Feeding bees

People often ask me what “sustainable” beekeeping is, and one of the main tenets as far as I’m concerned is not giving bees sugar syrup. Ever. Feeding is generally done in the autumn in most beekeeping circles, as the bulk of the honey will have been removed for our consumption so of course the bees will be left with no food. The way a honeybee colony works is that the bees increase their population exponentially in the spring to take advantage of summer nectar, which they then store at the top of the nest to sustain a far smaller population through the winter. This has happened for millennia, until us humans came along and decided we wanted the honey, and as nectar is just sugar water, we can substitute that, right?

Well, that has never made sense to me, as nectar is nectar, and sugar water is sugar water. The former contains all the plant nutrients and other trace elements as well as complex sugar molecules; the latter is sucrose. And that’s before you get on to the questionable ethics of keeping bees which are effectively propped up the sugar industry. On a more pragmatic note, if you feed your bees syrup, you can’t be 100% sure that they have not stored it in the cells which you then later harvest for honey – one can assume they will have eaten it all of course and what you are extracting from the combs is pure honey, but the bees won’t discriminate between the two and will store resources how they see fit. Feeding bees in autumn should ensure that they have consumed it all by the following summer but how could you tell? I can take a frame here and there when the bees can spare it, and I know it will contain honey as nature intended, with all the benefits thereof.

There is an argument for feeding a small or hungry swarm some syrup if the weather is going to render them unable to get out and forage. Obviously it’s completely irresponsible to let bees starve at any time of year, but then again in the UK they shouldn’t get even approaching that short in the first place if they have the time and sufficient forage plants to accumulate their stores. If your bees can’t find enough in the environment to sustain them, should they be sited there in the first place?

After I have taken off the honey, I feed back the cappings and crushed comb for them to clean up. Usually I just put a tub in the top of the hive in an empty super, but the honey sinks to the bottom and the bees don’t burrow to get it! I had some large plastic tubs with tight-fitting lids and thought these might work as contact feeders. You can buy contact feeders of course but why not reuse resources where possible? I also find that bees propolise the mesh in the ones I’ve bought so they become blocked.

I filled them with crushed comb and pricked a load of holes in the lid with a pin. I then put them over the crownboard holes, with an empty super as an eke:

I checked them today – 3 weeks after I put them on – and the honey has not gone down much, but then again the blossoms are all out now so no need for them to supplement! The concept seemed to be working though as the honey was seeping out of the holes and the bees licking it up:

The tubs of comb can also be frozen for a few days in order to kill off any wax moth eggs. As plastic use continues to be a burden, and simple recycling something which has mixed outcomes, I hope this is a method of feeding our bees in a sustainable manner – in all senses!

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