To Feed or Not To Feed

As my mentor list grows I am always asked about feeding the bees, when should we feed, for how long, etc. I have always planned on writing something about feeding or not feeding but someone beat me to it online so I won’t reinvent the wheel and borrow what someone on Beemaster said… From Brian D. Bray:

I don’t mean to be rude but joebrown seems to be in need of education like many other newbees.  Feeding is so over done that it has become one of the biggest errors beekeepers make.  Anyone who recommends feeding without specifics is creating a disaster in their/your hive.  They also don’t understand beehavior or the way bees build a hive from nothing to a fully developed unit.

It is okay to feed bees when and only when:
1. They are a package, split, or swarm and must draw out enough combs for the existing bees to occupy.
2. To stimulate brood production early in the year.
3. To top off winter stores if the honey crop has been over harvested.

It is not okay to feed bees when:
1. They have drawn enough comb for the bees to occupy but haven’t reared enough brood to increase the hive population sufficiently to crowd said population unto new frames.
2. They were hived on drawn combs and have been in the hive more than 14 days.
3. The beekeeper wishes the bees to manufacture more combs without the necessary manipulation of frames to force the manufacture of new combs.
4.  Feeding is done to substitute for what the beekeeper might think is a inadequate honey flow or source.
5.  Feeding just because someone recommended it.

In ALL of the cases of when not to feed what happens is that the bees back fill the brood area with nectar, reducing the ability of the queen to rear sufficient population to grow the hive.  This is called being Honey Bound.

Bees will only draw combs on frames on which they occupy, if there are not enough bees to occupy another frame they will not draw comb until such time as the population increases sufficiently to occupy additional frames, then they will draw combs on those newly occupied frames only.  This can be corrected by moving the outside frames (storage frames) outward one space and replacing them with undrawn combs.  The reason this works is because bees will leave storage combs but will not abandon brood combs, so by moving the storage combs outward and replacing them with undrawn frames the bees will drawn comb on those frames because they will move off of the storage combs unto the undrawn combs to keep the cluster intact.  The new combs will use some of the stores in the making of combs and creates additional space for the queen to lay eggs while at the same time freeing up previously nectar filled frames for brood production.

Honey Bound bees will swarm because they are crowded before they will move over onto undrawn combs that the population isn’t large enough to occupy.

Honey Bound bees don’t have sufficient population to prevent robbing.  Continued feeding exacerbates the problem.

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2 Responses to To Feed or Not To Feed

  1. Susan says:

    Awesome, these educational posts are great for us mentees. If I can suggest a future topic – diseases/mites specific tips for our area.

  2. Todd says:

    Sometimes not knowing is a great viewpoint. My philosophy in life is pretty hands off, as things tend to take care of themselves. So why should it be any different with a creature that has been around for a loooooong time? When I first got my bees, I fed them sugar water like I read and had been told, but after a few weeks and tens of pounds of sugar later, I stopped. (I should mention that I was given an already established hive with capped brood and honey and pollen in early March, and the colony was thriving.) Anyway,after a few weeks of feeding, I figured it was close enough to the nectar flow that the bees should have sufficient stores and be on their way. I called my beekeeper mentor, told him what I did, and he recommended I put them back on the sugar water. He said, “If they don’t want it, they won’t eat it.” Well, there is some truth to that, so I swallowed what I thought was best to follow wisdom beyond my years in beekeeping (since this is my first year).

    Things were going great and 8 of 10 medium super frames were filled by May 21st. (I did stop feeding them at the beginning of May). I put a second super on the same day. A week later bee traffic was noticeably diminished out front, but I figured maybe it was the weather? With all the crazy late rain, colder days, etc… But after a few weeks of this, I was sure something was up. Yesterday I decided to head into the brood chamber, and there I confirmed my fears. I saw 5 opened queen cells and a minimal amount of bees from what was previously there. To boot, all the cells on every frame are filled with honey or pollen – which makes me think the bees possible became honey bound, thus the reason for the swarm. It could be that the queen was old or some other factor that I don’t know about? I know I was managing them as I had been told and read. I added my first super when 7 of the 10 frames in the second deep were drawn. I didn’t pop into the hive much, and I fed them as I was told.

    Did feeding them sugar water add to their need to swarm? I am convinced it aided in some way. From now on, I will be feeding sparingly. Possibly only once a year for a week or two before the big nectar flow in spring to stimulate the queen to start laying eggs. Otherwise, they can fend for themselves, the way nature intended. Of course I will give them the care that they need, but with our temperatures and blooms, I don’t think we need to give the same amount of attention (food wise) to our bees as other areas. I look forward to watching how this plays out over time, and will definitely keep you posted.

    Thanks for your help so far Jack!


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