Bees forage for nectar, pollen, propolis and water. They make honey from nectar, use pollen for protein, and they seal and protect their hives with propolis. Good bee nutrition does not include sugar water, high fructose corn syrup, or even pollen patties. Feeding bees this stuff is akin to putting soda or formula in a baby’s bottle rather than breastfeeding. Just like poorly nourished humans, poorly nourished bees have fewer resources to fight all of the challenges to their health: a chemical soup of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in their environment along with a plethora of opportunistic parasites and diseases.
Bees need their own good honey for proper, balanced nutrition and health. When you rob every drop of honey after the nectar flow and then feed your bees sugar or corn syrup, they suffer and your honey crop suffers. Not only do the bees miss out on their own good food, you do too. Your honey contains stored sugar water and corn syrup, which alters the taste and quality and is NOT PURE HONEY. If you sell your honey, your customers can tell the difference.
You need strong, healthy hives to produce a good harvest. Honey contains fructose and glucose as well as 22 other complex sugars. But it also contains small amounts of enzymes, acids, minerals, and even vitamins. Although it has some amino acids as well, the bees get most of their protein from pollen, of which the developing larvae need a lot. Depriving them of all these nutrients is asking for them to get sick.
So how can you ensure your bees have proper nutrition and still get a good honey crop?
First, do not harvest all of their honey. Leave enough honey so the bees can use their own stores through times of little bloom and through the winter. When you remove your comb to store after the harvest, you’ll probably find some honey that has not yet been capped. Store some of this in your freezer as emergency feed. Chunks of comb can be placed in the hive and the bees can get to the honey without drowning in it. I also leave all of the honey that the bees produce from the fall bloom for their winter stores. If they produce a surplus in the fall, I may freeze some frames for future use by the bees or to start new hives in the spring.
Second, take your losses in the fall and cull weak hives. If a hive is weak, rather than feed it and let it limp along and probably die anyway, kill the poorly performing queen and add the bees to another, stronger hive. You can either freeze or give their honey stores to your other hives. Your hives will be stronger and healthier, and they will produce more in the long run.
Start your new hives during the spring nectar flow (time of heaviest bloom) so that the bees have good nutrition for population build up and wax production. You can thaw a little of your frozen comb honey to get them started, but they will soon be mining the blooms if you let them.
Leave a full super of honey on your hives at all times (this amount is for Middle Tennessee and will vary with your location and length of your winter). Leaving this honey for the bees is not a loss to you by any means. The bees will more than make up for this in honey production each year. They will have proper nutrition for a good spring population buildup without the “stimulus” of sugar water. I save money and time by not having to feed hives AND they produce more, high-quality honey--pure honey. I consistently find that my hives produce more pounds of honey each year, not even counting this ever-present extra super of honey, than they did in the early years when we used to rob them dry and then try to keep them fed.
This is also the secret to why my honey tastes so good and why my customers say, “It tastes like honey used to” and “It’s the best honey I’ve every tasted!” To hear comments like this and to also save time and money? It’s a no-brainer: Please do not feed the bees!
Betty is a sideline beekeeper living in Middle Tennessee who promotes chemical-free and sustainable beekeeping. You can find her at PersimmonRidgeHoneyFarm.com and on Facebook.