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Feeding Honeybees

Dawn Yates

Beekeeping in a Nutshell

Feeding Honeybees.

The British Isles lies between 500 and 600 latitude North of the Equator, it has two distinct seasons, summer and winter. Feeding is an essential part of managing colonies of bees successfully on account of unreliable weather patterns and modern methods of agriculture. Summer temperatures are capricious, good warm weather does not always coincide with flowering of crops which can, given the right conditions, provide copious nectar for the bees to collect and convert into honey. The winter months, October to February, when the honeybees are expected to remain quiescent within the hive in the winter cluster during the long periods of low temperatures may be interrupted by intervals of warm weather. This is especially so in the south west of the British Isles, the temporary increase in temperature entices the bees to search for non existent forage and in doing so they use up their valuable stores which will be needed in the spring to sustain the rapidly expanding brood nest. The successful beekeeper will always be conscious of the needs of his colonies and the unreliability of the prevailing climate. He/she should be familiar with the flora of the surrounding countryside and manage stocks of bees so that the maximum foraging force of honeybees is present in the hive when nectar and pollen, the natural foods of the honeybee, are available for collection.


1.The reasons for feeding a colony sugar are:

a) To provide adequate stores for winter (rapid feeding).

b) To provide emergency stores in the season between colony inspections

(rapid feeding).

c) As a means of administering drugs (generally rapid feeding).

d) To stimulate the queen to lay (usually slow feeding).

e) To prevent starvation when the colony is about to succumb (rapid).

f) To enhance wax production and the drawing of foundation and comb (slow

or rapid depending on circumstances, eg. a swarm on foundation is fed


g) When a colony has an inadequate foraging force, eg. an artificial swarm

which is short of stores (rapid feeding) or after spray poisoning losses.

h) When raising new queens and making up nuclei.

2.The precautions to take when feeding honeybee colonies:

a) There should be no spilling or dripping of syrup anywhere in the apiary.

b) Precautions should be taken to prevent robbing (reduced entrances and bee

tight hives).

c) Feed should only be administered in the evening just before dark.

d) No sugar syrup should find its way into the supers and be mixed eventually

with honey for extraction and sale.

e) Only pure white refined granulated sugar should be used.

3. Preparing syrup for feeding:

Generally there are two types of mix, a thick syrup for autumn feeding which will be stored more or less immediately and thin syrup for spring or stimulative feeding which is to be consumed without storing. Most of the literature quotes the following:

Thick - 2 lb sugar to 1 pint of water gives 61.5% sugar concentration

Thin - 1 lb sugar to 2 pints of water gives 28.0% sugar concentration

Medium - 1 kg sugar to 1 litre of water gives 50.0% sugar concentration

Since the bee requires a concentration of 50% for it to digest and metabolise the sugar then it is clear which is the best one to use if the bees are to use it straight away. If sugar syrup is to be mixed with cold water, it will be found difficult to obtain a complete mix with 2 lb to 1 pint. It has been found that a mix with cold water of 7 lb sugar to 5 pints of water in an old washing machine (top loader with central agitator) will dissolve satisfactorily. The concentration works out to be 52.8%, less than 61.5% and hence giving the bees a bit more work to do ripening it to 80% for storing and sealing. If this is fed for winter immediately after extracting in August, this causes the bees no distress as they have plenty of time to get their larder in the order they require it before the cold nights set in.

4. The most common types of feeders in use.

The requirements of a good feeder are to allow the bees to take the syrup at the rate required by the beekeeper for the management of the colony, while at the same time preventing the bees from drowning in the syrup. Finally, when the feeding is finished, access should be provided for the bees into the feeder so that the bees can clean and dry it up (a job they can do very efficiently given the chance). There is quite an array of feeders available, not all of them meeting the criteria above and many of them being manufactured in materials that can

corrode or are difficult to clean. A further disadvantage of some types is that they are capable of being propolised by the bees so that without maintenance they become unusable. The various types commonly available are listed and discussed below:

Contact feeders: these come in a variety of shapes and sizes but are all similar in design having a container with a close fitting lid. The lid has a series of small holes or a small piece of metal gauze through which the bees take the syrup when it is turned upside down over the feed hole or directly onto the frames in the colony. The number of holes regulate the speed that the bees can take the contents. It has the advantage of being cheap and can be readily made at short notice from a bewildering assortment of household containers. The disadvantages are as follows:

a) The bees quickly propolise the small feed holes as soon as it is empty.

b) As the contents are coming to an end, a change in temperature can force

the last remaining contents out causing a minor flood of syrup in the hive

(usually cleaned up quickly by the bees).

c) They are a bit messy to fill and invert without spilling syrup unless one is

very careful.

