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Feeding Bees
During the warmer time of the year bees collect nectar and pollen when available, and what is not consumed during this time gets stored in their nest in honeycomb until all their storage space is filled up; extending their nest, if possible, by building new comb.

This food surplus could last them for a very long time if left undisturbed - and always gets replenished whenever the opportunity arises.

Bees use this surplus during times when there is not enough nectar and pollen to collect, i.e. during winter, on cold or wet days or during a drought and even during summer with normal weather conditions when there is insufficient nectar and pollen to collect.
Normally bees would rarely run out of food.

However, when beekeepers rob bees of their "surplus" honey before winter, the remaining storage might not last them through the winter. On the other hand, bee colonies that could not collect sufficient stores or started building up late in the season might be short of food stores when the season finishes and need the beekeeper to feed them.

Feral bee colonies with insufficient food stores at the end of season will not survive the winter and disappear quietly and unnoticed - nature is not always kind.

What we do, interacting with our bees can either help or work against them.

We can help our bees in need by feeding them before they run out of food.

Honey Stores for winter
During winter, as soon as temperatures are above 9°C bees are out and foraging, usually bringing home some pollen. Here in Victoria something is flowering at any time of the year, especially in suburbian backyards. Not much nectar is available though at low temperatures.

Bees are getting stressed when they are unable to replenish their food storage in their hive. Boosting up their winter stores by supplemental feeding can reduce the winter stress on bees (and on the beekeeper)!

Normally bees build up sufficent food storage during summer and would not run out of food. As a beekeeper please ensure that your bee colonies finish the season with sufficient honey and pollen stores for winter; help boosting up their winter stores if necessary.


A vicious circle
Being able to fly, the internal body temperature of a bee needs to be 35°C. A bee needs to prepare herself for flight by raising the body temperature. Honey serves as fuel to heat up the bee's body. When there is not enough honey in the hive, bees cannot prepare for flight and "have to stay home". Even when pollen and nectar is available in flight reach, the bees don't have the energy to get there - a vicious circle. In this situation:
Bees need to be fed sugar syrup before they run out of food, to provide the energy they need to fly out and search for food.

Whenever your bees run short of food, at any time, not only before winter, you need to feed your bees to prevent them from starving!

It is important that feeding occurs as long as the bees are active.

When it gets too cold the bees would not be able to process it.

Some time ago we witnessed a case where after the bees had completely run out of food stores by the beginning of winter, the beekeeper fed them a 0.5 litre ration of sugar syrup, thinking that this should be enough to last them through the winter. They also had no pollen stores, just completely empty comb cells. Unfortunately those bees starved to death.

Feeding "too much" sugar syrup does no harm to the bees, waiting until it gets too cold or not feeding enough lets the bees starve to death. Any excess food gets stored away in comb cells, kept until it is needed.


Why refusing to feed?
In some beekeepers' opinion feeding your bees is an indication of having failed as a beekeeper; some beekeepers do not feed their bees as a matter of principle. Consequently the bees in need don't get fed and starve, being counted as "winter loss".

Yes, a beekeeper has failed if having robbed the bees of the surplus honey and not ensured that sufficient honey is left in the hive to last them through winter; we all make mistakes, but why refusing to remedy the situation and not feed them?

No matter what the circumstances are or the reasons why a colony of bees is in need of feeding - as beekeepers we should help them. To simply let them starve is not a kind alternative!

We are by no means promoting to rob the bees of their honey and substitute it with sugar syrup.


When is it too cold to feed?
With declining temperatures bee activities reduce. In general, bees start leaving the hive for short foraging trips above 9°C. Below 9°C bees stop leaving the hive and stay home. The temperature of the brood nest is 34°C during winter and the bee population clusters around the brood nest to keep the brood warm. Hence, the inside temperature of the beehive is higher than the temperature outside.

With falling temperatures the cluster gets tighter and tighter and not a single bee would leave the cluster. Any attempts to feed the bees while they are in a tight cluster cannot be successful.

Most references made in beekeeping books or beekeeping courses about "too cold for feeding sugar syrup" originate from climate zones where temperatures drop well below 0°C in winter (USA or Europe). As new beekeepers we have been following these rules and stopped feeding sugar syrup when temperatures were "too cold". However, we then made the discovery that here in Victoria it is rarely ever "too cold" to feed sugar syrup.

When we adopted an unwanted beehive at the end of May it had run out of food stores; temperatures were lower than 13°C and feeding sugar grains or candy as the "emergency winter solution" was on the agenda. However, when you don't try you never find out, instead of candy we fed them two lots of three jars of 2.5 litres each, filled with sugar syrup. The first lot was processed after 10 days. For the second lot, with night temperatures as low as 3°C and day temperatures between 8°C and 12°C we did not expect the jars to be emptied within two weeks. When we checked after three weeks all jars were still 1/4 full and after four weeks finally empty, and the hive felt heavy enough to last through the winter.

Conclusion: Here in Victoria it is rarely ever "too cold" for feeding sugar syrup.

Although feeding at warmer temperatures is preferable, feeding at low temperatures in an emergency is better than letting them starve.

We always feed inside the hive on top of the hive mat, stacking on an empty super to cover the jars - this keeps the temperature of the sugar syrup the same as the internal hive temperature, i.e. not as cold as outside.

Note: Feeding bees outside the hive, i.e. in the open is not permitted.


Feeding Sugar Syrup
For a colony of bees sugar syrup serves as a substitute for honey and it is common practice for beekeepers to feed their bees with sugar syrup when they do not have sufficient stores of honey.

