When the feed is too close

A beekeeper near San Francisco complained that her bees wouldn’t leave her hummingbird feeder alone, so she set up an open feeder containing sugar syrup directly in front of her hives to divert the bees from the hummingbirds. Much to her dismay, the bees continued to dine at the bird feeder and ignore the syrup she provided in her apiary.

She decided that her bees must prefer hummingbird nectar over plain sugar syrup, so she replaced the syrup in the bee feeder with hummingbird food mixed with water. Still the bees ignored their feeder and returned to join the hummingbirds. What is going on?

As we know, honey bees are brilliant at pointing their sisters to distant food sources. The waggle dance is used for food sources that are far from the hive, and the round dance—which contains less information—is used for sources that are less than about 50-70 meters from the hive.

But according to some observers, honey bees have a problem when the source is very close. Why is this?

Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz about Bees says this about the round dance:

A round dance contains only some information about the quality feeding site. An indication is merely given about what to look for, and that this source can be found close to the nest. A bee that returns from visiting a cherry flower will smell like cherries, and a cherry tree can be found easily enough after a few flight around the hive.

But a bee coming home with a sample of sugar syrup isn’t going to smell like a flower. So even though the sugar tastes sweet, it will be difficult for a bee to explain the location to her nest mates if the syrup is less than 50-70 meters away. If it doesn’t look like a flower, and it doesn’t smell like a flower, the bees really have no reason to check it out. Some will probably find it—more or less by accident—but when they return home to report their finding, they have the same problem: how to explain the location.

In this case, it was probably much easier for the bees to locate the hummingbird feeder (which was much further away and brightly colored) than the open bee feeder that was in tripping distance of the hives. It seems that the bees will eventually find these sources, but the process is more random and takes longer than you might expect.

I have found that a drop of flavoring oil—something like tea tree, spearmint, lemon grass, anise, or peppermint—solves the problem in no time. When the bee returns to the hive smelling delicious, and she explains that the source is nearby by using the round dance, her nest mates will search in the vicinity of the hive for the scent she has delivered and immediately find the source, even if it doesn’t look like a flower.


Let the hummingbirds eat in peace. © Rusty Burlew.
Let the hummingbirds eat in peace. © Rusty Burlew.

How to use a quilt with a candy board

This week I want to share some more variations of the moisture quilt that were sent in by readers. Each of them has been customized for local conditions or unique problems. Today’s rendition was sent to me by Herb Lester in Tennessee.

Herb starts by making a candy board with a hole in the center. The hole has two purposes: to provide a way for moist air to escape, and to provide a quick way to check sugar levels and add protein patties if necessary. He places a quart mason jar over the hole in the candy board to keep the sugar from flowing through and removes the jar once the candy has hardened. His candy board holds 20 pounds of hard candy. He writes:

I place the hard candy facing down on the frames next to the bees. I add the candy near the winter solstice, on or near the 21st of December each year. I have found that 20 pounds will provide more than enough food for most hives through the winter. Some will completely eat the hard candy while others do not feed on it at all.

Whatever is left after the winter is removed in the spring. I number and refurbish the units, wrap each unit tightly with a heavy-duty trash bag and store it in a dry area for the next winter. I try to place the  units back on the same hives they came off of the previous winter in hopes of not spreading any problems. During the winter of 2013 this worked very well.

The molten candy is poured into the board with a mason jar covering the hole. Once the candy is hard, the jar is removed. Photo © Herb Lester.

On top of the candy board, Herb places a moisture quilt where the wood chips are enclosed with fabric on both sides:

The winter ventilation unit is placed on top of hard candy unit. I place cloth on both sides of the frame to hold the cedar shavings in place, which makes it easy to keep the shavings for re-use each winter. I number and store them during the summer months. I replace winter quilts with a summer ventilation unit as soon as the temperature at night stays above 50 degrees F.

The moisture quilts have screened ventilation ports and are filled with wood chips. Once filled, Herb staples fabric over the top to contain the wood chips. Photo © Herb Lester.
With the wood chips encased in fabric, it is easy to lift one side and check on feed levels with minimum disruption to the bees. Photo © Herb Lester.
Herb adds small pieces of Bee Pro patties by dropping them down the preformed hole through the candy board. The patties can be added quickly without chilling the bees. Photo © Herb Lester.

