February 2003


Feeding Bees: What, When, Why & HOW

Often there is a hue and cry by many that say “Let the bees be natural as they do things in nature.” If you follow that line of reasoning, you lose a lot of bees and don’t produce much honey. You are not aware of the fact that only about 10% of all feral bee swarms (same as a package of bees) survive for 12 months? Most die because of lack of bee population due to lack of food in the summer, and starving to death in the winter. Hence, I WANT you to thoroughly understand all the good things and the bad things about feeding of bees, and I am sure some things will greatly 4 surprise you; e.g., one of the BAD things about the Italian race of bees is they are fierce “robbers” and you have to be very careful when feeding Italian bees. Hoping that my surprise example has interested you, let’s learn all we can about feeding.

As cheap as regular table sugar is in the grocery store, about 3¢/pound, many people try to feed something else like honey, corn syrup, coke syrup, or candy and quite often wind up with sick bees, diseased bees, or dead bees. After all, what we call table sugar, which is the disaccharide chemical named sucrose, is the exact sugar that is in natural NECTAR. The honey bee gathers this nectar, takes it home to the hive, injects it with the enzyme INVERTASE which chemically divides the sucrose into two simple, mono-saccharides, fructose and glucose, and it is these two simple sugars plus minute amounts of other products that make what we call HONEY. Obviously then, the best feed is sucrose, table sugar, because it won’t make the bees sick, give them any disease, or kill them. Another surprise: Honey is NOT the favorite food of honey bee! Honey is just a method of winter storage of nectar; and NECTAR is the favorite food of the bee. I want to impress upon you here that nectar is very THIN and WATERY; in fact it can be as high as 80% water and only 20% sucrose whereas honey is only about 16%-18% water. Hence, when you feed bees, it depends upon just what you want to accomplish that determines the thickness of the sugar syrup used. If your bees are short of winter stores like honey, you feed them HEAVY syrup which is a 2:1 ratio, 2 pounds of sugar dissolved in 1 pound of water, or 16 pounds of sugar dissolved in 1 gallon of water. Note: a pint of water weighs 1 pound, and there are 8 pints to a gallon. Bees will NOT build comb unless there is a nectar flow present, nor will a queen lay eggs unless there is a nectar flow present (and far too many beeHAVERS just don’t seem to understand these two facts). Hence, using table sugar, you “trick” the bees by making an ARTIFICIAL nectar of 1:1 ratio or 1:2 ratio, which are 1 pound of sugar dissolved in 1 pint of water, or 1 pound of sugar dissolved in 2 pints of water. I use 1:2 very thin syrup in February and March as a stimulative feed to get the queen laying. Since building comb requires so much energy from the bees, I prefer to use a little stronger syrup, like 1:1, to get the bees to draw foundation into drawn comb How about another surprise? It is WELL KNOWN, and scientifically PROVEN, that bees winter BETTER on heavy 2:1 sugar syrup than they do on honey, because honey sometimes causes diarrhea whereas sugar never causes diarrhea. In summation, plain table sugar is the best feed for honey bees, and you vary the concentration of the sugar depending on what you are trying to HELP the bees to do.

It is amazing to me that a lot of people just don’t seem to understand the REASONS for feeding bees. It is quite simple. You feed bees to HELP them progress because “nature” was not cooperating very well by NOT yielding much nectar, or too much rain, or too much drought, or too hot, or too cold, or anything that impedes the bees from building up their population, getting foundation drawn into drawn comb, or providing adequate winter stores. FEEDING is your HELP for your bees! One area that most new beeHAVERS badly fail is the start-up of a new colony on all new foundation. Remember that bees will NOT build comb unless there is a nectar flow! The MUST HAVE A REASON to build comb, and there are basically only two reasons: to make cells for brood rearing or cells to store food like nectar, honey, or pollen. Here in Maryland, while you may see many flowers blooming in July and August, there is basically NO nectar flow, so the bees just sort of sit around the hive doing nothing. Since no nectar is being collected, the queen dramatically reduces her egg laying, and hence no new comb is needed for brood rearing or to store nectar, and the bees do NOT build comb on the foundation. The “cure” for this is to FEED light 1:1 sugar syrup from the day you hive the bees, probably in April or May, CONTINUOUSLY without stopping until about September. By then, you will have a good population of bees to go into winter quarters, all 20 of your deep brood frames of foundation DRAWN (or 30 medium frames), and perhaps 20 of your super frames drawn and filled with honey made from the sugar. (Yes, the bees make honey from the sugar syrup just as if it were nectar.) NOW, your colony is well populated with worker bees, and the DRAWN COMB “furniture is all in place” ready for the big yield of nectar that is due to arrive next April and May!

