Although widely controversial in the beekeeping world, supplemental feeding is a great way to ensure bees obtain the proper energy they need for healthy brood growth.
Through sugar-water mixtures and pollen patties, beekeepers give their bees food during times of stress to combat the possibility of colony decrease, but when should you stop feeding bees sugar water?
When the hive begins to produce combs again, it is generally time to stop feeding sugar water as a supplement.
What do Bees Eat?
Similar to other animals, bees need both macro-and micronutrients to thrive. They consume all of the necessary nutrients through a diet of nectar, pollen, and honey.
Pollen is a crucial ingredient to a healthy bee as it provides the bee with protein, sugar, minerals, fatty acids, and vitamins. As a bee’s only source of protein, pollen provides bees with essential amino acids found nowhere else. Bee bread is created when pollen is combined with nectar and preservative enzymes. Bee bread is a shelf-stable food for both workers and their larvae and gives the colony a strong boost of energy and micronutrients.
As the main ingredient of honey and a quick source of carbohydrates, nectar is essential to a bee’s diet. Forager bees collect nectar from blooming flowers through their proboscis or straw-like tongue.
Although raw nectar is an excellent energy source for forager bees, they primarily store the nectar in their stomachs. Once they return to the hive, the forager bees give the nectar to other workers for further processing. The worker bee will continue processing and storing the nectar until it becomes honey.
From the nectar stored in bees’ stomachs, honey is made. Once in the hive, nectar is passed from bee to bee to reduce the moisture content of nectar below 20 percent. From there, the nectar is stored in combs and fanned off until the moisture content is between 17-20 percent.
Bees predominantly use honey to feed the colony, the brood, and winter consumption. A typical colony needs about 70-100 lbs of honey to survive the winter, depending on the severity.
Why Feed Bees?
Since bees produce so much food, why would a beekeeper need to feed them? Although we ideally want our bees to be self-reliant, sometimes a colony can run into issues that set them back from producing a sufficient amount of honey for winter storage.
A New Colony
Supplemental feeding is often expected whenever you purchase a new colony – especially if that colony is a package of bees.
As a package of bees usually contains around 10,000, they have a lot of work to do in the spring. Not only are they adjusting to their new surroundings and new queen, but they also have to produce and feed the brood and start creating their honey supplies.
New colonies can get overwhelmed by everything on their task list. So, if they don’t get enough food in the spring, they won’t create brood, and your colony will be tiny the following year. Beekeepers will often start giving new colonies extra food as soon as they arrive to provide the newbies with a headstart to the season.
Flowers produce nectar as an accessory, mainly to attract pollinators. Flowers will stop producing nectar to save their energy for more critical functions in stressful situations, like severe drought or severe temperatures (either hot or cold).
While good for the plant’s survival, this is not-so-great for pollinators like honey bees. Since bees still look for food during these times, beekeepers will often provide extra nourishment to combat the lack of nectar and help the colony maintain its health and growth.
Beekeepers should regularly check honey supply by mid-to-late summer to ensure that nectar dearth doesn’t impact their hive’s winter storage.
Bad Weather Conditions
In addition to nectar dearth, bees often battle bad weather during the foraging season. If the weather is lousy, bees often won’t leave the hive – thus, leaving them with less food. The following are the most common weather patterns that prohibit bees from foraging:
- Temperatures above 100F. Since a healthy hive relies on an internal temperature of 95F, extremely hot temperatures will cause the bees to change behavior. Instead of foraging, they will spend their time cooling the hive to prevent the brood from dying and the wax from melting.
- Temperatures below 52F. Below these temperatures, bees simply cannot fly. So, if spring temperatures remain colder than 52F, colonies will have a handicap for the rest of the season.
- Rain and wind. Like cold temperatures, bees do not like foraging in conditions that make flying more difficult.
During these difficult times, beekeepers will feed their colonies extra food to help combat the bad weather conditions.
Lastly, bees recovering from disease or pest infestations may need a booster to help them get back on their feet. Since bee diseases are widespread nowadays and can be very harmful, many beekeepers opt to feed their bees after taking care of the infestation.
What do Beekeepers Feed Bees?
Since beekeepers want to help their bees with supplemental feeding, not just any food will work. Bees need foods that mimic their own and are free of disease.
Primarily, beekeepers feed their colonies a sugar-water mixture of varying degrees to mimic nectar. Beekeepers will make different mixtures based on the time of year and the bees’ needs.
The fall mixture is usually a 2:1 sugar-water mixture, while the spring mixture is more of a 1:1 ratio.
One crucial factor when feeding bees is that the supers need to be removed before supplemental feeding. If they are not removed, bees will likely try to make honey from the sugar-water and will thus make a syrup mixture instead.
Since sugar-water doesn’t contain any micronutrients or protein, some beekeepers also add supplemental pollen to their bees’ diets. Doing this increases their energy and provides them with immune-boosting advantages against adverse conditions and pests.
There are two options for supplemental pollen feeding:
- Bee-collected pollen: Professional suppliers will offer trapped bee pollen from their colonies. However, as this is an easy way for disease to travel from hive to hive, you must first research the supplier. In contrast, you can also purchase your own pollen trapper and store the supplemental pollen in your freezer until it’s needed.
- Pollen substitute: Suppliers also offer pollen substitutes that offer your bees similar digestibility and nutrient balance.
When Should You Stop Feeding Bees Sugar Water?
While this answer depends on many factors, the general answer is that you should stop feeding bees sugar water once they begin producing combs again. Here are some signs that it is time to stop providing sugar water:
- Honey supers are on. Because bees will start to make a syrupy concoction out of sugar water, you never want to give supplemental feed when your supers are on.
- There is enough honey stored for winter. If your bees have tucked away enough honey for the winter, they should not need additional feeding.
- Bees have created combs. Once bees have started to fill combs with honey, it is time to stop feeding them. This action means they have reached a point where honey can be stored, and thus the hive is sufficiently feeding itself.
- Your bees are regularly becoming infected with disease. As sugar’s pH balance is more alkaline than honey, superfluous feeding can result in a high pH balance in the hive. As some researchers believe common bee pests reproduce at higher pH levels, extra feeding can lead to increased infestation rates.
Although widely debated, supplemental feeding is widespread in the beekeeping world. To ensure proper energy and micronutrient uptake, beekeepers provide sugar-water mixtures and pollen patties to their colonies during certain times of the year.
While it’s a good option for boosting the health of a hive, beekeepers need to know when to start and stop supplemental feeding. In addition, a good beekeeper will always realize that supplemental feeding in no way directly replaces the food that bees naturally obtain themselves.