Round top feeders: are very widely used in UK and are intended to be placed over a feed hole in the crown board. The capacity varies from c.1 pint to 2 or 3 pints depending on the diameter. The height is usually about 3 inches. The entry is via a tube in the centre and down the outside of the tube to the syrup. The whole of the centre feeding area is enclosed by a removable cover for cleaning. Older versions were made of metal but now most are manufactured in plastic which is better from a corrosion point of view. This type of feeder is easily filled in situ without the bees escaping in the process. Again an eke is necessary.

Miller feeders: were designed by Dr.C.C.Miller in USA and consist of a tray, about 3in (76mm) deep, with dimensions in the horizontal plane exactly matching the external sizes of the brood chamber or supers of the hive it is intended to fit. The entry for the bees is via a slot in the centre extending from one side to the other; again it is provided with a cover to prevent the bees from escaping. The capacity is from 1 to 2 gallons. It allows many bees to feed simultaneously thereby allowing very rapid consumption of the syrup (a strong colony can finish the contents in 24 hours). Construction is generally in wood with all joints glued to prevent leakage. For bottom bee space hives, a bee space is required on the under side of the feeder.

Ashforth feeders: are virtually identical with the Miller feeder except that the feeding slot is placed at one side allowing the hive to be tilted slightly thereby permitting all the syrup to flow towards the feed slot which is impossible with the Miller type and therefore an improvement. The advantage of allowing all the syrup to be consumed before the tray is opened to the bees for cleaning is that there are no pools of syrup for the bees to drown in.

Bro. Adam feeders: are similar to the Miller and Ashforth except that they have a central entry similar to the Round top type feeders. They are becoming more popular in the UK and are available from equipment suppliers. The feeders on the stocks at Buckfast Abbey double up as a crown board (therefore every stock has its own feeder).

All the feeders quoted above are designed for top feeding. Other feeders are available for internal feeding and bottom feeding (which is seldom practised in UK). The internal feeder is in the form of a brood frame with wooden sides and an opening at the top to allow access to the bees. The frame feeder is used for feeding nuclei; the capacity is inadequate for a colony and few would wish to open the colony in order to feed it. A disadvantage of this type of feeder is the bees tendency to propolise the float arrangement (to prevent the bees drowning) in the frame feeder at the bottom when the contents have been consumed.

Atomising Sprays: If a colony is moribund through lack of stores then a warm solution of 50% sugar syrup sprayed directly onto the bees will have an immediate effect once the bees have been able to consume some of the syrup. Motionless bees cannot reach feeders. This action should be followed by a feed of warm syrup in a contact feeder as soon a possible. Spraying of sugar syrup onto bees can also be used to prevent fighting when uniting frames of bees when preparing nuclei to receive queen cells.

5. The amounts of food to be fed.

Emergency feeding. It is necessary to know the amount of food that a colony requires during the season so that, after an inspection, the beekeeper can determine whether it shall require feeding or whether it has sufficient stores to the next inspection. The worst case must always be considered and that is when the colony sends out its foragers and they are unrewarded in their search for food.

A flying bee uses 10mg honey per hour while foraging for an average

time of 5 hours per day. If the colony has 13,000 foragers (1/3 of the

total population) and the next inspection is 7 days away, then the

colony should have 10lb of liquid stores.

ie. 10lb = (13000 x 10 x 10-3 x 5 x 7) ÷ 454

Therefore, if the colony has less than 10lb of stores it may require emergency feeding if there is no income and the weather is inclement. The amount required is likely to be small, ie. a few pounds.

The same considerations are applicable to nuclei and many a nuc has died out due to starvation because of ignorance of the beekeeper not understanding the little colony's food requirements.

Winter feeding. Many beekeepers either don't know how much food a colony requires for winter or, if they do know, have no idea how to calculate how much it should be fed. The losses each year in the UK due to starvation amount to many thousands of colonies according to a MAFF survey some years ago. Probably, the situation is unchanged. If the RSPCA knew more about bees they would be taking some action against the offending beekeepers.

