Feeding honey bees
From time to time honey bees need supplementary feeding to get them through the more difficult times, especially if they are a small colony and/or weather conditions have been poor and the bees have not been able to forage as easily. This can be early spring when queens begin laying again and the demand for food increases or during the 'June gap'.
There are several different types of food you can provide for honey bees and each is better to use in different situations.
Various types of feeder are cheaply available from beekeeping suppliers. Syrup feed is added to a feeder which allows honey bees to safely access it as needed.
You should never feed store-bought honey to your bees. This is because supermarket honey is generally made from large batches of mixed imported honey from all over the world. If any of these sources was infected with disease when the honey was harvested then you are exposing your colony and risking infection yourself. You can, however, feed your honey bees' own honey back to them (e.g. wet supers or cappings).
Types of feed for bees
Honey bee feed can be purchased from a beekeeping supplier or made yourself at home relatively cheaply. They are generally based on sugar syrup but some incorporate pollen as well for extra nutrition. The appropriate food to offer your bees depends on the status of your hive and the time of year.
NB: It is important not to feed bees when you have a super on the hive which you intend to harvest honey from - otherwise you will be harvesting syrup rather than honey!
This is the standard "bread and butter" feed for bees, and is simply granulated white sugar dissolved in water. Different concentrations of syrup (i.e. ratios of sugar:water) are used at different times of year. See the bottom of this page for recipes of how to make your own sugar syrup at home.
Light syrup (1:1) is good for early in the season (spring) as it is more readily digestible and helps stimulate the bees early in the season. Light syrup is also good for feeding weaker colonies in the summer, e.g. after a hive has been split or a recently captured swarm (NB captured swarms should not be fed right away - wait 3-4 days before feeding if needed).
Thick syrup (2:1) is good for helping bees build up stores for overwintering. This syrup requires less processing for the bees to store, as the sugar content is higher and it can be capped off in cells more efficiently. Syrup must have its water content decreased before it is stored otherwise it would ferment over winter. The bees must have adequate stores to see them through the winter.
Commercial syrups (e.g. invertbee) These are ready-made syrups, often marketed as being appropriate for both spring and autumn feeding and being more readily digestible than home-made sugar syrups due to a higher concentration of monosaccharides. Using a commercial syrup is more expensive than making it yourself, but is arguably more convenient. If you plan on using a commercial syrup be sure to check the expiry date as it does go off.
Sugar syrup which is not consumed rapidly accumulates mould. This can be prevented by adding a tiny amount - a couple of crystals - of thymol to the sugar syrup mixture, dissolved in a few drops of surgical spirit (thymol does not readily dissolve in water).
Fondant is basically a solidified form of sugar syrup which is mainly used over winter. It can be made at home (see recipe at the bottom of this page) or can be purchased from beekeeper suppliers relatively cheaply. Baker's fondant can also be used. Fondant can be given by placing it in a plastic tub upside-down over a hole in the crownboard or by rolling into a thin patty and placing under the crown-board and directly over the frames. In order to use this type of feed the bees must first collect water to dilute it. During the winter this is probably
from condensation within the hive.
Many commercial fondants/patties are available and not all of them are for winter feeding. Some contain protein and pollen to encourage brood-rearing for use in the spring.
Since these types of feed come in the form of a solid block there is no need for a feeder, as is the case with syrup feeds.
Types of feeder
In order to provide sugar syrup feed to your bees you must use a feeder. Feeders come in many different designs but share the same basic principal of providing a reservoir for the beekeeper to fill with sugar syrup which can then safely be accessed by honey bees within the hive.
Feed should never by provided to bees outside the hive as this attracts wasps and encourages hive robbing.
Below is an overview of the most common types of feeder available:
Rapid feeders are doughnut-shaped with a central access for bees to get to the syrup. They are very cheap and easy to use, but require refilling regularly.
To use a rapid feeder it is placed over a hole in the crown board and filled with sugar syrup. The feeder is then covered with an empty super and hive roof.
Rapid feeders are not used in winter as sugar syrup is not fed during winter.
Contact feeders look like a bucket with a mesh circle in the lid. They can have a higher capacity than rapid feeders and are cheap and easy to use.
To use, the bucket is filled with sugar syrup until it is about 2cm from the rim. The lid is then firmly sealed on and the bucket gently squeezed until syrup reaches the mesh in the lid. The bucket is then inverted over a container to catch the dribble of syrup that comes out. Once the dribble stops the feeder is placed over a hole in the crown board and is covered with an empty super, insulation and hive roof.
Contact feeders are more suitable for use in colder weather (early Spring) than rapid feeders as bees do not have to venture above the crown board for access, and heat rising from the hive warm keeps the bees and syrup warm.
