Feeding bees is an art form. Do it wrong at the wrong time and you can create more problems than you solve!!
The Seasonality of Syrup and Sub
Agility and preparation mean we can move from one plan to another to suit the current mission environment, and both require data. So, in the winter if you aren’t weighing your hives each month, you don’t really know if or when they’re running out of food. On the flip side, if you feed too much you limit their available brood nest space, or worse you don’t feed enough, and they starve or leave!! To see “real” data from your local conditions, information that’s relevant to you, it’s necessary to collect it and analyze it.
What’s it look like out there in the boxes right now? That is the most important question you can ask yourself in beekeeping. Sometimes you can estimate the current conditions based on what you saw during the last inspection (why records and data are so important). The issue with resource assessment is that you also have to take into consideration what’s going on in the local forage environment.
You can also tell a lot by the demeanor of the colony, are they fussy, flighty, seem stressed? That can also tell you that conditions are suboptimal in those boxes – for one reason or another, you have to figure out why.
So, inspections will tell us what they have, but more importantly what they don’t have!! This is where we talk about how you become involved.
The Big Colonies Get in Trouble Fast
The most heart wrenching are the most productive colonies who will literally eat their way out of house and home. What to do about these guys? They need feed and fast!! If it’s a toss-up between a hive starving to death and breaking open a box to put in feed, well there’s no choice in my mind….a little slab of pollen sub and a pile of sugar might well save them in the middle of the winter. A pail of syrup with straw over top (to save bees from drowning) is a very quick way to get syrup into bees, and also keep the robbers out of the weaker units. Feeding inside the boxes is preferential to feeding outside just for the robbing effects during the dearth cycles. There are plenty of ways to get food to the bees and lots of ways to keep aggressors out of the frames, you just have to decide which way works best for you.
The Rain Conundrum
Most beekeepers think about dearths as a “lack of forage” events. Not many look at it from the perspective of a broken process. The first problem may be that the bees can’t fly to get to forage, and rain makes that difficult or impossible sometimes. That creates a pseudo dearth even though there may be forage blooming and productive, so the bees are stuck in the boxes and the nectar goes without being collected. Secondly, we can see resource depletion happen when the forage is rained out. In some floral configurations the flowers are open to the environment and the nectar can easily be washed out of the forage to where the bees have nothing to collect, and we see those bees just flitting from flower to flower without landing for very long. The third type of condition is when we have the “dry season” dearth, where although the forage is plentiful and flowers are everywhere, the plants aren’t giving up nectar to the pollinators because they’re conserving it for themselves. This is usually the one that gets most in trouble, everything looks normal, but nothing is being put into the combs!!
Not Enough to Too Much
On the other end of the spectrum is the over abundance of nectar coming in to the combs which creates a “nectar bound” condition and sets the colony up for swarming. That trigger of backfilling the brood nest with nectar is the secondary decision paradigm that the bees use for putting swarm cells on the bottoms of the frames (the first being a population that supports splitting). There are things you can do to prevent that condition if you see it – just pull frames of nectar and either shake them out onto the ground or replace them with empty comb frames so they are motivated to go get more!!
OBTW, giving those frames of nectar to a small weak unit that is struggling to keep food on the table is a better use of that resource and keeps the nurses on the frames taking care of brood instead of going looking for food!!!
Pollen or Substitute
Natural pollen is always the best, but what if there’s none in the environment for them to collect. Then the brood laying is curtailed significantly and the units that tend to dwindle are those who didn’t collect enough to continue to make brood through the dearth. Add to that the dearth (at least in my area) is right about the time that winter bees are being made for the winter cluster – well that’s a devastating turn in population.
Just as the mite and viral load is at its peak, there’s no protein to make more healthy baby bees. Another reason why we see dead outs in the early spring – they couldn’t continue to keep the cluster warm and the brood nest at the right temp to make more bees to replace what was dying off.
It’s been a particular pet peeve of mine that we don’t have better data on the breakdown of the amino acids in pollen for our forages. The Australians have a great resource available for nutrition and I would suggest reading Fat Bees Skinny Bees, A manual on honey bee nutrition for beekeepers. Doug Somerville, (2005) Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Australia. Available on the Web at https://www.agrifutures.com.au/wp-content/uploads/publications/05-054.pdf It’s a good overview of nutrition, the amino acid constituents of pollen, and a review of feeding methods to use.
I believe Randy is doing another pollen sub study as we speak, (his original work was done in 2014) to discern the best resource for supplementing, so look for those results coming soon!! You should review his nutrition articles (in your down time) and donate if you have a little extra coin – he’s doing really great work for the bees and beekeepers!! http://scientificbeekeeping.com/bee-nutrition/ . His pollen requirement chart is below (based on the CA flows, so you should make a local one of your own!!).
Supplementing during the dips reduces colony stress, which improves colony health through a healthy immune system.
I’m currently doing a 5-Day Challenge to build the Resource Dashboard Tool, so look for another opportunity to get into the workshop next time it’s offered!!
Comments or questions?? firstname.lastname@example.org
Well here’s to a more “normal” year, and ultimately, the success of our charges…..purpose is often the best blessing we can receive!!