The calculation is a simple bit of arithmetic and the starting point is a colony inspection in August. Each frame in the brood chamber is inspected and the amount of liquid stores estimated on the basis that a BS frame when full and

sealed with honey weighs 5 lb. A Commercial frame holds 7 lb of stores.

A strong colony requires c. 35 lb to see it through to the spring without feeding early in the new year when stores are used up very quickly. It is often said that a beekeeper who has to feed his colonies in the spring should not be keeping bees! To illustrate the simplicity of the calculation, assume the colony has 25 lb of stores after the inspection. The colony requires 35 - 25 = 10 lb of additional stores or the honey equivalent thereof. How much sugar must be fed in syrup form to provide the equivalent of 10 lb of honey? 1lb of honey contains c. 0.8 lb of sugar, therefore, 8 lb of sugar should be fed in syrup form. If the colony required 15 lb of additional stores then the amount of sugar = 15 x 0.8 = 12 lb sugar. It is as simple as that and yet very few beekeepers take the trouble to do the job properly and many colonies starve to death.

Some beekeepers leave a full super of honey above the brood box for the winter stores, this would represent about 30 lb of stores eg. 10 super BS frames, each frame when full will hold 3 lb of honey. In this case there should be a further

5-10 lb of stores in the brood box. All of these stores should be of run honey,

granulated stores eg. from the rape, Brassica napus, are not suitable for winter stores. With this method of providing winter stores there is the question of removing the queen excluder. If the excluder is not removed there is always the danger of the queen being isolated below the excluder as the cluster moves towards the stores in the super or the colony being unable to cross this very cold barrier.

Honeybees winter well on stores derived from sugar syrup, these stores will not granulate and if the syrup is fed to the colony early ie. before the end of September as in the south of England then the bees will pack the stores around the brood nest where the bees will cluster, with the queen excluder and supers removed there is no danger of the supers becoming contaminated with sugar syrup. The supers are best removed, cleaned and stored for the following season. Early feeding does present a problem with the yellow Italian bee, these queens are inclined to continue laying much later than the native bee. Rapid feeding of winter stores equal to 40 lb and a check on the presence of sealed stores early in February will be necessary for these yellow bees.

6. The types of feed.

The types of feed that are fed to honeybee colonies:

1. The standard feed is white refined household quality sugar either from cane

or beet sources (ie. refined sucrose). No brown or unrefined sugar is


2. It was recommended at one time to feed candy or fondant. It is now used

only for special applications (eg. micro mating nucs or the like). If cream of

tartar or vinegar is contained in the recipe, both are toxic to bees cf. refined

sucrose. It is best not to feed either candy or fondant if it can be avoided.

3. Dry sugar (again refined sucrose) is used by some beekeepers in a tray type

crown board usually in the early part of the year supposedly as an insurance

policy. It is not recommended because unless water is provided it is extremely

difficult for the bees to produce enough saliva to dissolve the crystals.

4. Honey should only be fed when it comes from the beekeeper's own apiary

and is known to be disease free. Many imported honeys carry AFB spores and

are highly dangerous and must under no circumstances be used.

5. Pollen patties are often fed in the early part of the year to provide additional

protein where pollen may be in short supply or where colonies are being

induced to start brood rearing early. There are two types namely, pollen

substitutes (fat free soya flour) and pollen supplements (using trapped pollen;

again the source should be from the beekeeper's apiaries from disease free


6. A comb of sealed honey can often be usefully taken from a disease free

colony and used in another requiring urgent liquid stores.

7. The time to feed a colony of honeybees.

All feeding of honeybee colonies should be undertaken only in the evening when it is just getting dark. The reason for this is not explained at all well in most books on bee husbandry. This is curious because it is so important particularly when bees are being kept in gardens at close quarters with neighbours.

The reason is that as soon as food is given to a colony during daylight hours, the scout bees will be alerted and will start roaming the immediate neighbourhood for the source. It seems to be a shortcoming of the communication system of the bees. Presumably a round dance occurs and out go the foragers to seek the source and mayhem starts in the apiary with the attendant possibility of robbing from other colonies being initiated. It seems that the colony has no sure means of indicating to the other foragers in the colony that the source is just above them over the brood chamber in a feeder.

