There are reasons and seasons for feeding bees here in Arizona. Our goal as beekeepers is to keep strong healthy colonies that can thrive in every season. A big part of our role in that is to make sure that the bees have adequate food supplies and adequate numbers. If the population is high, then the workforce for gathering food is high and you have an advantage.
There are differing opinions about whether or not to feed bees, and I’m going to briefly touch on some of each of those in order to give you a good perspective.
Here is what I’ll discuss:
- What do bees naturally eat?
- Managed bees vs. wild bees.
- Why some people don’t feed bees.
- When and how to feed bees.
- Supplements you can add to your bees food.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes in caring for my bees and seem to learn the hard way. I also try to gather information as necessary from other beekeepers, the internet, and books. Everything I offer you here is a blend of all of that. Feeding bees is all in the timing, just like everything with beekeeping, and for that reason, I believe it takes years of experience to really get that timing down. In Arizona, our timeline unique because our climate is unique. We live in the Sonoran desert, which is the wettest desert in the world, but nevertheless, a desert. It is hot and dry in the summer while cool and fairly dry winter. We have flowers almost year-round, but many of the landscape plants can fool you because they offer no food for honeybees. Bougainvillea, Lantana, and Oleander are some of those deceptive plants. Just pay attention to how many of them you see in your neighborhood. You can find a list of bee-friendly plants here, if you want to help our our hungry pollinators.
What do Honeybees naturally eat?
When you ask people what honeybees eat, most will say “honey, duh!” but that is only partly true. In fact, bees eat nectar and pollen primarily, and store honey for use later. Nectar is their carbohydrate and it is almost entirely made up of sucrose (the same as white table sugar) and water. Pollen is the protein source they need to complement the nectar, and it is necessary for brood production. Once the bees ingest those ingredients, however, lots of things happen to that sugar and pollen.
Bees are fussy little flying factories.
I recently listened to an excellent presentation by Bob Binnie at the Coweta Beekeeping Association on the chemistry behind feeing bees sugar syrup (Don’t worry, all links are below). His research found that in most cases, nectar and sugar syrup were identical in producing dextrose (D-glucose) and fructose when mixed with the enzymes inside the bee’s bodies.
Two of those enzymes are Invertase and Glucose Oxidase
- Invertase converts sucrose into fructose or dextrose, which are more soluble than sucrose, and can be dehydrated to become stable so that it can’t ferment.
- Glucose Oxidase produces gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. This produces a low-acid, antiseptic environment, which inhibits the growth of bacteria, fungi, and molds. It is most active prior to the nectar/syrup becoming honey.
In his talk, Bob said that syrup and nectar-fed colonies tend to be in a healthier state than those that are just consuming stored honey. This is due partly because gluconic acid is most active in newly-collected food stores, and partly because honey does include some undigestible substances which can cause digestive issues in bees. Important to note, is that in order for bees to produce glucose oxidase, they do need to have a protein source, whether that be pollen or pollen substitute.
Managed Bees vs. Wild Bees
We must always keep in mind that we are raising bees in an unnatural environment. Yes, those who design beehives, have studied bee behavior and created an artificial home that is as close to how the bees naturally build their hives, but still it is not a natural home. We have to supplement insulation or shade when necessary because bees usually pick cavities that are naturally well-insulated from the elements. We have to add boxes to create bigger places so that they can grow and not swarm. We give and take frames, queens, and brood. This is NOT how bees naturally live. We also possibly keep bees in areas where floral sources are not abundant or where the number of colonies is greater than the abundance of food. So why do we think that we should not interfere with nature when it comes to feeding bees?
As Bob mentioned at some point in his talk, any other livestock that we care for is not left to eat only if there is food available. Just like cattle or horses–or dogs and cats, for that matter, we feed them because we are their caretakers and they would starve without our intervention.
Beekeeping makes us more in touch with nature because we have taken its place in the rearing of bees in managed hives.
Part of our job as beekeepers is to know what food our bees are bringing in, in fact, that is one of the main purposes for inspecting hives regularly. If the bees have no stores and there are no flowers around, then we need to feed them. We also need to know the nectar flows in our area to help us decide when it is wise to take honey and when it is better to leave it for the bees. Beekeeping makes us more in touch with nature because we have taken its place in the rearing of bees in managed hives.
Why do some people not feed bees?
You may be asking, now, why there is so much controversy around feeding bees? I’ve already discussed beekeeping as an unnatural activity, so I don’t really need to point out that not feeding bees because its unnatural isn’t a valid argument. But there are valid arguments regarding the nutrient quality of sugar vs. nectar. There may also be points to be made regarding the lazy behavior of bees who do not need to forage, but I don’t really have an opinion on that one.
As far as nectar being superior to sugar syrup, I do believe it is. Nectar from a variety of flowers will provide small amounts of vitamins and minerals that table sugar doesn’t. White sugar does have trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, but since it comes from only one source (either sugar beets or sugar cane) it can’t possibly have the same make-up. We also know that different floral sources produce different flavors and colors in honey, and that is definitely not present in sugary syrup. That is one reason we should never bottle honey made from sugar syrup. It’s not that it is bad for you, but it is not the same as honey made from nectar from a culinary perspective.
And just to be clear, it is the enzymes in the bees that turns sugar or nectar to honey. That is why bees can still thrive on sugar syrup.
When and How to Feed Bees
If you have decided that you can now feel good about feeding bees, and I hope you can, then you need to know when and how to feed them.
This is when to feed your bees
- if your bees do not have adequate food stores (honey) to get then through a dearth, whether that be summer or winter.
- if you have a package of bees that have no comb built.
- if you have a swarm or new cutout that has no food stores, even if there is a nectar flow.
- if it is Fall and you want to build your numbers before winter.
- provide a pollen substitute. The bees will only take if they need it.
This is how to feed your bees
- use an all-purpose 1:1 ratio of sugar to water (1 cup water to 1 cup sugar)
- dissolve the sugar in hot water
- add supplements like lemongrass oil, spearmint oil or Honeybee Healthy
- use a top feeder or frame feeder for individual hives, or use another method, like a bucket feeder for open feeding. Don’t use entrance feeders if you can help it. This can cause robbing.
- provide pollen substitute if bees are not bringing in pollen.
- in the winter, it may be better to feed bees with a solid form of sugar as fondant or a pollen patty to keep the moisture level down.
Because bees have been struggling so much in recent years, researchers have been working on ways to give bees a boost. Nutritional supplements containing algae, vitamins, probiotics, and who-knows-what are all over the beekeeping convention booths. The world wants bees to survive. Look into these products and let me know what you think. I don’t have an opinion yet.
Beekeeping is a hobby or profession that takes thought and research. Honeybees in managed environments need special care and we, as beekeepers, must give them our best effort. Personally I believe in feeding bees to help them survive. In Arizona we have some pretty harsh summers where not much is available in some areas. There are other areas in the city where irrigation is possible and flowers are abundant year-round. Feeding may not be necessary in those areas. You decide what is best for you and your bees.
The best top feeder I have found is the Apimaye feeder that comes standard with Apimaye hives. You can also get it by itself with the telescoping cover to use on a wooden Langstroth hive.
Bob Binnie’s talk on feeding bees is Here