when there is the deeply concerning struggle for bee survival elsewhere.

We had to have a hive removed from a sprinkler box in the ground and the hive removal man (also a beekeeper) said that in our area, he sees 10 hives per square mile.

Healthy bees- but oh so dangerous down here if one approaches too closely by accident.

Corinne September 24, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Not that I am an expert on bees by ANY means, but I do believe that Aficanized bees and Honey bees are NOT the same thing. I also read once somewhere that Honey bees actually drive away other kinds of bees and wasps and thus are WONDERFUL to have around.

Tomato Lady-I know this is a bit of a stretch, but have you ever thought of taking your bees on a vacation to a local farm? I know this is a very common thing for people to do with their commercial bees – it’s how all our food gets pollinated every year! Maybe you can pack up the bees and take them to a farm nearby for a week or two, then bring them home when the temperature and weather improves?

Tomato Lady September 24, 2010 at 4:23 pm

JavaLady–There are a number of ways to feed bees. The way I did it this time was to take a quart jar of sugar syrup (equal parts sugar and water, sometimes other proportions are used), punch a few small holes in the lid, and invert it over a feeder stand, which is just a small base which keeps the feeder raised up so that the bees can get underneath it to get to the drips of syrup. I put the feeder inside the hive, down at one end of the hive. A vacuum forms in the jar so the syrup doesn’t run out–the bees kind of help coax it out.
Sometimes feeders are located at a distance away from the hives.
Sounds like you have quite a family tradition of beekeeping!

Jeannie September 25, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Our family has kept bees for several years now, and has studied them for much longer than that. It isn’t really abnormal for bees to consume their own honey at any time during the year that their preferred food sources aren’t available. For us (we live in south east North Carolina) that means that there is a 3 week or so period of time in late July or early August that we feed our bees. We will also feed our bees in the very early spring to stimulate brood rearing and boost the hive strength, and again in the winter we put dry sugar in the hives (read on the “mountain camp” method) to give the bees an emergency food supply and help maintain safe moisture levels in the hive.

There is also lots of debate about what to feed bees. Some folks only feed honey to the bees, but there are several studies that claim sugar is actually easier for the bees to digest in the winter time, and that bees who are fed honey or even HFCS (which is more common in commercial operations) are more prone to the many bee illnesses that plague those little beauties. Be sure not to cook your sugar syrup; it’s best to simply boil the water and take it off the heat…. then add the sugar and stir just to dissolve it. The idea is to make certain that none of the sugars caramelize because that will make your bees sick.

Now, on to my favorite topic….. the blue honey. We call ours purple, and it’s 100% natural and made by our bees every summer. There is a lot of debate as to the specific cause of the purple honey (which some folks call blue), but as far as I know no one is willing to name an exact cause. Some people swear that it’s an increased amount of certain minerals in the soil that affect the nectar that the bees bring in, some say it’s kudzu, some say the Titi trees do it……. but whatever the cause we cherish the treat.

Good luck with your bees. Feed them and don’t worry…. hungry bees are generally healthy bees.

Maria Stahl September 27, 2010 at 6:22 pm

I heard from a beekeeper once that they bought buckwheat honey to feed their bees, as they could get a lot of it for cheap (people didn’t want it).

Jude October 1, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Hi TL I see you’re still struggling with Bees. We were given dominion over all Gods’ creatures, therefore, to try and take care of any creature or human in need is a good thing (as martha would say). At the end of the day when you are exhausted from it all, find yourself a nice quiet spot, sit down, take deep breath,’ look up and say, “Lord I tried”. Get up tomorrow and try again, God will help you. love you Jude

Tomato Lady October 3, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Thank you, Jude. You have a great attitude. I’ll try to take your advice whenever possible.

Lorena November 15, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I attended a meeting of the Southern California Beekeepers’ Association just a few weeks ago — it was my first time, and I don’t have a hive — yet.

However, the speaker in the second half of the meeting emphasized the need to feed bees to help them overwinter, even here in sunny So Cal. He not only fed them sugar syrup (and yes, we were all cautioned not to let the water boil once the sugar was in it), but also a concoction that gave them proteins and various other nutrients. I believe he was going to post his recipe, but he also mentioned that there were others available on various websites. He has a lot of hives and is thinking of rearing queens soon, so his advice seems to be valid. There were other, long-time beekeepers there (lots of them, in fact), and they all emphasized the need to feed your hives if they look as though they need help to survive the winter.

One other caution I remember — do not, under any circumstances, do “public” feeding within 100 yards (it may have been more) of your hive. I was thinking about putting out a little food trough for bees in my backyard, and I still may, but only if I know there aren’t hives close by. The reason is that the bees from various hives will visit the public feeder, and some will follow other bees to their hive and then rob them of honey if that hive is weaker than their own.

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