Thank you, Herb, for sharing your ideas and photos. Nice job!


The minimalist guide to winter feeding

In the past, I have cooked for my winter bees. I have made fondant, slurry, semi-hard sugar cakes, hard as rock sugar cakes, candy boards, and pollen-laced patties. I have stood over a witches’ cauldron of bubbling, boiling syrup, stirring and measuring and timing. I have used thermometers and cool water tests. I have added Honey-B-Healthy, essential oils, vinegar, lemon juice, and pollen substitutes.

I have burned myself, created massive stickiness throughout the kitchen, ruined pans, bent spoons, and smelled up the house with all manner of strange oils. But not any more. Not on your life.

Every year I’ve made it simpler and simpler, and every year the bees thrive on it. So far, this has been the simplest year ever.

Now, if I absolutely need to feed my bees, I take a bag of sugar and place it on the top brood box. I slice it open with a knife. I surround it with an empty super and cover it with a moisture quilt and lid. I’m done. It’s quick; it’s easy; it doesn’t chill the bees and they like it just fine.

Oh, yes, I hear lots of opposition:

Objection: The bees will cart it out like trash.

Truth: Not in the winter and not when they need it. I’ve seen bees remove granulated sugar when they have other food choices, but you wouldn’t be feeding if they had other choices.

Objection: They need pollen substitute in addition to plain sugar.

Truth: If they need pollen substitute, you can sprinkle it on top of the sugar after you slit the bag.

Objection: They need moisture to dissolve the sugar.

Truth: There is plenty of moisture in a winter hive. Moisture from the bees’ respiration will collect and be used to dissolve the sugar.

Objection: Granulated sugar is too big for the bees to dissolve easily.

Truth: You can buy fine-granulated baker’s sugar which is designed to dissolve quickly and easily. I’ve tried it, but I didn’t see much difference in how fast it gets eaten. Now I just use regular granulated.

Objection: Bees can’t find granulated sugar because they can’t smell it (or because it smells bad).

Truth: Sprinkle the outside of the bag with a few drops of essential oil, if you want, and the bees will investigate.

Objection: “You are just plain lazy.”

Truth: By embracing a quick and easy method, I am more apt to get the job done on time instead of putting it off. Granulated sugar on time will save a lot more bees than designer sugar cakes a day late.

The longer I keep bees, the more important simplicity has become. I certainly can’t fault anyone for going through all the stages of complexity—I certainly did—but there is a lot to be said for the KISS method of beekeeping and even more to be said for doing things on time.


Tea in the honey bee diet

I have always shrugged off the idea of “bee tea” as ridiculous, a feel-good indulgence for beekeepers with too much time and money on their hands. The idea that bee health could be augmented by an infusion of things they never eat in nature—the leaves and flowers of various plants—is absurd.

Practitioners of this oddity must believe that if tea is good for them, tea is good for bees. But bees are not humans. Humans eat many different plant parts and our good health depends on them. But bees eat only pollen and nectar. They do not eat leaves, petals, roots, or stems. So chances are extremely high that said leaves, petals, roots, and stems do them no good whatsoever. I assume they do no harm, but who knows?

Normally, bees derive their nutrients from pollen, nectar, and dirty water. Dirty water–the type they prefer–is full of single-celled organisms, decomposing organic matter, and a wide range of minerals derived from the soil. This water surely contains plant parts, but which plants and how decomposed they are will vary widely. It is up to the bee to decide if she wants to drink it.

If you are not familiar with this trend, beekeepers make bee tea out of dried and crushed herbs and flowers. The most popular recipes include yarrow, chamomile, hyssop, lemon balm, nettle, and dandelion petals. Many beekeepers add Honey-B-Healthy or an equivalent mixture of lemongrass and spearmint oils along with syrup or honey. The additives are used to attract bees to the tea because, without a sweetener, a pan of soggy leaves in otherwise clean tap water holds little attraction for your average apid.

Up until now I figured “so what?” If a beekeeper gets a warm fuzzy glow from sharing a cuppa with his colonies, no harm done. A pan of infused water outside on a sunny day won’t hurt the bees—after all, they can take it or leave it.