Bees are not equipped for night flying and will not fly in the dark. Hence, all feeding should be done at night. The same goes for putting wet supers back on a colony for drying up after extraction.

8. Other points of interest related to feeding sugar syrup.

a) Each hive should have its own feeder. When feeding starts, particularly in the autumn, all stocks should be fed at the same time.

b) There are advantages in combining the feeder as the permanent crown board; it is always available for use and if it stays on one stock it cannot pass on disease by using it on another colony.

c) Open tray feeders with straw or polystyrene chips floating in the syrup are messy and not particularly efficient, the bees often seem to find the 'deep end' and drown in the syrup. Not recommended.

d) It is good practice to check the feeders each year for leaks with water before being brought into use.

e) Communal feeding has been advocated by some authors by providing a

common feeder in the apiary for all colonies to fly to and help themselves. It is not recommended as the disadvantages far out weigh the advantages. No control can be exercised over what each stock needs and takes. Disease can be spread by this means and you are likely to be feeding someone else's bees!

f) Open feeding will also encourage wasps to visit the apiary and attack weaker colonies. If a queen wasp, Vespula vulgaris establishes a nest near or in your apiary the best course of action is to exterminate the nest as soon as possible by pouring a small amount of petrol down the entrance at the end of the day and plugging the entrance. Wasps do not appear to be a problem early in the year but in September when there is a shortage of food wasps can rob weak stocks, eating larvae, bees and the newly fed winter stores. When the wasps have discovered an easy source of food they are almost impossible to deter, jam jar or bottle traps, reduced entrances etc. will have little effect once the attack has begun.

g) Leaky feeders encourage robbers. As stated earlier all the joints should be glued with a water proof glue eg. Cascamite and all the joints inside of the reservoir sealed with paraffin wax easily applied with a hot air paint stripper.


9. The production and use of pollen supplement and substitutes.

Pollen is a necessary part of the bee's diet and without it brood rearing would diminish very rapidly and the activation of the bee's hypopharyngeal glands

would not occur. Pollen is generally regarded as the source of protein in the bee's diet; however, it not only provides essential proteins but lipids, minerals, and vitamins. Additionally, pollen contains phago-stimulants (Doull, 1974) encouraging the bee to eat it. Some 35 years ago it was observed that bees collect powdery materials such as coal dust, fine earth, saw dust, rotted wood, etc. in times of pollen dearth (Spencer-Booth, 1960). These observations suggested that it should be possible to feed bees with suitable artificial materials to replace the missing natural diet of pollen nb. the collection of tar from the roads when propolis is in short supply.

It was from these beginnings that studies were made, mostly in the USA, of alternatives and how they could be administered to honeybee colonies. Such alternatives are necessary in some parts of the world where there is insufficient pollen sources in the spring (eg. very large acreages of oil seed rape where natural hedgerows have been grubbed out to provide large fields to enable large machines to be used economically) or at other times of the year (eg. honeydew flows where there is no pollen involved).

There are various estimates of the pollen requirements of an average colony in one year, and as early as 1946 Todd and Bishop calculated that 100mg of pollen is required to raise one bee and stated that 20kg (44 pounds) of pollen are required in one year or enough to raise c. 200,000 bees. It is known that the average colony collects far in excess of this amount and conservative estimates are c.57kg (125 pounds). This knowledge led to the idea that excess pollen could be harvested from the hives where plenty was available, the excess pollen being sold as a health food.

10. Definitions of pollen supplements and substitutes.

1. Pollen supplement is another food not naturally collected by the bees which is fortified with natural pollen.

2. Pollen substitute is another food which replaces completely the natural pollen collected by the honeybee. Here it should be noted that patties made of pollen substitute were (still are perhaps) called extenders in the USA.

11. Storage of pollen.

Having collected the pollen for use in pollen supplement it usually has to be stored through to the following year before it is required for use. Poor storage can render it useless as a supplement at a later date. The following point should be observed:

a) The pollen must be as dry as possible. When they are thoroughly air dried,

the pellets will lose approximately 20% of their weight and become hard and


b) It may be stored at room temperature for as long as one year but it

gradually loses its palatability and its nutritive value.

c) Pollen is best stored dry and in the freezer at low temperatures to prevent,

as much as possible, deterioration in the nutritive value.

d) Storage at low temperatures will ensure that any other form of infestation is

killed, eg. pollen mites.

e) Haydak showed the effectiveness of pollen for stimulating the

hypopharyngeal glands:

Fresh pollen 100% effective

1 year old 76% effective

2 years old 0% effective.

