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To feed or not to feed…

If they have enough honey you don’t have to feed. We tell new beekeepers to feed because they need to build comb and often their colonies have not stored enough to weather the dearth period, and ultimately the coming winter. Remember, your bees may eat up a lot of what they have stored during our long Midlands dearth period. Fall nectar flow is often minimal in the Midlands and not to be relied on. If your hive has already built out enough comb and filled it with stores then the decision is yours.

As with most things in beekeeping, try to look forward at least a couple months. If your bees have plenty right now then they won’t starve over dearth but keep a close eye on their stores as dearth progresses. You may find they have eaten up much of what they have stored by late summer. That’s fine and you’ll still have time to feed if necessary before cold weather. However, ignoring them and waiting until the winter is imminent will not give them time to ripen (reduce moisture) syrup given too late in the season so plan accordingly and always look forward a couple months.

Other factors: If you have a weak hive sitting in close proximity to strong hives they may be robbed by weaker hives. The past few years I have used open feeding at a distance from the hives to give the bees something to gather. The stronger hives seem to dominate the open feeders and I get the impression I’m paying off the stronger hives to prevent them from robbing the weaker. Oh, well.

We had a commercial beekeeper speak at a meeting a few years ago that said he open feeds with buckets but severely limits the amount of feed available by limiting the number of holes on the bottom of the feeder to just a few. The bees know feed is there and work the feeder but it takes a while to drain the feeder. I’ve tried doing this but at some point the limited access creates rather brutal fighting for the syrup. It’s an unpleasant sight.

Fat Bee Man feeds on the hive but limits the number of holes in the lid. He uses a staple gun to punch two small holes in the lid. That, he says, provides them with enough feed to maintain the hive without causing excessive storage of feed or overstimulating brood rearing.

How much is enough? I’ve asked this question to some of our more experienced beekeepers in our association. The reply I have heard most frequently for hive maintainance and to sustain the hive is a quart a week. Of course, it also depends on your goals for the hive. If you made a split then you’ll have to offer them as much as they want. The quart a week is more of a maintainance amount for a typical hive to sustain them over summer dearth.

I spoke with a member at last night’s meeting that has hives at quite a drive from his home. He’s going to try open feeding with a bucket after having a recent small disaster feeding on the hive. I can’t remember the whole situation. I think he may have been using boardman feeders and essential oil mix in the feed. He mentioned he thought that the essential oil might be a mistake when he used it but did so anyway. Yes, it caused robbing. There is, perhaps, a time for feed stimulation but during dearth, when food is scarce is not a time to tempt strong hives to rob weaker hives.

If you want to start feeding do so when they stop bringing in nectar or if they need food based on your assessment of their stores. You can tell if they are bringing in nectar by the way they fly, coming and going at the entrance, and if they are storing nectar in the hive. You can also tell by activity at the hive entrance when the nectar has played out for the day by lack of flying as the day progresses. Yet another test can be made by placing a quart jar with syrup at some distance from the hives (far enough so as to not cause a feeding frenzy around your hives). If the bees show strong interest in the test jar then they are obviously hungry because nectar is far more attractive than sugar syrup. Also, some people with an acute eye for such things can see fat bees returning home with payloads of nectar. Make your best judgement as to whether you need to feed, and how to feed, based on your individual situation.

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