Feeding is a morale booster for a colony, gets bees ACTIVELY doing “things”, calms them, and, of course, improves their overall health. Aren’t you more happy with a full tummy than suffering hunger pangs? Hence, you should ALWAYS feed bees when you requeen, and certainly when you make a new split. Lastly, and considered “most” important by some folks (but I don’t) is the case of feeding to rectify a shortage of winter stores. Here, you are simply “pushing feed” (heavy 2:1 sugar syrup) into the hive, and the workers have to select a site in the colony to STORE it for winter use. This is a totally different concept than feeding light 1:1 or 1:2 sugar syrup, which is designed to promote the queen to lay brood, promote the worker bees to build comb or draw foundation, provide instant food to be fed to worker larvae, and lift the morale of a colony; and, in my opinion, these uses of light sugar syrup are far more important than feeding heavy syrup for winter feed. Feeding of bees is a necessary and important activity for a beekeeper to properly manage his bees, so a conscientious beekeeper should thoroughly understand all the differences of feeding.

Speaking of differences, I will “attempt” to explain how to feed the correct volume or correct delivery rate of the feed, which is EXTREMELY important and often done in-correctly resulting in trouble. Feeding of heavy sugar syrup winter feed is not much of a problem, because you can feed it just as fast as the bees can store, or just as fast as , does run out on to the floor of the hive. Entirely different is the feeding of light sugar syrup 1:1 or 1:2 ratio. Imagine if you can the start of the first nectar flow in the late winter or very early spring. There is only a meager amount of nectar available at the beginning, the flow lasts for just a few hours, and its sugar content is low. THAT is exactly the “tease” that you want to give the bees to promote brood rearing and lift colony morale. You want to “make the bees work hard” to get some of this light sugar syrup, so you never use a hive top feeder or a division board feeder, or “baggies” with large cuts in them; but use a gallon jar inverted over the inner cover hole that has only 3-5 tiny holes in the cap. These holes should not be any larger than 3/32″. You don’t I want to “drown” the bees with sugar syrup, but delicately feed them!

Lastly, what equipment is best for feeding bees, and what is wrong with some types of feeders? First and VERY IMPORTANT: Bees began to form together in a CLUSTER when the temperature goes below 50°, and the cluster becomes very tight as the outside temperature goes down to 32° or below In spite of what you think or might have heard, bees that are extremely hungry will NOT break the cluster and travel even 2 inches away from cluster warmth to get food. Hence, they DIE! Therefore, in cold weather the sugar syrup has to be just about touching the cluster before the bees can take any of it. Every beekeeper should thoroughly understand this!

Basically there are five different feeding systems known and I will give my opinion of all of them:

  1. Entrance Feeder (Boardman Feeder): Throw it away! It invites robbing, and bees cannot get to it when it is chilly, much less COLD.
  2. Division Board Feeder: I refuse to use them’ because they drown a lot of bees, they occupy the space of a good brood frame, and mainly, the hive has to be opened to the weather to refill or to inspect. Further, the bees can NOT get to it if it is real cold.
  3. Hive Top Feeder: A fine feeder in WARM weather, but bees can NOT get to it when weather is cold. This feeder is useful for feeding large amounts of HEAVY SYRUP for winter stores if the weather is still above 50° and bees can fly. However, I do not like it for feeding LIGHT SYRUP which is sometimes done in cold weather, and bees can drown in it in warm weather. It is popular with some beekeepers, but I don’t like it.
  4. Baggies: These are ziplock, sandwich bags filled with sugar syrup placed on the tops of brood frames with knife slits in them for bees to feed. Again, you have to open the hive in the cold to add more, and the possible breakage and flooding scares me.
  5. A gallon glass or metal jar with about 4 tiny frame nail holes punched through the lid inverted over the inner cover hole, and that enclosed by an empty deep body is my choice of feeding technique. If bees need a tremendous amount of feed in a hurry, remove the inner cover and invert 4 of these jars right on top of the frames. Unless you have too many holes in the lid or holes that are too large (any size exceeding 3/32″ is too large), there is little chance of any leakage, the holes are VERY close to the bees, the cluster heat warms the syrup, and the syrup is well protected from robbing. When these jars are inverted, a non-scientist might think the syrup would just run out of the holes by gravity. However, it does not because the vacuum created in the jar as some syrup is removed by the bees holds the syrup securely in the jar. This is exactly the reason that you can NOT use plastic jars such as milk containers, because plastic will collapse, releasing the vacuum, and the syrup will simply run into the hive. USE ONLY GLASS JARS OR METAL CANS for feeding. Where do you get them? Most deli’s buy gallon GLASS JARS of pickles, peppers, olives, pig’s feet, etc. and throw them away when empty. Give the deli owner a jar of your honey, and he will be happy to save the jars and lids for you.

Ending: My mentor back in the 1930’s, Dr. James I Hambleton, told me to always feed a little bit of pollen or pollen substitute, like Beltsville supplement or Bee-Pro, when you are feeding light syrup for the purpose of stimulating queen laying. I have always done that, but I had forgotten the reason for it. Recently, I talked with Lloyd Spear, the owner of Ross Rounds and a very well known and respected comb honey expert producer, and I discovered that he has an article in the February issue of Bee Culture that details why it is a fine idea to feed a pollen supplement or pollen when you are feeding a LIGHT syrup. It would be unfair to Lloyd for me to explain the reasons for feeding pollen or pollen supplement to bees when feeding them to stimulate queen laying, so look in his article in Bee Culture, which I have been reading for about 70 years.

Isn’t beeKEEPING wonderful! 2003 will be my 71st year in beekeeping, and I am still LEARNING. There is still SO MUCH that we just don’t know yet about honey bees, and its up to you younger people to scientifically investigate new ideas of bee management and disease treatments so that more and more hobbyists can get involved in the JOYS of BEEKEEPING!

George W. Imirie, Jr. Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

Three IMPORTANT February Dates

Wednesday, Feb. 12th – GET OFF YOUR LAZY BUTT, and come to the monthly meeting of MCBA, listen to another of our CERTIFIED MASTER BEEKEEPERS, David Morris, and LEARN!

Sunday, Feb. 16th – From 1:00 – 4:00 PM, MCBA will hold an “OPEN HOUSE” for ALL adults interested in becoming a beeKEEPER (not a beeHAVER). Headed by Master Beekeeper David Bernard and assisted by other Master Beekeepers, we will explain to attendees that they can no longer keep bees “like Daddy. kept bees”, and why they should attend our FREE, FREE, FREE, course of 5 Two Hour Tuesday night lectures and demonstrations plus TWO Three Hour Saturday Afternoon April HANDS ON work with bees in our MCBA apiary to LEARN!

Saturday, Feb. 22nd – The Maryland STATE Beekeepers meeting at Howard County Fair-grounds. I have not asked YET, but I intend to give a short talk about the use of formic acid for mite control + touch on the importance of GOOD queens, if my DISABLED voice can “work” that day. Regardless of my attendance or not, YOU SHOULD BE THERE, if you truly want to LEARN.

Magazine Compliments

There is a FIRST time for everything – “me” extending compliments to a magazine!

I have reading BEE CULTURE, formerly Gleanings in Bee Culture, for almost 70 years, and other trade organs as well, but not as long. Most of the articles were of interest to me, but not greatly instructive, or “made one THINK”. The JANUARY, 2003 of Bee Culture CHANGED my opinion, and I want to publicly compliment Editor Kim Flottom! Let me briefly explain what I found of GREAT interest, and it would surely help YOU too.