Miller feeders are like an extra super on the hive and provides access to syrup in way similar to the rapid feeder, but in a central line rather than a circle. It has a high capacity for sugar syrup but is expensive.
To use, the feeder is placed directly on top of the hive like a super and filled with syrup.
This style feeder is often used in nucs.
Frame feeders replace a frame in your hive and are filled with syrup. They are slightly more expensive that contact or rapid feeders but do not require the addition of an empty super. They are easy to use but require regular refilling.
One problem with these feeders is they have a tendency to drown bees if they get stuck inside. Some models come with a floating device which gives the bees a platform to feed from, reducing the risk of getting stuck.
Ashforth feeders are similar to Miller Feeders, but the point of entry is to one side rather than the middle.
This feeder should be oriented so that the access strip is positioned to the front of the hive with the hive slightly angled forwards. This allows the bees access to all the syrup.
Do my bees need feeding?
As a new beekeeper it is hard to gauge whether your bees need feeding or not. One way of assessing this is to look inside the hive and see how many frames of stores the bees have. If you don't see much capped honey it is a good idea to feed. If in doubt, FEED. Hungry bees are stressed bees. Bees need plenty of food to rear larvae.
Hefting the hive
A less intrusive way to get a rough idea - particularly around winter and early spring when you may not want to open the hive - is to heft the hive. Hefting is a method whereby the beekeeper gently lifts one side of the hive to assess its weight. A hive with plenty of stores is heavier than a hive without stores. It is a good idea to make hefting your hive part of your beekeeping routine early on so that you can get a feel for what kind of weight a healthy hive should be over winter, and identify hives which need feeding. A heavy hive is one that feels ’stuck down’ when you try to lift it.
For those who like to be more precise, a spring balance can be used to get a more accurate measurement of the hive's weight. This can be done by inserting a screw eye into each side of the hive floor and using the spring balance gently lift one side of the hive. This value is then doubled to estimate the weight of the entire hive. Alternatively, there are devices you can buy which you place beneath the hive which weigh it, however these are not cheap.
Below are some approximate values to help in assessing how many stores are in a hive. NB - weights will vary depending on material hive is made of, i.e. pine is much heavier than cedar:
Weight of a brood box plus empty frames: 7kg
Weight of a super plus empty frames: 5kg
Weight of bees: 7700 bees weigh 1kg, therefore 40,000 bees weigh 5kg
Weight of honey in a super: 12kg
Weight of wax in a brood box: 1.5kg
Weight of floor plus crown board: 1kg
For a colony on a single brood box, in order to survive the winter the hive should weigh:
Floor and crown board 1kg
Brood box and frames 7kg
Wax in brood frames 1.5kg
Bees (15000) 2kg
Total: 29.5kg – i.e. between 14 and 15kg when hefting a single side
For a colony with 1 super, in order to survive the June dearth the hive should weigh:
Floor and crown board 1kg
Brood box and frames 7kg
Super and frames 5kg
Wax in brood frames 1.5kg
Wax in super 1kg
Bees (40000) 5kg
Brood (20000) 2kg
Honey (sufficient to ensure survival for a week) 5kg
Total 27.5kg – that is between 13 and 14kg when hefting a single side
Honey bee feed recipes
For these recipes it is important to use white sugar (not brown or demerera sugar). Icing sugar is also not appropriate as it contains anti-caking agents which you do not want to end up in your syrup.
Winter Candy Recipe
What you need is a big pan able to hold 500ml of water and 2 litres of sugar.
Put water in pan, heat, put in all sugar, stir all the time until the sugar dissolves, heat until it gets to 117 degrees, you will need a cooks thermometer
Put about 2 inches of cold water in the sink
Once up to heat, take off heat and put in sink (still in the pan) and stir until it thickens and turns milky, once it starts to turn quickly pour into bee feeding containers (plastic food container), let set
Bakers fondant can be used, it is just an expensive form of candy.
Sugar - a bag of sugar can be used if it is cold and you are desperate. Make small holes in the side of the bag and pour in a small amount of water. Invert the bag over the feed hole.
For Spring Build up (light syrup)
This sugar syrup is recommended for spring stimulation and build-up:
1kg (2lb) to 1.25 litres (2pts) hot water. This is also known as 1:1 syrup.
For Autumn stores (thick syrup)
This Sugar Syrup is recommended for autumn stores:
1kg (2lb) to 625ml (1pt) hot water. This is also known as 2:1 syrup.
A tip for getting the syrup dissolved is to put it into 2 litre coke type plastic bottles and give them a shake every so often. Don't forget to screw the cap on!