It was not clear whether his tests were storing pollen at room temperature or

at low temperatures.

However, it clearly illustrates the importance of not keeping it too long and a

very definite shelf life being involved.

12. Preparation of patties.

If patties are to be successful they must support brood rearing, which may be stating the obvious but many substances have been tried and tested before arriving at the most suitable. For example, in Canada fish meal has been tried and is cheap and successful. All are mixed with sugar syrup which not only enhances the making of the patties but also provides sugar which is acting to some extent as a phagostimulant.

Haydak (1967) in the USA has been at the forefront of experimentation and finally found that as a complete substitute the following could be used in the ratio 3 : 1 : 1, fat free soya flour : brewer's yeast : dry skimmed milk.

Adding dried egg yolk improved the nutritional value and the addition of casein (major protein in milk) made it virtually the same as fresh pollen from a nutritive point of view. The whole is mixed into a stiff paste with sugar syrup and made into patties of weight between 1/2 and 1 pound with a thickness of about 1/2 inch spread onto plastic film or waxed paper.

Yeast is a protein and it has been found that fat free soya + yeast = fat free soya + skimmed milk; both of which are improved with the dried egg yolk. As a result the standard recipes for patties used for feeding honeybees in the UK has evolved to;

Ingredient Pollen substitute patties Pollen supplement patties

Fat free soya flour (%) 75 60

Brewer's yeast (%) 25 20

Natural pollen (%) 0 20

Totals by weight (%) 100 100

Again these are made up with sugar syrup and flattened out into patties 1/2 inch thick on plastic sheets and stored in plastic bags to stop them drying out.

Pollen substitutes are made commercially and sold under enticing names; they are no better than using the above which will prove to be much less expensive. Since the late 1960s no further work is known to have been undertaken on

artificial materials to replace pollen.

Bees, if given the choice, will select pollen supplement cf. pollen substitute. Both can be made more attractive to the bees by adding small amounts of fragrant scents including honey essence; so perhaps the moral here is to mix the patties with run honey rather than sugar syrup but note the earlier warnings about the source of honey.

It must be emphasised again the importance of using fat free soya flour rather than ordinary soya flour which has a high fat content and is unsuitable for bees. One case is recorded where a nucleus succumbed after being fed pollen substitute patties and the only reason that could be determined was the doubtful source of the soya flour. Note that expeller process soya bean flour = fat free soya bean flour.

13. Use of supplements and substitutes.

The patties are messy to make but very easy and simple to use. The patties are put directly onto the brood chamber frames with the plastic film uppermost. It pays to have the plastic much bigger in diameter than the patty to prevent it drying out and becoming crumbly; the bees seem to turn their noses up at the dry bits.

In the UK, patties are usually used in the spring in areas which are predominantly rape growing where there is a dearth of spring flowers to allow the colony to build up naturally. After lifting the crown board, a puff or two of smoke will send the bees down and it easy to place the patties on top and press them down in between the seams of the combs. In February/March a healthy colony may be expected to consume a one pound patty in one week.

In order to build up the colony for the early spring rape flow the patties can be put on the colonies as early as the middle of January; the earlier the better to get the colony as strong as possible before the rape comes into bloom. The major drawback is that swarming problems are likely to occur earlier with such stimulation.

There is a paucity of information about using pollen patties at other times of the year, eg. a flow associated with honeydew in July. There would be difficulties feeding the patties with supers on and it is not recommend feeding them at the entrance at that time of the year because of robbing problems.

14. Other points of interest.

It has been suggested that the powdered ingredients can be put outside the hive to let the bees forage normally and return to the hive with loads in their corbiculae. No reports of anyone using this method have been found and it appears to be disadvantaged by the lack of sugar as a phagostimulant.

Different pollens vary very considerably in their nutritional value. The honeybee, as far as is known, has no way of determining which is best. Due to the wide range of pollens collected by each colony an average protein value, etc. may be assumed.

Genetically modified crops will no doubt be grown in the UK in the years ahead. One can only speculate how this will effect honeybees and other nectar and pollen eating insects.

B.D.Yates. January 1999.

Front cover illustration taken from:

S. Simmins 'A Modern Bee Farm' 1928 page 373