What’s wrong with this picture?

While cleaning out my shed, I discovered several hard sugar cakes which I had removed from my overwintered hives back in February. I had thrown them in a bucket and completely forgotten about them. Since we are into a nectar dearth—and my honey supers are off—I decided to put the sugar cakes out in the yard for the bees to finish.

In just a few minutes the cakes disappeared beneath a teeming mass of honey bees, but no one seemed to be fighting. The bees were just gorging themselves on the windfall, so I took a couple of photos.

While looking through the camera, however, I realized they weren’t all honey bees. Right in the center were two bumble bees of two different species.

I watched these bees throughout the afternoon. The honey bees and the two bumbles crawled over each other eating, grooming, flying off, coming back, and eating some more. They had no animosity toward each other at all. When I finally went in for the night, they were still out there and the sugar was almost gone. Bees never fail to surprise me.


Now that we’re in a nectar dearth, the honey bees are eager for something sweet. © Rusty Burlew.
It seems that honey bees are not the only ones willing to take a hand-out. © Rusty Burlew.

Sea glass bee waterer

Here’s another take on a honey bee water bar. Andrew, from North Andover, Massachusetts, filled a two-tiered plant stand with bowls of sea glass. He adds plain fresh water daily and he says his bees adore it. I love the colors. The blues and greens look icy, almost begging you to take a sip. Thanks, Andrew!

Andrew Graham Sea Glass Water Dish
Sea glass water dish. © Andrew G.

A marble bar for bees

I watered the shrubbery in front of my house and got the concrete driveway wet in the process. Within a few minutes, dozens and dozens of honey bees congregated on the concrete to lick up the cooling drops.

Recalling that honey bees love salt water pools, I made a wading pool for them from a flower pot saucer and a few handfuls of marbles. Then I added water and some table salt—nothing intense, just enough to give it a slightly brackish taste. I set the saucer on an industrial-size wooden spool in dappled shade and soon forgot about it.

They didn’t pay much attention the first day, but the following day I was amazed to see them climbing all over the marbles. Once they found the saucer, it became hard to keep it full. In the photo, the water is just about gone and so are most of the bees. Since then, I added more marbles so the water is deeper and I can fill it less often.

The bees around here have plenty to drink, so this isn’t a necessity but more of a “conversation piece.” They have streams, creeks, wetlands, and water seeping out of the hillsides. Still, it’s fun to be able to watch them up close. With so many hot days ahead, I think I will have lots to watch.


The honey bees finishing their first bowl of water. © Rusty Burlew.


How to feed bees in freezing weather

My husband came home yesterday and said the local postmaster was looking for me. It seems that one of his customers just lost seven out of nine hives and wants someone to explain why. Apparently he is a new beekeeper who took over the colonies from an elderly man and neither of them know why the bees are dying.

If we ever catch up with each other I will take a look, but seven out of nine is not a happy number. Without seeing a thing, my first guess would be starvation. Without a doubt, this was one of the worst years I’ve ever seen for lack of food stores.

Too cold and too hot

Last winter’s cold was interrupted by an unseasonably warm stretch that caused the maples to bloom early. This was immediately followed by drenching rains that kept the bees inside until the bloom was over. Then, just after the fruit trees began to blossom, a deep freeze shattered the flowers.

At that point, everyone was counting on the blackberry bloom to tide them over. But soon after the berries began to open, an extended heat wave dried them up. The arid summer and brown autumn that followed produced little nectar. Robbing bees were everywhere, gathering every drop of untended sweet. A sticky frame I had left on the picnic table soon disappeared under a pulsing mass of wings.

By September I had large, vivacious colonies with virtually no stores. Although I harvested not a single drop of honey, the hives were so light I could pick up the back end of most. I knew it would be a long, hard winter.

Making up for bad weather

I started by giving the colonies syrup while the weather was still warm, something I haven’t done in years. Then I fed them the frames of reserve honey I kept just in case. After that was gone, I started feeding sugar cakes. In spite of all the feeding, I lost one in December due to a clear case of starvation.

As I said, I haven’t yet inspected the seven dead colonies, but since the owner is close by and suffered the same weather patterns, I wouldn’t be surprised if they starved. And since many places in North America had sere summers, I wanted to remind you to check on food stores the first chance you get.

Too cold to feed bees?

Beekeepers often say they want to check for stores but it is too cold to open the hive. In my opinion, if you believe they might be low and the weather is cold, there is no point in waiting for a warm day to go through the frames. Instead, go ahead and give them reserved honey if you have it or at least a sugar supplement—and do it now.

Candy boards are extremely helpful and, this year, my plan was to make candy boards for each hive. I purchased the materials I needed to make the boards, but never got to it.

