To feed or not to feed? That is the question I often hear from my beekeeping students, especially as we move into winter. Read on to find out what you need to know about feeding your bees and whether or not it’s safe to do so.
It’s common practice for beekeepers to feed their bees dry sugar, sugar water, pollen patties and or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Why do they do this? There could be several reasons: 1) Their bees are starving due to lack of forage or workforce 2) They want to give their bees an artificial boost prior to spring 3) They took all the bees’ honey and intend to replace it by feeding. I will start off by saying that I believe the only reason a beekeeper should ever feed is reason 1). So you understand why, let me go into some more detail about how a colony’s natural foods compare to these substitutes and why they may cause problems in your hive.
Bees feed on nectar (when ripened it becomes honey) and pollen. Nectar/Honey is their carbohydrate. It gives them energy to fly to and from, build and warm their hives. Pollen is a protein source and is tied to brood production. So, you can think it this way honey=energy, pollen=babies. Nectar and pollen are collected from a variety of flowers and each source may vary in quality and quantity which is why you see bees tend to have a preference for certain flowers over others. If you are beekeeper you may notice that even among bee-friendly flowers that contain a superior quality and quantity of nectar or pollen, individual colonies will have preferences. That’s because aside from sugar and water, nectar also contains a small percentage of other ingredients such as amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, organic acids, alkaloids, phenolics, glycosides, terpenoids, metal ions, and other volatile oils. These other components can vary greatly based on the type of floral source and scientists have found that certain nectar ingredients can help ward off parasites and boost the bees’ immune system. In fact, bees may seek out certain nectar sources that contain anti-parasitic properties only when they are infected with parasites and not at other times when they are healthy. Pollen also has a wide variety of chemicals that seem to have similar links to bee health. One study found that p-courmaric acid (which is found in pollen) helped bees to regulate their immune and detoxification systems. We still don’t understand all of the components of nectar or pollen and how bees might use it, but I think it’s safe to say that the bees do.
Natural Nutrition & Bee Lifespan
With all the above information, it’s obvious that replacing a colony’s buffet of natural food sources with a homogenous man-made one is not as simple as we once thought and may even do more harm than good. Reinforcing that notion is a study that concluded, “bees receive nutritional components from honey that are not provided by alternative food sources widely used in apiculture.” Some of those components are linked to immunity and detoxification so, my opinion is that denying bees these natural elements could put them at higher risk from both pesticides and pathogens thereby shortening their lifespans and ultimately weakening the colony. A series of studies have found that bees on a polyfloral pollen diet lived longer than those on a single species pollen diet. Another study found that caged bees lived nearly twice as long when fed honey vs. acid-inverted sugar water. Some natural beekeepers try to make up for the lack of these natural components in their feed by adding more ingredients to their recipes. Such as, Chamomile, your own honey, sea salt, essential oils and other herbs.
Aside from the lack of these crucial ingredients feeding may harm bees in other ways. Consider the possibility that your sugar (or water source for that matter) may be contaminated with pesticides or other harmful chemicals. Sugarcane and sugarbeet are routinely treated with pesticides and the potential for refined sugars to have residue is certainly there. As beekeepers we can’t control where bees go to forage and I assume all my hives are exposed to pesticides one way or another, but I’d rather not add to that probability. Some believe they can avoid this problem by feeding organic, just make sure you select an organic sugar that has been refined. Bees cannot digest raw sugar well and it should not be fed to them.
Another concern is pH levels. A beehive is not just a sterile box with only bees in it. There’s a whole community of microorganisms (yeast, bacteria, fungi) living together in balance with the bees. Some of these microbes are harmful, some beneficial and some are benign. This is true of both the colony as a superorganism and the body of individual bees (think microbial gut diversity). Now, what microorganisms can thrive and survive depends largely on the pH levels. For reference the pH of honey is 3.2 – 4.5, while the pH of sugar water is 6.0. Michael Bush (the patron saint of natural beekeeping) has stated that many honey bee maladies such as Nosema, Chalkbrood, EFB, and Varroa all thrive and reproduce better at pH levels closer to that of sugar water and this study cited that, “bees are thought to protect food stores and inhibit pathogenic microbes by lowering pH levels”. So, there seems to be some connection between colony health and a low pH and there is a discrepancy between the pH level of the bees’ natural food and the man-made version. In response to this, some beekeepers will lower the pH of their sugar water mixture. You can so do by adding either vitamin C (powdered), lemon juice or cream of tartar. PH test strips or a meter are helpful here to get the PH correct, you want it to be around 4.5. **I will point out here that the study I mentioned previously found that bees have the shortest lifespan when fed this type of acid-inverted sugar water.
Feeding can cause more than just health problems within the hive. It can also draw pests, such as ants and wasps. Honey bees are tidy creatures. They keep their honey neatly stored and protected from predators. When beekeepers begin feeding, they expose tempting amounts of sweet syrup to not just their bees, but any other creatures in the area. Another consequence of feeding is an increased chance of robbing for the same reasons above. ‘Robbing’ is when one bee colony attacks another in order to steal their honey or in this case sugar syrup. Yet another problem associated with feeding is an increase in swarming behavior. Beekeepers who feed their bees too much or too quickly may give the bees an artificially inflated sense of how much nectar is available and this could provoke the bees to swarm. (Swarming is when a colony divides in two, half breaking off with the queen to start a new home somewhere else taking honey with them, the rest staying behind and making a new queen to continue their work). Using an entrance reducer during feeding will help protect your bees from pests and robbing, you should also take care to not overfeed. Bees should only be fed enough to keep them from starving. If you start seeing large amount of capped sugar water (you’ll know because it’s nearly clear in color), continue the frequency of feeding but reduce the volume.
In contrast to the status quo, I’ve stated my case for why feeding should be done only in emergency circumstances where you might otherwise lose your colony. These scenarios may include a weakened colony, a colony with low food stores or a new colony that needs help getting established. With new colonies, I often let them sit for two weeks, checking weekly to see if they can survive without supplemental feeding. They way I determine whether bees need to be fed is based on whether I see them festooning (building new comb) and whether or not I see any honey/pollen stores. If the bees are actively building new comb, then they are bringing in enough food to fuel this activity and probably do not need to be fed. However, you should continue to monitor them to make sure they are continuing to grow and/or have honey/pollen in their combs. If at any point they stop building new comb and you don’t see honey/pollen stores, then you may need to feed until the colony is stronger. Some beekeepers evaluate the level of honey in a hive by tipping their hives to feel the weight. A colony that is healthy and rich in honey will be heavy.
For those who wish to know more about how and when and what to feed despite what you have read above, here’s an article that goes in more basics about feeding, although it does not mention many of the concerns discussed in this blog. Here, too, is a link to an Herbal Sugar Syrup Recipe that takes into account some of the issues discussed above.