  1. Page 21: Sue Cobey and Her New World Carniolans, written by the expert Dr. Malcom Sanford. Why is Sue Cobey “famous”? Did her selection of the race carnica make Sue a well respected scientist, or did Sue make the Carniolan race highly acceptable to the American beekeeper? After you read the article, you will soon know that Sue could have done the exact same thing and with the same success if she had used Italians or any other race. Sue Cobey is not a queen “producer”, but she is a gifted, knowledgeable queen “breeder” who produces the breeder queens for her selected dealers who pay her in the realm of $500 for each queen. Although I switched to Carniolans back in 1948, before Sue was even born, one can understand why I think so highly of her when you read just what she has done in the interest of selected breeding to maintain the genetic qualities of a honey bee that most beekeepers secretively want. I want to thank Tom Sanford for writing this wonderful article. I also suggest you examine: https://iris.biosci.ohio-state.edu/honeybee/breeding
  2. Page 41: Research Symposium Wrap-Up I was supposed to be in attendance at this meeting, but the death of my wife during that very week negated my plans . I am so happy about Kim’s report on this meeting. Wow, the things that our scientists have found lately and mind boggling, and you have to read the whole article. However, I want to point out a phrase that is used over and over by almost all the scientists mentioned before you get to the very last line on page 43 beginning with: Dr. Marla Spivak That phrase is HYGIENIC BEHAVIOR, that “thing” that Marla has made important in very recent years; and something that EVERY beeKEEPER, with one colony or 100 colonies, could do himself, if he would get off his lazy butt and stop looking for another $5 chemical to put in his colonies. I hope you read every word of page 44 and re-read it. In many ways, Marla is blunt like I am with the hope that the bluntness makes a point. We have all heard of IPM (Integrated Pest Management), but Marla’s definition for IPM is TWOFOLD: Integrated Pet Peeve of Mine, and then becoming serious with Integrated Prevention Measures, which features the use of bees that have excellent HYGIENIC BEHAVIOR. READ WHAT OUR BEE SCIENTISTS AND BEE RESEARCHERS ARE DOING!
  3. Page 49: DO YOU KNOW? I have always thought highly of Dr. Clarence Collison’s monthly article, particularly if you have thoughts of becoming a MASTER BEEKEEPER. When you can talk intelligently to perspective buyer’s of your honey about “What is Honey”, “How do the bees make it?” “What are the chemical properties of Honey?”, you will not only SELL more honey, but you have gained respect as a beeKEEPER, and hopefully, you can HELP beginners to become better beeKEEPERS.
  4. Page 51: A Taste of Honey ask YOU. “What does chocolate tastes like?” As almost everyone knows, until I became disabled by strokes, Ann Harman and I were known as the BEE PARTNERS for 15 years. When you read this article about The Taste of Honey, you can understand my attraction to Ann. SHE MAKES YOU THINK! How do you describe the difference in taste between clover honey and tulip poplar honey? I hope I never meet that little green man from Mars that Ann mentions, because I might be speechless) CAN YOU IMAGINE GEORGE SPEECHLESS?

I am often asked “George, where can one learn all these things about honey bees that you know?” Well, surely this January 2003 edition of Bee Culture is a good place to start, because it is STRESSING the findings of honey bee scientists and research rather than the tales and hive pictures of the beekeepers PRIOR TO THE ARRIVAL OF MITES, SMALL HIVE BEETLE, AHB, RESISTANT AFB, and prior to the knowledge of the importance of PHEROMONES, HYGIENIC BEHAVIOR, SMR bees, and QUEEN BREEDING FOR SELECTED GENETIC QUALITIES. One learns by reading, listening, and attending meetings that feature beekeepers who have proven their knowledge rather than having some “good old boy” as your mentor.

I can’t end this note without straightening out a common error of many. The new RUSSIAN bees are NOT some new race of honey bees found in Russia. They are CARNIOLANS raised by a beekeeper named Primorski, just like Sue Cobey’s Carniolans could be referred to as the Cobey line rather than New World Carniolans. Both George Bush and Queen Elizabeth of England are members of the white caucasian race, Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Chiang Kai Chek of China were both members of the asian race, and Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall were both members of the negro race, and each race has certain, distinct, different genetics and qualities, those members of a same race have the same genetics, but their qualities may differ due to culture, climate, or training which establishes them as a LINE of a specific race. The RUSSIAN bee is a CARNIOLAN.

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