But the system I use allows me to feed the bees on cold days, even down in the 20s F. This is what I do:

  1. I make no-cook candy cakes by mixing a little water into a lot of sugar. I put the wet sugar in paper plates and let it dry rock hard. (If I’m in a hurry, I dry it in the oven.)
  2. When the cakes are hard I sprinkle each one with a drop or two of essential oil, such as anise. The scent helps the bees find the sugar, if nothing else.
  3. I pop the cakes out of the plate and stack them in a bucket along with my hive tool.
  4. At the hive, I take off the lid. The bees stay warm because the quilt box holds most of the heat in, even with the lid off.
  5. With the hive tool, I crack the quilt from the feeder rim below it, but I don’t remove the quilt.
  6. I take a candy cake in one hand, lift the corner of the quilt with the other, and slide the candy cake into the feeder rim, placing it directly over the cluster.
  7. If you are ready, this takes about one or two seconds. The hive loses very little heat because you never remove the quilt. It’s like opening and closing a window on a cold day: they get a little gush of cold air, then the temperature returns to normal.
  8. Replace the lid and go to the next hive.

The idea that you shouldn’t feed your (possibly) starving bees because they might get cold in the process doesn’t make any sense to me. If they are out of food, they will die whether they are cold or not. So if you think they might be short of food, prepare in advance, and do it as fast as you can. You don’t have to go through every frame and then decide.

Nature isn’t always nice

Naturally, the best possible food for bees is the honey they stored for themselves. But it doesn’t always work out that way even if you didn’t harvest. If you think your bees may be hungry, go ahead and give them some help. Warm weather may come too late.

Remember, too, that the rate of consumption increases as spring approaches. Just when stores are lowest, they use them the fastest. Every year, thousands of colonies die in the last weeks before the first nectar flows. Remember that, and check on your bees early.


A candy board is a good alternative to sugar cakes. © Herb Lester.

AFB-fortified pollen

­­­Oops. Unfortunately, bee-collected pollen can transmit the spores of American foulbrood just like honey. It works like this:

A colony of bees has become infected with the bacterium that causes AFB. The disease only affects young larvae less than 48 hours old, but adult bees can inadvertently carry the spores throughout the hive.

When a diseased larva dies in its cell, it can release as many as 2.5 billion spores. A nurse bee attends to the mess, cleaning up the dead larva and polishing the cell. But as she works, many of those spores stick to her body and she swallows even more.

In the cramped confines of the hive, she rubs against other bees including a forager who is unloading her pollen into an empty cell. Millions of spores are transferred to the hairs on the forager’s body. Once her pollen is unloaded, she heads back out into the field and begins to collect more.

As the forager sweeps the pollen off her body and into her pollen baskets, spores of AFB are whisked along with it. The spores adhere to the sticky pollen and become embedded in the pellet. These are not wimpy spores—they can survive in bee equipment for forty years or more.

When her pollen baskets are fully loaded, the forager returns to the hive where Beekeeper A has installed a pollen trap. She squeezes though the trap and loses one of her pellets. It drops into the collection drawer below. Damn.

Undaunted, the forager unloads the remaining pellet, gets some food from one of the nurses, rubs against a few others, and is out the door again.

Towards evening, Beekeeper A unloads the pollen trap, dumps the pollen in a plastic bag, and sticks it in the freezer. But freezing is no match for those AFB spores; they are still completely viable when Beekeeper A sells his pellets to the health food store where they are repackaged and dropped in another freezer.

Next month, along comes Beekeeper B. Beekeeper B wants the very best for his bees, so he buys pure, natural, bee-collected pollen to supplement his colony. Ouch. Spendy. But he buys it anyway. He takes it home, crushes the pellets with a mortar and pestle, and feeds them to his bees.

The bees love the stuff, frolic in it, and carry back to their hive along with a few million spores of AFB. By spring the colony is dead, smelling rotten, and the hive needs to be burned. Beekeeper B can’t figure out what he did wrong. . . .

Bee-collected pollen. Photo by Lamiot.
Fortunately, bee-collected pollen can be irradiated to neutralize the AFB spores. Once irradiated, it may be fed directly to bees or mixed into pollen substitutes.

In addition to AFB, pollen may also carry chalkbrood spores. To be on the safe side, never feed pollen to your bees unless you know the source of the pollen is disease free. The best way to do that, of course, is to trap pollen from your own disease-free hives.

Commercial pollen packaged to feed bees is usually irradiated, but pollen from health food stores and similar establishments probably is not, so be a careful consumer, read the label, and ask questions. In most cases, your bees didn’t need the extra pollen anyway, so it is a sad mistake to make.