Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Feeding established hives sugar water or high fructose corn syrup is almost never necessary—nor is feeding necessary when creating nucleus hives (nucs). In this article, I hope to convince you that feeding your bees is not only bad for the health of the bees and bad for honey production, but is bad for your bottom line! By learning about nectar flows, forage plants, and how the beekeeping season progresses in your area, you can increase your honey yields, your hive numbers, and the health of your bees.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that my bees know how to feed themselves and are healthier and more productive when I don’t interfere with their nutrition by feeding them “candy” or processed pollen paddies. When fed sugar water and corn syrup, the bees get lazy and do not forage for more nutritious fare. They use the artificial feed to make and store honey, thus greatly decreasing the quality, taste, and nutritional composition of the honey. The bees build up quickly when artificially fed, but then are addicted to feeding. When the beekeeper quits feeding them and the bees must forage on their own, the momentum and any jump on the season are lost.
Some beekeepers think taking away all of the honey and then feeding back sugar syrup is more economical because the profit from the honey outweighs the cost of the syrup. I believe feeding ends up costing the beekeeper more in the health of the bees and in overall honey production. A healthy, strong, well-fed hive produces far more honey, and the honey is of better quality and taste.
Currently, normal yields for my area are 40 to 50 pounds of honey per hive. Each established hive in my apiaries consists of 2 deep brood boxes and what I call 1 “eternal” shallow super. It’s always there. The nectar flow has finished here, and after pulling honey for the last time a couple of weeks ago, I left these shallow supers filled with mostly uncapped honey. With this honey and what’s in the deeps, the bees will make it through the dearth of summer until the fall bloom. By that time, these top supers will be mostly empty and the bees can refill them in the fall with the bloom from asters, goldenrod, and other fall flowers for their winter stores.
In addition to not feeding the hives, I took eleven 3-frame nucs from the strongest hives this spring during the nectar flow. So how did all this “hurt” my honey harvest? I averaged 73 pounds per hive! Yes, I could have squeezed out that last super of honey and increased my yields even more, but I would have paid for such folly in next years yields. In addition to my honey crop, the bees produced the new nuc hives.
Not Feeding Nucs
Of the 11 nucs created this spring, 9 went on to make queens and are now thriving. The bees have mostly filled all the bottom deep hive bodies and, in most hives, are working to fill a second deep hive body (see photo below).
I started the first 6 nucs just as the nectar flow was beginning and fed each nuc a partial frame of comb honey (frozen from last year) and then did not feed them again. Five of 6 of these were successful. I made the last 5 nucs a few weeks later at the height of the nectar flow and did not feed them at all. They had only the honey and pollen that were stored in the 3 frames taken from the original hives. I NEVER fed these nucs. Four of 5 of these were successful.
When I checked on these hives yesterday, I could not tell which hives I had fed with comb honey and which hives I had not fed until I looked back at my notes. They have all built up well. I urge you to learn about the seasons in your area, learn when your nectar flows begin and end, learn what your bees forage on, and then adjust your timing for making nucs and for harvesting honey accordingly. You’ll be benefiting yourself and your bees.
Pictured here in the foreground is the first deep hive body with the second deep in the background. The bees have expanded from the original 3-frames into most of the bottom deep and are now expanding upwards into the 2nd deep. This hive was created on April 24, 2014 (picture taken July 5, 2014) and received no supplemental feeding.