Feeding Your Honeybees: Syrup, Feeders, and What to Look For

With a bit of warmer weather – and a few sunny days – we’ve had a chance to check our overwintered hives to make sure they’re buzzing and starting to rear brood after the winter slow-down. If new brood is present, this means the bees can consume dramatic amounts of pollen and honey – up to a frame a week – and it’s important to make sure they’ve got enough to last until early April or a bit later, when the willow and poplar pollen starts blooming. We want to give our hives the best chance to be strong enough to go foraging right away and to keep building up a healthy hive – so supplemental feeding may be necessary – but only if they don’t have enough.

Palliser Hive Check4

The need to feed:

Starvation of a colony is a very real threat – and is especially common in this spring period of build-up (brood rearing). If there’s not enough food, or a reduction in adult numbers, the house bees could remove brood from the combs and eat it – or drop it in front of the hive entrance, along with driven-out drones. By the time you see this – or slow-moving or trembling bees – your colony may be on the verge. And it can happen very quickly; the adult population can starve in as little as 12 hours, so balancing the concern of disturbing the hives with frequent checks is critical.

If in your early spring checks you’ve noticed stores are low, you might have already gently moved outer honey frames closer to the cluster, moving out the empty ones. Or if you’ve got a lack of capped honey, you’ll need to feed them something – quickly.  You could give them a frame of capped honey you set aside for them from fall to supplement their food stores, or an inner feeder of warm 2:1 white sugar syrup (2 parts white sugar to 1 part water by volume), remembering that white sugar has less contaminants than honey or other syrups.

Making sugar syrup:

To make sugar syrup, use hot/boiled water (boiling the syrup will caramelize the sugar, making it less digestible) in a clean garbage pail and bucket, and hand-stir till the sugar is dissolved. A colony’s food stores will be increased by about 3 kg with 5 litres of 2:1 sugar syrup; it will get eaten quickly!

Feeders:

The syrup should be placed as close to the cluster as possible to make it easy for the bees to feed, but the syrup should be unexposed or it will promote robbing. Several types of feeders could be used:

  • Hive top feeder – sits directly over the brood chamber and is the same length and width as a super. Standard feeders can hold 9 litres – and it’s really important to have a screen over the access area and down both sides so bees have something to cling to as they feed so they don’t drown – but drowning losses are likely.
  • Division-board or frame feeder – built to the same dimensions as a frame, it replaces an outer frame in the brood chamber and is holds 2-4 litres. This also should have wooden floats or screening inside to allow bees to feed without drowning.
  • Friction-top pail – a 13.6 kg friction-top pail allows for large amounts of syrup to be available to the hive. The pail is filled, the lid replaced with several holes or a large hole with a piece of mesh, and inverted over the hole in the inner cover of the hive. The recessed lid of the pail allows space for the bees to come up and take the syrup. This method can leak – caution and checking are required (wet bees are dead bees), and dripping can promote robbing.
  • Boardman feeder – a wooden block that holds an inverted canning jar and is inserted in the hive entrance. It will hold the amount of the canning jar – and the beekeeper can see how much syrup is left to a colony. There are a few downsides: direct sun may cause leaking, in colder weather, bees won’t leave the cluster to come to the hive entrance, they require a lot of refilling and they’re easy to rob.

Risks:

If it’s an emergency – if you find adult bees have crawled head-first into cells – a warm 2:1 sugar syrup can be sprayed over the bees and in empty combs next to the cluster to revive them. There’s no guarantee this will bring them back; it’s at least one thing a beekeeper can do.

There’s a risk with feeding in early spring, especially because cold snaps do still happen. Poor quality feeding – including frames of high moisture or granulating honey, burnt honey, honeydew or syrup from other than refined sugar – could put the hive at risk of dysentery (defecation in the hive) if the weather is too cold to get out for cleansing flights.

Things to look for:

  • There should be four to six frames in contact with the cluster; if these are empty, outer honey frames can be placed closer to the cluster if necessary.
  • Presence of brood cells and increased hive numbers
  • Capped honey – or not! A lack of capped honey at any time – especially during brood-rearing – this means immediate feeding!
  • Signs of hive starvation, including: drones and dead pupae in front of the hive, slow-moving and trembling bees, along with empty honey frames and bees head-first into cells (dying bees will crawl in and remain there) – if so, it’s time for emergency feeding

Once you start supplemental feeding – you’re committed to monitoring and checking how quickly the food stores are consumed until pollen begins to fly and the bees are foraging. This can be several weeks, so plan your schedules accordingly.

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