While it may be surprising to many, your bees (the bees, any bees) need to be fed. During the spring pollen and nectar flow, nature provides the sustenance our bees need to make the honey they consume during the winter months. What many don’t realize is that the pollen and nectar flow doesn’t last throughout all the warm and hot months. Invariably, in the DC Metro area, the nectar flow ends between mid-July and the beginning of August. Now this is an average. When the flow ends does depend on the environment you live in. Some neighborhoods have a longer flow, some shorter. In some environments, most notably along the George Washington Parkway south of Alexandria along the Potomac, bees are still bringing in pollen and nectar well into October! This is an exception though.
Because of the intense urbanization over the past few decades many beehives are not able to create enough honey via nature to last through the long winter months. There are several reasons for this. First off, there is much less forage for the bees compared to years past. Nice green, grassy lawns are deserts to bees. Natural wildflowers and clovers have diminished due to poisons spread by lawn care services and most areas are built up to the point that there just isn’t enough out there for the bees. In many newer communities the landscape developers plant the cheapest, low maintenance, blasé trees, bushes, and shrubs on the market. During the summer of 2015 we’ve noticed that the nectar flow, in many areas, stopped in early June most likely due to the drought/flood weather pattern we’ve fallen into where the only rain we get consists of full on gully washers that wash away nature’s pollen and nectar. And just when nature replenishes, it all gets washed away again. On the other end of the equation, our winters have been getting longer and colder requiring our bees to survive on their own stores longer before spring starts up again. Starvation during winter is something beekeepers see all the time though, luckily for us, feeding our bees is something we can all easily do.
Right up front, if you’re a totally organic, hands off, “Let God take care of them!” type of person and DON’T live in an environmental paradise with a super long growing season, you’re not living in reality and please don’t get your hive from us. While we want everyone to enjoy having bees, we want bees to survive. In this day and age, given current environmental conditions, very few hives will survive without our help. If we’re maintaining your hive for you we will be right on top of how it is doing month to month and we’ll know what extra attention your hive will need based on how it is adapting to your local area. If your immediate environment is a bee paradise and your hive doesn’t require extra feeding, trust me, we’ll let you know. This is only one of many reasons why regular inspections by experts are so necessary.
Here at Eco Honeybees, we’re very conservative about honey. As a rule, we generally target each hive to have about 50 lbs of honey in it by November. While most hives eat less than this amount over winter, every hive is different and our winters have been getting very unpredictable. We’ve seen some hives consume only 20 lbs during winter and other consume all but 4-5 lbs of their stores during the same season so honey consumption varies from hive to hive. Remember. a very warm winter doesn't help the bees if nature is dormant. If anything a warmer hive will be less dormant and consume more of their honey supply while waiting for nature to wake up. We always hope the bees will eat as little honey as possible because the leftover honey in spring is what we extract for our client’s personal use.
If we’re maintaining and managing your hive(s) for you, starting around June we get very anal about weighing the honey in your hive monthly. Not only do we want to know exactly how much honey your bees have created but, when the honey supply starts to decrease, this is our big indicator that your local nectar flow has ended and your bees are consuming more honey than they are creating. Depending on how many pounds of honey is in your hive this is when we’ll start adding feed to feeders and be asking you to do the same. One thing we can promise you is that, if we’re asking/begging you to feed your bees, it is because we firmly believe they won’t survive with only us adding a gallon of feed every 3-4 weeks when we visit. The absolute last thing you want to find in spring is a dead hive with zero honey in it because this is something you could have prevented. Just like dogs, cats, and children, bees are a responsibility and require feeding to live.
If you’ve purchased your hive from us just this year or your hive didn’t survive the previous winter, most likely you’ll need to feed your hive starting in summer. When we deliver colonies to clients it is usually during April or May and your hive isn’t place long enough to take full advantage of your area’s pollen and nectar flow from day one in spring. This puts it at a disadvantage and makes supplemental feeding necessary. If your hive has been in place for a year and has survived the winter, it will usually have a larger population and be able to be out foraging during every warm day after the trees start to pollinate in mid-February. Only after a mature hive has been in place for a complete nectar flow season can we determine just how good a particular environment is for bees. We are finding out that more and more second year hives with our own hybrid bees are able to create enough honey through nature to be able to survive the entire year without supplemental feeding.
We feed our bees a simple mixture of sugar and water. During the warmer months we use a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water and when the season cools down we go over to a 2:1 mixture of sugar to water. To make the feed, heat the water over a stove to the point that the sugar will dissolve completely making a syrup. We usually recommend our clients purchase a couple 25 lb bags of sugar and mix up 4-5 gallons of water in a big pot to the full bag of sugar and then store the resulting syrup in empty gallon jugs so it’ll be on hand when needed.
Generally there are two ways to feed bees. Internally and externally. With every Langstroth hive we sell, we include a screened, dual chamber feeder right beneath the top cover. It is a simple matter to lift the top cover up a few inches and slide it back a bit, and then pour the feed into the chambers. Because our feeders are screened, bees won’t be flying in your face when you open the cover. After you’ve done it a few times, your bees will be used to you lifting the cover and will know that food comes to them when you do.
External feeders are both simple and lots of fun! An external, or gang, feeder can be something as simple as a plastic dish, upside down Frisbees, or pottery plant bottom with some pebbles, rocks, mulch, or pine needles in the bottom to act as floats (so the bees don’t drown) filled with the same sugar syrup placed around your yard. I like the Frisbees because they are usually acquired for free at street fairs and are in bright colors that the bees equate to being flowers. Bees are VERY docile when feeding so feel free to place these on tables or porch rails right close to where you sit so you can watch them feeding. We HIGHLY recommend doing this because it really brings you as close to your bees as you're ever going to get. I have a LOT of hives in my yard. I have four feeders on my porch and love sitting there with literally thousands of bees flying around me. When they empty a feeder, they'll all fly around insistently like spoiled children. Once I refill them, within ten seconds, they fly right back to the feeders.
We have noticed that, during the summer when bees expect to get their food from nature that they take feed faster from external feeders than their own internal ones. We believe that this is because the bees attach a sense of urgency to the external feeders and want to drain them quickly before bees from some other hive do while they sense that feed in their own internal feeder in safe and can be drained at their leisure. Clients with multiple hives will attest to how quickly external feeders can be drained when bees are forced to compete! The record in my yard is 2 gallons of feed drained dry from one large gang feeder in just 42 minutes!
Another advantage of an external feeder is that it is something that can be used in the days after rainstorms when you know there is no pollen and nectar flow. If the bees ignore what’s in the feeder this is an indicator that nature is providing enough as the bees will usually always opt for natural sources before resorting to plain sugar water.
The one thing to take away from this page is that bees will not survive without our help. There wouldn’t be a honeybee crisis if fixing it was as simple as just creating a hive.
And, with climate change and increasingly unreliable pollen and nectar flows, supporting our bees becomes that much more important.