In an ideal world, honeybee colonies are immortal superorganisms that can adapt to whatever mother nature brings their way. But in the real world of the early 21st century, honeybee colonies are weakened, often die within a year and are overwhelmed in their ability to adapt to chemical and EMR pollution, disease, seasonal fluctuations of weather and unreliable food resources. So, while it would be nice to be able to say there is no need to ever feed your bees, the truth is, their survival sometimes depends on supplemental nourishment.
Still, some beekeepers never feed their bees— they allow their weaker colonies to die, and this certainly has it’s justification. Each person must make up their own mind about supplemental feeding of honeybees according to their values and sensibilities. If you choose to feed your bees however, here are some guidelines and recipes to minimize the negative effects.
When to Feed.
The simple answer is to only feed bees when they absolutely need it. The trick is to know when that is. At the time of hiving a new package, nuc or swarm, supplemental nourishment will support them in the massive effort of getting established. In an established colony, feeding may be helpful during extended bad weather or nectar dearths. Tipping the hive on a regular basis to check for weight is a good way to stay in tune with the amount of stores inside the colony. A very light hive might benefit from temporary feeding if there is no nectar flow.
How much to Feed.
This question has an easy answer too, but is also difficult to put into practice. The answer is to feed just enough to keep them from starving, but not enough for them to store the supplemental feed in large quantities. The challenge is in figuring out how much is enough. If you give a new package as much sugar syrup as they want, they might easily take a quart a day for 4-5 days before slowing. But, if you open the hive a couple of weeks later, you will find a considerable store of the syrup in capped cells put away for later use. So they didn’t actually need all of that in the short term, and the extra syrup will contaminate the future honey harvest.
What to feed.
This is a more complicated answer. Ideally, you can feed your new packages with your own honey. Honey from any outside source may contain disease spores, and even conventional wisdom dictates it’s just not worth the risk. The other factor is cost, feeding bees honey is expensive, unless you have your own surplus.
The next best thing is a PH adjusted, organic, herbal sugar syrup with essential oils. The herbs make it easier for the bees to assimilate the sugar, the essential oils are medicinal and palatable, and reducing the PH to that of honey makes it much easier for bees to tolerate without getting sick. Making such a concoction requires a time commitment, but in the long run, a healthy colony is worth it. Below is a recipe for an organic herbal syrup.
You can also just feed them simple sugar water, in a 1:1 ratio, but this is hard on their system. Finally, some people, and most commercial operations, actually feed their bees high fructose corn syrup. This is a worst-case scenario and is not within the scope of natural beekeeping practices.
Recipe for Herbal Sugar Syrup
* Spring Water or filtered water if possible (not distilled however)
* Organic Sugar – use only the lightest sugar, even white sugar is OK. Dark sugars contain too many minerals and can make the bees sick.
* Organic Chamomile – loose or in tea bags. Brew as in a light tea, steep one bag per quart for just a minute or so. Chamomile is a unique herb that is particularly suited for bee syrup. According to Rudolf Steiner, chamomile moves the sugar toward honey a bit, making it easier on the bees’ digestive system.
* Your own honey – a small amount of honey is helpful to provide enzymes to the syrup. Syrup must be cooled before adding honey, otherwise the heat will denature the enzymes. If you don’t have your own honey (from your bees) or honey from a trusted friend, skip it. The introduction of disease spores into the syrup is not worth it.
* Sea Salt – a pinch of salt is important to facilitate the distribution of the nutrition throughout the bee’s small body.
* PH adjuster – use either vitamin C (powdered), lemon juice or cream of tartar, enough to bring PH down to 4.5 or so. PH test strips or a meter are helpful here to get the PH correct. This is a very important step, since honey is considerably more acidic than sugar, the bees have to work hard to digest the higher PH of sugar, bringing the PH down beforehand is greatly beneficial to the bees. I have found that 2-3 tsps. of lemon juice per quart is about right.
Other organic herbs – Kitchen or medicinal herbs like thyme, rosemary, cilantro, nettles, comfrey, lavender, lemon balm. Keep the herbal tea light, and use you own sensibilities about herbs.
Essential Oils— these can be added for either flavor or medicinal actions. The essential oil of thyme, eucalyptus, oregano, lemon balm, tea tree are all good, but especially thyme and eucalyptus for medicating for mites or dysentery. To promote the dispersion of the oil, you can first mix the drops of oil (2 drops or so per batch of syrup) with 1 tblsp. lecithin or vegetable glycerin before adding it to the syrup.
The proportions of sugar : water depend on the purpose of feeding.
Fall Feeding or during nectar dearth – 2:1 –(2 parts sugar to 1 part water)
Spring feeding or to administer medication – 1:1 – (1 part sugar to 1 part water)
Syrup Recipe (Using spring feeding proportions, adjust accordingly otherwise)
1 part sugar (use an amount appropriate to you needs)
1 part water
- organic chamomile flowers or chamomile tea bags – enough for a light tea. (+ other herbs if you are using them)
- spoonful of your own or a trusted friend’s honey
- pinch of sea salt
- essential oils if you are using them
- PH adjuster: an acidifying agent from the list above to bring the PH to 4.5.
Bring water to a rolling boil then remove from the heat. Add chamomile + any other herbs you are using, let steep for 2 minutes. Remove tea (strain if needed) and add sugar, stirring until fully dissolved. Add salt. Mix thoroughly. Let cool to just luke warm, add honey. (see note below on heating honey) Add essential oils, then adjust for PH at the end.
Heating Honey – Heating honey leads to drastic changes in its chemical composition. Heating up to 99°F causes loss of nearly 200 components, parts of which are antibacterial. Heating up to 104°F destroys invertase, an important enzyme. Heating up to 122°F turns the honey into caramel (the most valuable honey sugars become analogous to sugar). Essentially, heating honey destroys its value both as bee nutrition and medicament.
Storage and Temperature of Syrup
Syrup can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator, but bring it to room temperature before giving to the bees. Syrup will ferment if left out too long, especially in warmer temperatures. Fermented syrup can kill a bee colony so error on the side of caution and check the syrup often if you are leaving it with the bees and they are not taking it.