How do you know that they don't have enough food?
For a beehive to be prepared for winter (here in Victoria) at least 60% of all combs in the hive should be filled with honey. If not, sugar syrup can be fed as a substitute before it gets too cold. Opening a hive during the cold season and inspecting the frames for food is definitely not an option. Instead, simply lift the hive on one end for a weight check.
A single 8-frame hive should contain a total of 5 frames of honey; with an average of 2.38 kg per frame this totals to 12 kg of honey - just the honey!
As a rule of thumb a common wooden 8-frame hive should weigh approximately 24-30 kg as an indication of sufficient honey stores for winter.

How much to feed?
When before winter the box feels very light we typically feed 15 litres of sugar syrup in two or three sessions, using three or two 2.5-litre glass jars each time.
How much to feed also depends on the size and the subspecies and characteristics of the bee colony; Italian bees typically maintain a bigger population throughout winter and require more food stores. Caucasian and Carniolan bees shrink their colony to a very small size during winter and don't consume as much food stores as their Italian counterparts.

Sugar Syrup Recipe
The following recipe produces approximately 2.5 litres of sugar syrup:
  • Pour 1 litre of hot tap water into a pot or bucket.
  • Add 2 kg of white sugar (Do not use raw/brown sugar!)
  • Add ¼ tea spoon of citric acid (optional)
  • Stir until the sugar is dissolved (three to five minutes).
  • Let the syrup set until it clears (at least one hour), during this time
  • Stir multiple times until all sugar grains have dissolved.
  • Dissolve one multi vitamin tablet in a glass of water and add it to the syrup (optional)
  • Fill your feeding container(s) with the syrup.
  • Ensure that the syrup does not exceed room temperature when fed to the bees.

Notes:
Citric acid is added to the sugar solution to mimic honey which contains inverted sugars. Table sugar is pure sucrose, when heated and mixed with an organic acid (citrus, vinegar, or tartaric acid) it makes some of the sugar go through an inversion process (i.e. inverted sugar) which is easier for the bees to digest.
Adding multi vitamins to the syrup (on a trial basis) has shown very positive results, the bees were in better than usual condition after the winter break. Don't add the multi vitamin tablet to the syrup, it won't dissolve; let it dissolve in half a glass of cold water instead and stirr it into the syrup when dissolved.


Feeding method
There are various methods to feed bees with sugar syrup, some require purpose-built feeding containers. Available is a feeding container that replaces a frame while in use, but what to do with the frame of comb that needs to be taken out of the hive whilst feeding is in progress? It also needs to be returned once feeding is complete - well, if you took out an empty frame it remains empty when you return it to the hive. This method also requires unnecessary interruption of the hive, removing the hive mat and exchanging a frame.

A very simple method that does not require purpose-built equipment, nor does the hive mat to be removed, is by using a few jars (usually 2.5 litre jars) with a twist cap:
  • Punching 1-1.5 mm holes into the metal lid with a nail allows bees to suck out the syrup.
  • Place jars, filled with sugar syrup, upside down onto two pieces of timber onto the hive mat, leaving a gap between hive mat and jar lid for bees to access.
  • Cover feeding jars with an empty box and close the hive lid.
  • Come back for a refill after 2-5 days (takes more time when outside temperature is low)
  • Remove empty box and jars when feeding is completed.


Perforated Lid
Punching 1-1.5 mm holes into the metal lid with a nail allows bees to suck out the syrup.
Feeding jars
Place jars with sugar syrup upside down onto pieces of timber onto the hive mat, leaving a gap between hive mat and lid for bees to access.
Super to cover feeding jars
Cover feeding jars with an empty super and close the hive lid.

Feeding Protein Powder or Pollen Substitute
Whilst feeding sugar syrup has always been successful and without any issues, feeding pollen did not have the same success rate for us; our bees have probably not been desperate enough.

  • When depositing pollen grains onto the hive mat, in most cases the bees had picked them up and thrown them out of the hive entrance.

  • When using "Protein Patties", available at some beekeeping supply stores, in more than 90% of all cases the patties were just laying on the hive mat and after weeks growing mould - the bees did not touch them. In some rare cases the bees nibbled on them, but did not seem to like them all that much.

A powdery pollen substitute (protein powder), available in 10kg and 20kg bags (and larger) from some apiary supply stores, promises to make your bees strong & healthy - and there are video clips on the web showing how excited bees are getting when fed with this product. We have tried both products available on multiple occasions, a Canadian and an Australian product, and cannot claim our bees were getting somehow excited (unlike the bees shown on the video clips below)!

Placed on trays in the open (suggested feeding option) amongst the hives in the yard - within a week we saw only two or three bees hovering over the powder, having a taste and disappeared, never came back; we had to dispose the powder after a week.

Mixing the powder with sugar syrup (suggested feeding option) we placed some pattie (~200 grams) onto the hive mat; the acceptance was not that overwhelming. After 4-6 weeks some nibbles of the pattie had been taken up by the bees and stored in comb - anything between 10% and 40% had been used, the rest still laying on the hive mat;  we had to dispose it after three months.

Placing the powder under the lid (suggested feeding option) onto the hive mat inside the hive showed similar results as the pattie;  we had to dispose it after three months.

Conclusion:
It probably depends how desperate the bees are finding some pollen; if there is natural pollen to be found, the pollen substitute remains virtually untouched.

The fact that the bees actually store the protein powder in comb cells, rather than disposing it, is an indication that it works as the last resource and can be used in extreme emergency cases.

The supplier's instructions say "consumption rate 200g per week". Our bees barely consumed 50g over two months! They must have been on a diet.

Let's assume that feeding the substitute when the bees have absolutely no pollen stores gives them the proteins they need to roam further and collect more pollen and nectar. It kick-starts their foraging activities when they are running low on energy.

What remains a puzzle for us is the excitement of the bees fed with the protein powder outside in the open as shown in the video clips on the web (clips below). Our bees probably had bigger fish to fry.


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