Do I have to feed my bees?

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This is a question I’ve been asked a couple of times by people “Do you have to feed your bees?”. I thought it was a kind of interesting one. Before I started doing research and keeping bees, I would have probably scoffed at the question, but the answer isn’t quite as I would have expected!

Not necessarily… although a lot of bee keepers might choose to.

At face value, feeding bees seems counter productive. Why would you feed them, when the whole idea is for them to collect us food from flowers in the form of nectar? And then turn that nectar into delicious honey! (check out my gallery for pictures of my bees foraging!)

So why would I feed bees? Aren’t they self sufficient enough to cope?

In a lot of cases they probably are, and some bee keepers never feed their bees as a choice. Sometimes however, a little too much honey might have been taken by the bee-keeper, or weather conditions prevent the bees from being able to forage a sufficient amount of nectar to build stores. In these cases, the bee keeper may want to feed the bees sugar syrup to prevent them from starving. Especially if the bee keeper has taken honey from them, it’s my opinion that they should be owed a duty of care!!

Not just for survival; bees may be fed during ‘spring build-up’ when the queen is starting to lay a lot of eggs, in order to encourage them to draw out comb, and otherwise focus resources on rearing brood rather than foraging/conserving supplies (although a stronger stimulus for brood rearing could be feeding a pollen substitute). I haven’t fed my bees any pollen substitute, but I have fed them sugar syrup for a couple of weeks with the goal of encouraging wax production. It is important to note however that the bees shouldn’t be fed sugar during a period when they’re building up stores – this might result in syrup being present in honey when it’s harvested!

So how can I get away with taking honey at all? Does it always need to be replaced with sugar?

The amount of honey stores bees will need over the winter can vary between years, different types of bee, and different climates. A figure which is thrown about a bit here in the UK is about 16 kg of stores per hive. In a good season, the bees might make upwards of 27 kg of honey which would leave the bee keeper with about 11 kg of surplus they are able to harvest.​1​ So if the keeper leaves the bees with enough honey, feeding ought not to be necessary!

Apis mellifera a.k.a. the western honeybee, can often produce much more honey than would be necessary for them to survive on sometimes 2-3 times more! Compared to other bees, for example bumble bees who do produce​2​ although do not stockpile honey, possibly because they don’t overwinter the whole colony as honeybees do! Honey bee’s main incentive to make so much is to ensure that there is enough food available to them over the winter, when there is little to forage, and little opportunity to fly.

How do I feed bees?

Bees can be fed in a variety of different ways. At the moment, I’m using a cylindrical feeder called a ‘rapid feeder’. I put this directly on top of the hive, just below the roof. The bees climb up through the centre hole in the feeder and sip the syrup. The cup surrounding the syrup reservoir prevents the bees from drowning in the syrup. They would usually be fed sugar syrup in the spring, when the weather is warm and bakers fondant in the winter if needed, when it’s cold.

Bees Eating Sugar Syrup from a 'Rapid Feeder'
Bees Eating Sugar Syrup from a ‘Rapid Feeder’
  1. 1.
    British Bee Keepers Association. Honey. BBKA. https://www.bbka.org.uk/honey. Accessed April 29, 2020.
  2. 2.
    Gibbons W. BUMBLEBEES MAKE HONEY, TOO. Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. http://archive-srel.uga.edu/outreach/ecoviews/ecoview030901.htm. Published July 1, 2003.

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