Beekeepers have a responsibility to care for the honey bee colonies that they manage. This includes all the management tasks required for healthy hives. It also means making sure your hives have enough to eat. One common practice in beekeeping is supplemental feeding. It can be a source of controversy. However, there is no doubt of the importance of feeding bees (when needed) and the many benefits it provides.
You will never hear me say that you should always be feeding your beehives. In fact, if you are constantly feeding bees sugar water – you have a problem.
How Feeding Bees Contributes to Colony Health
Another possibility if you find yourself stuck on the feeding treadmill is that your colonies are not healthy.
This means they are not capable of raising a strong work force to meet the needs of the hive and collect the resources bees need.
You should not constantly be filling a bee feeder. In most situations, your colonies will be able to find everything they need on their own. This is what we want.
But, for most beekeepers, there will be times when supplement feeding for bees is a valuable tool. You must learn how to evaluate the needs of the hives and provide extra nutrition – when and if needed.
Benefits of Feeding Honey Bees
When done properly (and for the right reasons), supplement feeding benefits honey bees in several ways.
- Avoid food scarcity
- Builds colony strength
- Boost honey production
- Promote health and well-being
Avoid Nectar Scarcity
Workers bees have earned their title. Throughout the season, they are outside on every good weather day looking for nectar and pollen. But, sometimes, there may be little for the foraging bees to collect.
Lack of rainfall, late season frosts and other issues can lead to a reduction in the available nectar. Sure – plants may produce flowers but that does not guarantee the presence of nectar.
In a situation where little food is coming in, more and more foragers are sent into the field. This leaves fewer individuals to serve as nurse bees tending to young or perform other important hive tasks.
Builds Colony Strength
What makes a strong colony of honey bees? A strong colony of bees has a good population of healthy colony members. Each type of bee in the hive has an important role to play.
A good diet means that bees eat all the sugars, vitamins, proteins and minerals needed for good health.
Well-fed healthy bees are less likely to fall prey to diseases such as European Foulbrood or other stressor pathogens.
The beekeeper can provide an additional source of nutrition (in a time of need). Thereby, knowing for a certainty that the colony has all the necessary fuel to reach their maximum productivity.
Constant brood production is necessary to build a strong work force in the field. The colony that is struggling to find food in the weeks prior to the honey flow, will not be at top strength.
Providing supplement food for bees, even in the short term can prevent the colony doing into panic mode.
The incoming food promotes brood production. A queen bee is less likely to slow down or stop laying eggs. Well-nourished colonies are more likely to thrive and grow in population.
Promotes Health & Well Being
Our honey bee colonies are large social families. They work together for the good of the family unit as a whole and communicate in ways that we still barely understand.
A healthy colony is a happy bee family. Reducing stress is good for humans and it is good for bees too.
Supplemental feeding for bees is a viable way to reduce stress. Strong healthy colonies are more likely to survive and be productive.
Less stress in the beehive is also good for beekeepers. It is not uncommon for bees to become more aggressive or defensive in times of stress. We sure don’t want that.
Best Practices in Feeding
Some beekeepers will say you should never feed bees. I do not agree with that statement. I do agree that their own honey is the very best food they can have. Our sugar water is no true substitute.
However, feeding bees can provide life saving nutrition in some circumstances. It can help any colony survive during a food shortage. Extra nutrition helps newly installed package bees get off to a growing start.
And for any small population hive, such as a swarm or even hive splits – the importance of feeding these bees cannot be denied.
It is a good practice for beekeepers to provide supplemental feeding to honey bee colonies to prevent starvation or promote strength. This should be a short term process.
Open feeding (with a bucket feeder) or similar is an option. However, it is not the most economical method of feeding honey bees and it can cause robbing in the bee yard.
Feeding bees is important in times when there is little or no nectar available in the field. It can also be beneficial to very small colonies just starting out.
Feed With a Purpose
When trying to decide where or not to put that jar bee feeder (or whatever kind you wish) in the hive, think about your reason for doing so.
There are some risks and challenges involved. Having sugar water exposed can increase the chances of robbing bees that will attack , a serious problem for small colonies.
And, there is a time to stop feeding sugar water. Perhaps your colony no longer needs it – or maybe the cold season approaches and it is time to consider a making a candy board for your bees or some similar method.
You are the beekeeper and your hives are your responsibility. Incorporate proper feeding methods into your management strategies -only when your hives need help.