Monday, March 12, 2012

Feeding Honey Bees

Late Winter/Early Spring:

It's 10 AM CDT and sunny, 60 F in the shade and lots of activity in all three hives within walking distance with a cup of coffee in my hand.  I'm off to the bee yards to feed sugar syrup and pollen patties. Let the bee season begin!

It may be counter-intuitive to feed bees something to eat in order to have them make honey for you to eat, but feeding is only done at specific times during the year and for very specific reasons.

There is often a period in the late winter/early spring where the bees become active, come out for their euphemistic "cleansing flight" and begin to build comb again.  During this period there is usually nothing blooming yet hence there is no natural source of forage for the honey bees.

In my experience (2006-2012) the bees come out for their cleansing flight between 15 and 25 February.  This year, of course, I had bees out on Christmas Day, in January and multiple days in February, so I was doubly worried that this increased activity would lead to decreased stores of honey and pollen.  This was true in about one third of the hives; the rest still had plenty of honey in their top boxes, so I didn't open the hives any further.

This is also the time of year -in Minnesota- when the queen starts to lay eggs for the spring brood since a worker bee takes about 21 days to develop from an egg to a hatched bee ready to take up work in the hive.

In order to supply enough carbohydrates to keep the colony going until the first bloom when nectar will be available, especially if there is a shortage of honey in the hive, the beekeeper feeds a 1:1 ration sugar syrup to the bees.  To get the over-wintered bees nutritionally up to snuff for feeding larvae, beekeepers often feed a protein patty, or pollen-replacement patty, to increase the amount of protein in their diet.

Spring Sugar Syrup:

There are three types of sugar syrup that can be used to augment the honey bee diet, each with a special formulation and a specific seasonal purpose:

1:2 ratio
This ratio of sugar to water makes a very light syrup that is most frequently used in late winter and early spring to stimulate egg laying.  Mix 1 cup sugar to 2 cups water and heat to dissolve.  Cool entirely before feeding.

1:1 ratio
This ratio of sugar to water makes a medium weight syrup that is used most frequently to feed brood larvae in spring or summer, or to enhance the drawing of comb.  Mix 1 cup sugar to 1 cup water and heat to dissolve.  Cool entirely before feeding.

2:1 ratio
This ratio of sugar to water makes a heavy syrup that is used most frequently to increase honey stores in fall or early winter.  Mix 2 cups sugar to 1 cup water and heat to dissolve.  Cool entirely before feeding.

Pollen Patty:
Before the advent of commercial pollen replacement, beekeepers would mix their own recipe of dry ingredients with honey or sugar syrup to feed their bees.  Now that buckets of pollen replacement powder are readily available the recipe is in the hands of the manufacturer, so it is important to find out what is in the different mixes and which you prefer.

This recipe is from the Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association web site

Pollen Patty Recipe for stimulating brood production:
(Makes a 1.5 pound patty)

Dry Part
1.5 cups (8oz.) fat-free soy flour
.5 cup (1oz.) Brewer’s yeast

Sugar Syrup
1.5 cups (12oz.) granulated sugar
.75 cup (6oz.) Hot water
Mix dry ingredients and add slowly to syrup until mixture is like stiff bread dough. Press between wax paper. Place patty over cluster with wax paper up.

Some beekeepers mix a bit of natural pollen into the patty in place of the soy flour, but this quickly gets expensive.  This year I don't believe I will have to feed much pollen replacement as already yesterday I saw bees coming back to the hive in three different neighborhoods laden with a pale yellow pollen.  Unbelievably, something out there is blooming on 11 March.

There is more chemistry to feeding than I am able to wrap my head around right now,  I find myself more concerned with the survival of the colonies than in maximizing their production because I don't know enough about it yet; this is sometimes frustrating and I get a creeping feeling that I am not doing the best by my bees.

For now I am doing the best that I can do.  This salient piece of advice from the sadly now-defunct Hirschbach Apiary site captures the effort to keep colonies going until local fauna blooms:

"To properly manage your hives you need to be an expert on the local flora and fauna.  Know what is blooming and when.  What are significant nectar sources?  What are the flows and how long do they last?  All these factors are what drive the hive. 

When the temps hit the 50s and the last frost has come, you want to make that first inspection you have been dying to make since you saw the first bee emerge.  During this inspection you want to assess the condition of the colony.  Make sure there are eggs and make sure there are enough bees to cover the entire brood nest.  

If there are not enough bees or the hive seems weak, they may need a feeding jump start.  Honey from a trusted source, preferably their own, is the best bet but if you don't have that, sugar syrup is the next best bet."

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