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There are times in the year when the feeding of bees can be beneficial or essential.
In the Autumn after the honey crop has been taken off it is necessary to give sufficient food to see the bees through the winter and into the spring when nectar will be available again.
In early Spring when the bees have come through the winter but have minimal stores, not to feed them would cause a check on their expansion or even result in the starvation of the colony. Remember, hives that starve rarely do so in the winter but in the early spring. Spring feeding results in more bees and if you feed unnecessarily at this time of year you may encourage the tendency to swarm in May. Check in early March by lifting the hive at the rear, if it feels light they may be in trouble and need feeding or a more detailed inspection.
Freshly hived swarms need feeding to stimulate wax production and replenish the bees who have been living off what they could carry during the swarming process. If not fed they may decide to leave or take time to establish themselves.
In June, after the spring flowers and before the summer yields, we have in the UK what is referred to as the June gap. This is a period when colonies can starve either because of the lack of nectar and/or because swarming has reduced the stores and the number of flying bees to critical levels.Queen rearing and other manipulations require feeding but are beyond the scope of this article.
Bees are fed a substitute for nectar which is made by mixing white sugar with hot water and stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. For autumn feeding mix one kilo of sugar with half a litre of water (2lbs:1Pint). For spring and summer feeding mix one kilo of sugar with one litre of water (1lb:1 Pint). If winter feeds have too high a water content the bees may not have time to dehydrate it enough to prevent fermentation before winter sets in. If you have to feed in the winter months, i.e. Jan/Feb, it would be best to feed baker's fondant ( the soft icing on cakes) as this won't ferment and the bees can eat it straight away.
Never use unrefined or brown sugar as this causes dysentery in the bees. There is no evidence that refined beet sugar is any better or worse than refined cane sugar. Sugar syrup has no smell to the bees and it helps to add a little honey to make it more attractive and give it an aroma. Honey mixed with a little water can also be fed but be careful the honey you use is from a known and trusted source or you could infect your bees with foul brood or nosema spoors.
The syrup is given to the bees in containers placed above the brood box from which the bees can help themselves. Access to the syrup is restricted to prevent the bees from falling in and drowning. Never put an open container of syrup in a hive or you will lose hundreds of bees. Most beekeepers use purpose made containers made of plastic and holding approximately one litre (2Pints) of syrup. Ensure bees cannot enter the hive under the roof or you will invite robbing.
Put feeders on in the evening when the bees have, or will soon, stop flying. This allows the initial excitement of the bees to subside over night and reduces the risk of robbing. Reduce the entrance to allow the bees a better chance of fending off robbers. Also, be careful not to spill syrup around the outside of the hive.
As mentioned before pure sugar syrup has no smell and it is possible that bees will ignore or not even be aware of food just above their heads. To avoid this problem either dribble a little syrup into the brood to provide a trail to the feed or add honey or do both!
Suggested further reading:
STARTING WITH BEES - P. GORDON
PRACTICLE BEEKEEPING - CLIVE DE BRUYN
If you have any questions you could e-mail me David Bates at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll try to reply promptly.