Feeding Honeybees in the City: Why and How

Reader Contribution by Kim Flottum
1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

Don’t honeybees find their own food? Nectar and pollen from flowers, right? Why on earth would I feed honeybees?

Well, look at it this way: 

First off, bees don’t belong in North America. They came from somewhere else, and that’s where their food

grows. Now, along with honeybees we’ve moved a lot of their food sources to North America, too, so there is a presence here, but not everywhere. So, one thing going against them is that they can’t find the right food.

And then there’s the weather. Can’t do anything but complain about the weather, but if it doesn’t cooperate, plants don’t bloom, or they bloom in the rain, or it freezes early, or there’s not enough rain, or there’s a late freeze that kills darn near everything. And then there’s the artificial weather big cities cause. All that cement is a heat sink in summer, keeping the ambient temperature, especially at night, warmer than normal. This does affect the length of time blossoms last, when they start and finish, and even how much nectar they produce. It’s all iffy, but it’s all been looked at in other ways. Warm up the weather and blooms come sooner and don’t last as long. How can it be any different in the city?

And don’t forget about that new mall down the street where the park used to be. Also, did you know that half the lawns in the United States cover more acres than all of the national parks? Only half! And, except for an errant dandelion or clover blossom, lawns don’t provide much forage for honey bees.

And the newest phenom— too many bees! Can that be? Really? London has gone from about 1,500 colonies to about 3,000 colonies in the last five years. London is 606 square miles, and that works out to be just under 400,000 acres, or .007 colonies/acre, or 5 colonies/square mile. New York is less than half of that from what I can tell. I wonder if overcrowding is really an issue. But it might be. 

Then add in the problems bees have without problems caused by the environment they live in— going queen-less is common; swarming, pests and diseases, even things like vandalism and over harvesting add to the issues of not enough food.

Put all these things together and some years you could have a real problem. 

So, no matter how good your bees are doing, and how well you’ve been tending them, your honey bees, through no fault of their own, might have to be fed because there just isn’t the food out there that there used to be, at least this year, this season. 

Hungry bees don’t make it through the winter. In fact, honeybees need to be well-fed in late summer, not late fall. Late summer? Yes and here’s why: The bees that raise the bees that go through winter have to be healthy, or they can’t do a good job taking care of those winter bees. The saying goes…take care of the bees that take care of the bees that go into winter. 

That’s been tough this year in a lot of places. It was a cool, late spring, then summer sort of vanished. Parts of the country were rain, rain, rain. Others suffered drought, again. Cold, too hot…it’s not been a good honey-producing year in most of the country this year.

So, if food isn’t coming in, food needs to be supplied. An average colony should have six or seven frames of honey…and it’s almost never a full frame of honey you find but parts of lots of frames have honey, just sitting there…all the time in reserve…just in case. If they are short in the summer —and it’s not uncommon to have a summer dearth— they need food. And, especially in late summer and into the fall, they need food (both protein and carbs) to stay healthy, to make sure the nurse bees are healthy, so that the bees going into winter are healthy. And to stay that way, they need stored food for the whole winter. 

But what to feed? Well, frugal beekeepers who plan ahead store frames with honey and pollen in the freezer for just such an emergency. But unfortunately most of us aren’t frugal. Or there wasn’t anything to be frugal with. Or, we harvested in the time of plenty, thinking plenty would last, and it didn’t. So, here we are. No honey, pollen or ideas of where to get any. What else?

For carbs, the answer is simple— sugar water. Mix up a solution that’s two parts sugar, one part water. Say, a quart of water and two quarts of sugar in a gallon pail. Stir until dissolved. Add a teaspoon of something…Honey B Healthy comes to mind, but peppermint oil or vinegar work to give this sugar syrup a bit of an odor and flavor. Pure sugar water doesn’t have odor or flavor…bees have to find it by accident. This provides a bit of incentive for them to try it…and then it’ll be gone. A quart of sugar weighs about three pounds…so you can figure how many times you’ll have to do this to get all the stored sugar into the hive to last through the fall, or even all winter. It’s a lot. 

Next, protein: Bees don’t eat steak. It’s got to be a pollen substitute, or they die. It’s simple. What kind? Two kinds: The dry powder substitute is good because the bees can collect it and store it for late-winter use in brood rearing. Otherwise no brood next spring. But the patties…different story. That material they can’t, or don’t, store in the hive. Rather, they actually consume it and convert it to a form that they can store in their bodies. Called fat bodies, it becomes stored protein for later. When food runs low in the spring, these nurse bees can draw on this reserve to feed the young, or themselves, so nobody starves. These are the winter bees that are so critical for a colony to get through the winter. 

So feed your city bees —and any bees— now. Don’t wait until it’s too late and they can’t get enough stored, and they can’t get winter bees into shape, and they don’t have enough. A dead colony next spring is the beekeeper’s fault. 

Kim Flottum has been the Editor of Bee Culture Magazine for almost 30 years. He is the author of four books on beekeeping ranging from beginner’s to intermediate to advanced business. His last book was co-authored with Marina Marchese on Honeys and Honey Tasting. He travels extensively nationally and internationally speaking to beekeepers, investors and pollinator special interest groups.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368