But I find the newest twist disturbing: beekeepers are now using herbal infusions in place of water in candy boards and fondant. Unlike the take-it-or-leave-it situation of summer, mixing plant parts in winter feed forces your bees to ingest things the wouldn’t normally select. Eating by choice and eating by necessity are two different things. If we were starving to death, most of us would eat whatever we could find regardless of the dietary nuances. Your bees will do the same.

Furthermore, ash or fiber in the diet of summer bees is not overly stressful since they are out and about. But ash and fiber in a winter colony could very easily promote honey bee dysentery, something most of us try to prevent.

Bottom line, I believe there is a big difference between “free choice” feeding and sneaking greens into their food. Especially in the winter, save the herbal tea for yourself, feed the greens to your kids, and leave your bees alone.


Pollen patties: when and why?

So-called pollen patties usually contain no pollen, but are designed to simulate real pollen. They can be purchased ready-to-use, can be made at home from a purchased mix, or can be made at home from scratch using a variety of recipes.

The thing to understand about pollen or pollen substitute is that it is used to feed larvae. Eggs don’t eat, pupae don’t eat, and adults eat honey, but the larvae are dependent on a supply of nutritious, high-protein food that is provided by pollen. The feeding system is indirect: nurse bees actually consume the pollen, usually in the form of bee bread. This rich diet allows them to secret the royal jelly that is fed to the youngest larvae. As the larvae mature, they are switched over to a diet of bee bread and honey.

The availability of pollen or pollen substitute to the colony increases the production of brood. Because of an enriched diet, the nurses are able to secret lots of royal jelly. So they prepare cells for eggs and the queen deposits them.  Suddenly, brood production is in full swing.

But do you really want enhanced brood production in late fall or early winter? Under normal circumstances, the brood nest is at its smallest this time of year. The queen may completely stop laying eggs and brood may be non-existent.

The lack of brood at this time of year is a good thing.  Consider the following:

  • The queen gets a much-needed respite from egg laying and a period of rejuvenation.
  • The center of the cluster can be kept at a much lower temperature when no brood is present. According to Caron and Connor, in Honey Bee Biology (2013), when a colony is broodless the center of the cluster is kept at about 70°F (21°C), as opposed to about 94°F (34°C) when brood is present. This lower temperature conserves food stores.
  • With little brood, a smaller adult population is maintained, which also conserves food stores.
  • Perhaps most important, the break in the brood-rearing cycle provides a break in the Varroa cycle. The mites cannot reproduce when no honey bee brood is present.

Furthermore, you don’t want your colony population to peak before the nectar flow. If you build up your colony too soon, you will have a cajillion bees with nothing to eat. Not good.

As you can see, maintaining a sizable brood nest all winter long may not be the best thing for your bees, so it follows that stimulating brood production too early may not be wise. My rule of thumb for a hobby beekeeper is to withhold pollen substitute until after the winter solstice. The colony is attuned to changes in photoperiod, so after the solstice, as the hours of daylight gradually lengthen in the northern hemisphere, brood production naturally increases. To coincide with that increase, you can provide pollen.

Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Anyone who is going to move their bees into almonds or some other southern crop needs to build populations sooner than someone with stationary hives.  Also, commercial beekeepers taking their bees into monoculture crops have to deal with the limited nutrition that comes with single-species foraging. So that is a second reason for feeding an enriched pollen diet. In fact, I think this is how all this early pollen feeding got started: the commercial keepers do it so everyone does it. But the commercial keepers have good reasons that the hobbyist normally doesn’t have.

We tend to think that if our colonies need sugar, they also need pollen. But aside from the fact that only larvae require it, pollen availability differs from nectar availability. Pollen is available earlier in the spring and later in the fall. We’ve all seen bees collecting pollen with snow on the ground, or in between winter storms. My bees are still bringing in pollen now, in mid-November, due to a warm spell.

Part of this is because many plants produce pollen even though they don’t produce nectar. Early trees like alder provide heaps of pollen without a trace of nectar. Grasses, evergreens, and many others are similarly pollen-heavy. I find it rare that a colony is actually short of pollen, either fresh or stored as bee bread.

Even so, there will be times when supplementing your bees with pollen is advantageous. Local weather and climate will have an impact on pollen supplies, as will the selection of local plants, the types of bees, the size of the colony, and many other factors. So by all means, if your colony needs pollen, give it to them. But for a normal colony in a normal year, I strongly recommend that you at least wait until after the solstice.