Emergency Feeding – Don’t let your Bees Starve!

If you have any suspicion whatsoever that your bees might be low on food – or even if they have food but the cluster might not be able to get to it. You can insure that your bees don’t starve by “mountain camp” feeding. It is very easy, doesn’t require any special equipment, and doesn’t require digging around in the hive – you can even do it when it is pretty cold. There is no reason to let your bees starve.

Mountain Camp Sugar Feeding

This article has been previously published, but contains seasonally relevant information…

dry sugar emergency feed for honey bees
To ensure your bees don’t starve over the winter you can very simply pour plain sugar onto a sheet of paper towel or newspaper  laid directly on the top bars of the hive. leave room for the bees to get around – that’s just about all there is to it. A useful addition is a piece of  half  inch mesh wire under the paper so that when you need to inspect you can easily lift the whole thing off and replace it.

If you have any suspicion whatsoever that your bees might be low on food – or even if they have food but the cluster might not be able to get to it.   You can insure that your bees don’t starve by “mountain camp” feeding.  It is very easy, doesn’t require any special equipment, and doesn’t require digging around in the hive – you can even do it when it is pretty cold.  There is no reason to let your bees starve.

If you don’t wet the sugar a bit the bees will often carry it out of the hive as if it were refuse – or when they eat through the paper it will trickle down into the hive and make a mess.  Using a spray bottle of plain water wet down the paper, add a layer of sugar about 1/2 – 1″ thick, wet it down, continue adding sugar in layers and wetting them until you have added all the sugar you want to apply.  If you are worried about adding so much moisture to the hive – don’t the sugar will quickly absorb all of it as it hardens up.  It will not hurt anything.  4-5 pounds of sugar  is not too much to use.  Be sure to leave space for the bees to go around the paper.  Add an empty super or a feed shim to make room for everything.  An empty super may seem too roomy, but it works fine – I have been doing this for 5 years now, and a medium super does the job with no problems.

this honey bee hive has eaten almost all of the mountain camp sugar.
This hive needs more sugar.
bees out of sugar
Now even a complete novice can tell that this hive will starve without immediate action. No guessing, very simple judgement, and a good excuse to go out and visit your bees on a winter day.

It will now be easy to tell just by peaking under the cover if your bees have used up the sugar yet.  If you feed like this and the cluster is at the top of the hive – which they often are by now – they Will Not Starve unless you let them.

A common spring occurrence is that colonies will have a good amount of open brood in them during a late cold snap.  The hive will cluster on the brood to keep it warm, and the bees and open brood will consume all of the food stores withing reach of the cluster.  Within just a few days of cold weather under these conditions a hive can starve to death with honey stored less than 3 inches from the cluster.  If the cluster is at the top, and you apply mt camp sugar this will not happen unless you let them run out of sugar.

An additional benefit of feeding like this is that the sugar absorbs moisture and helps to prevent condensation from dripping on the bees and freezing them.

maountain camp honey bee emergency feed with pollen sub candy.
As the bees consume the sugar feed you can replenish it with bee candy – I start feeding pollen sub candy in mid January.  As you can see in this picture the bees often hollow out the sugar from the bottom as they eat it.

As the food is used up you can either add a layer of paper on top of the old feed and just give them more granulated sugar or you can give them chunks of home made bee candy.

By the time you are ready to remove any remaining feed the sugar will be set up into a solid chunk that can easily be removed.  You can make syrup out of the scraps and nothing goes to waste.

There are two drawbacks to this system that I know of:  Sometimes during long spells of bad weather or if the bees have nosema a few of them may defecate on top of the sugar feed – they normally would not do that inside of the hive unless conditions were really bad.  This can’t be a good thing as far as hygiene goes, but I have never lost a hive due to nosema as far as I can tell despite routinely using mt camp sugar feed. On the other hand the signs of nosema are very clearly apparent when you see them on top of the white sugar, and that could give you the notice that you need to take timely action if you plan to treat for such things.

The other drawback to feeding like this is that you can’t add supers until you remove the feed – you can actually, but it won’t do much good if the weather turns cold and there is a box of empty comb between the emergency feed and the cluster of bees.  Of course you don’t need to add supers until there is nectar coming in anyway, but I thought I should mention that it can cause a conflict in certain weather/hive conditions.

I always feed like this in the winter, because I think that the benefits outweigh any downsides that there may be, however this does not mean that you can or should rob excessive honey, or fail to feed syrup in the fall if they need it.  But if your hives are light this will save your bacon.

When Good Bees go Bad

This article was originally posted in June 2011, but contains seasonally relevant information.

Whenever there isn’t a good flow on (like now and throughout the rest of the summer) strong honey bee hives will often rob weak hives – if it gets bad enough they will completely decimate the hive that is being robbed.

This is the best video that I could find that actually showed robbing going on. Notice 2 things 1) The robber bees are climbing up the hive to get some extra elevation before they take off – this is typical in a robbing frenzy. 2) Groups of bees wrestling on the landing board, and falling off the front in clumps – those distinguish a robbing frenzy from orientation or swarming.

To Prevent Robbing:

  • Don’t let it get started! Much easier to prevent than to correct.
  • Don’t spill syrup or nectar.
  • Don’t drop burr comb and leave it laying.
  • Don’t use entrance feeders.
  • If you feed one hive, feed them all.  A big strong hive that is hungry is highly motivated to rob – and they don’t want to break into next winters stored honey if they don’t have to.
  • Feed late in the evening – an amount small enough to be gone by morning.
  • Restrict all entrances to very small – if there is a traffic jam at the strong hive the robber bees can’t get in to unload and make another run.  If the entrance to the weak hive is small it can be effectively defended be just a few bees.  Think of one Marine blocking a doorway compared to trying to block a whole street.  Very large natural bee hives often go in and out through very small openings.
  • When you need to open hives do what you need to do and close it back up as quickly as possible.
  • Very important – make sure there is only one entrance – including that little hole in the front of the inner cover – block that off.  A hive that is being robbed has a very hard time defending the back door.
  • Don’t open feed close to your hives!  Some people have had success shutting down a robbing frenzy by open feeding 100 yards or so away – thus drawing the robbers off to easier pickings.

 

There will be some robbing.  It’s just what they do.  When it gets out of hand you won’t have to ask anyone if it is robbing or not – it looks violent, and chaotic.  If that happens  what has worked for me  is to suit up and thoroughly smoke  all hives that might be involved – both the criminals and the victims, and completely block up the entrances until about one half hour before dark – don’t suffocate them though. Then apply corrective actions.

Robber screens are my #1 way of preventing robbing – and I have many little bitty weak hives right next to big strong hives.

I would like to encourage anyone with tips, insights, or nasty remarks to leave a comment.

Queenless!!

Queenlessness is probably the main cause of hive death during the beekeeping season – but it doesn’t have to be.  A hive can lose its  queen for several reasons – swarming, supersedure, beekeeper error,  etc.  Any time a new queen flies out to mate there is a significant chance that she won’t make it back.

When a strong hive becomes queenless for any reason you have about 4-5 weeks to take action to save the hive, but the sooner you do something the better it will be.  This is one reason that we do inspections.

What to do when you are queenless.