Wednesday 8 June 2011

Feeding your bees in an emergency

[Copy of a message sent to all YABeeP members - 8 June 2011]
You will probably be aware that I am generally anti feeding sugar syrup to bees; in my clear view there are some very valid reasons why they should not be fed, especially by 'natural' beekeepers. In particular I disagree with feeding a new swarm as the bees have prepared to leave, chosen the right moment for them to do so, and bring their own start-up stores with them in the form of consumed honey from the mother hive's stores. I also take the view that in the wild individual bees, swarms and even whole colonies often die out quite naturally – it's all part of the post-Darwin 'survival of the fittest' argument. I especially don't agree that we should be supporting poor genes by artificially keeping weak colonies alive . As a natural beekeeper we should be prepared to suffer losses and not feel guilty about it.

However, not everyone in the natural beekeeping arena agrees with me and there are many who will particularly feed in what they see as times of 'emergencies'. For more information on this you may want to check you books or the internet for guidance.

The purpose of this email is to alert those of you who are in the 'emergency feed' camp that we are now in what is generally agreed by all to be a period of emergency. This has been caused by the abnormal spring drought which has cut short and in some cases completely stopped the nectar flow – we seemed to have entered the dearth period really early. I am getting reports that in some cases nectar rich trees like Lime and Sycamore have flowered for just a few days rather than a few weeks as usual! For about the last month bees in this area seemed to have ceased comb building and in many cases the queens have slowed down or even stopped laying. I have also had reports of 2 new colonies started from swarms in the last month dying, in all probability from starvation.

Let me be clear that I am NOT advocating that you should feed your bees. It is a personal decision you need to take for yourself. However, I don't want people to feel that their bees have died 'just because Robin said we shouldn't feed them'.

Established colonies - year 2 onwards
Those with established hives should have no problem whatsoever so no action should be needed, provided that you haven’t recently excessively harvested honey. Natural beekeepers should err on the safe side of harvesting – emergencies like these is a good example of why!

The best place to check your bees is at the hive entrance – you should be constantly observing your bees for continued 'normal' behaviour and be on the watch out for differences – e.g. excessive removal of adult carcases or culled brood, build up of bodies on the hive floor, etc.

If you actively manage horizontal hives you may want to check that your bees have sufficient stores.

Warré keepers should also be OK as the harvest on a Warré is done in late summer (for good reason!) so again their bees should have sufficient stores to cover them. However, if you are an 'emergency feed' interventionist Warréor then again you can check using your windows if you have them or by peeping up under the boxes.

New colonies at risk
Those most at risk are new colonies started this year, especially those started from swarms. The fantastic weather and healthy early nectar flow caused an massive build up of numbers resulting in many swarms. Although healthy at the outset the recent drought and switching off of the nectar tap has meant that these swarmed colonies have simply not had the resources to make comb and build up stores and brood in sufficient numbers. Lack of nectar has meant that the little comb they did manage to build was probably used for brood leaving no larder to fill and therefore no resources to fall back on. This is why swarms appear to be dying or at the very least suffering.

In terms of bee numbers overall this will have little impact – more swarms will die now but later in the season or next year the numbers will increase form the healthy mother stock and bees will continue to survive. In nature some years are bad and some good – taken over a few years numbers generally remain the same. On the other hand those of you with new colonies may take a more interventionist view “I don't want MY bees to die!”. Although less 'natural' this view is understandable.

What can I do?
The choice of whether to 'go with nature' or intervene is a personal one. You must follow your own conscience. If you do decide to feed then you need to take action now and feed either honey or sugar syrup. There are many arguments as to which is best, but I am going to presume that those with new colonies do not have access to their own honey (do NOT use shop bought honey under any circumstances!) so syrup is the only option.

For a summer feed use 1 part refined white cane sugar to 1 part water – 1Kg to 1Ltr mixed. Do not use brown or alternative sugars as they have impurities that can harm the bees. Cane as opposed to beet sugar, it will say on the packet, is generally less likely to have been grown with systemic pesticides. Gareth John also suggests the addition of a drop of organic rose or geranium oil to give it a scent. He also adds Vitamin C to his mix to ease digestion.

How do I administer?
Feeding must take place inside the hive as you don't want to attract bees from other hives who may spread disease or start robbing your weakened colony.
Warré sump feeder
(ignore Varroa screen)

Those who built Warré hives at our workshop this year were 'influenced' to build a sump floor. It was suggested that the rear side of this sump floor was screwed but not glued. If you did this then you can simply unscrew the rear section and remove it to fit a feeder tray then replace the back. A simple tray such as a plastic takeaway carton can be used but you need to float something on the surface to prevent the bees from drowning in it!

Home made follower feeder
 for horizontal hive
Those with horizontal hives can either slip a narrow tray on the floor of the hive inside the follower boards or build a feed station into the follower board itself or even build a follower board adapted as a feeder.

Further information
Please use your books (you should have some if you have bees!) and the internet for additional information – remember, Google is your friend. The topic of feeding bees is always a hot one on natural beekeeping forums like and though if you use fora like these please be aware of posts from North American beekeepers who, in a very different environment from us, seem to feed as if it were natural.

The Future
Hopefully the recent rain will keep up and the situation will change, though at the time of writing we have only experienced showers – certainly nowhere near what is required for the flora.

© Robin Morris – YABeeP - 8th June 2011