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Should I be Feeding my Bees?

This is probably one of the most asked questions by new and inexperienced beekeepers, and unfortunately there are far too may out there ready to jump in and advise. I find a lot about 'internet beekeeping' advice very frustrating, but this is probably at the top of my list.  I always tell my apprentices "If you ask this question, and someone just starts talking at you, stop listening to their advice immediately!"

The reason is because this question does not have a one size fits all answer.   Whether or not  and how much you should be feeding your bees will depend upon how strong the hive is (how many mouths to feed), where you are in the season, and how close are you to a nectar flow, and, of course, how much honey you have stored in your hive. So unless the person you are asking knows a lot more about your hives, they can't actually adequately advise you on whether own to feed.  

When I am asked this question I always first ask the beekeeper, "What is your goal in feeding your bees?"  This is because although the primary reason we feed is for nutritional deficiencies in a hive, there are other reasons beekeepers may chose to feed as well, including to encourage comb building, stimulate brood rearing, to aid in queen rearing, or to help with a case of European Foul Brood.  Next, I try to understand the current context of their hive. For example, if the goal of feeding is to address a potential lack of nutrition, I would want to understand how strong the hive is to help recommend how much feed to provide and at what intervals. (Stronger hives need more food, as they have more mouths to feed than a weaker hive.  Overfeeding a weak hive can result in fermented syrup, ripe conditions for breeding  small hive beetles, and detracting from brood rearing.) 

But First, Nutrition

I've always found it curious that beekeepers are a group that are so very concerned with knowing if they should feed their bees, yet very few actually truly understand the nutritional needs of their bees.  Before we can answer the question "should I be feeding", shouldn't we first understand the nutritional needs of bees, where they bees get those nutrients, and what happens if they are not naturally available? Then, and only then, can we actually assess if and what nutritional supplemental is necessary.  

As with humans, poor nutrition can result in devastating health effects on the colony. However, humans have decades to try to right any nutritional wrongs: the lifespan of honey bees is measured in days. A few weeks of poor nutrition in the developmental stage can wreak havoc on the hive when those bees are expected to provide the foraging workforce to gather food for the rest of the colony. If the timing is right, and this weakened workforce comes of age during those few precious weeks when bees are expected to make honey, the colony can forfeit its ability to store enough honey for the winter and will starve to death.  On the other hand, too many beekeepers with too poor of an understanding of the needs of bees often treat them as pets that require daily feeding, stuffing the hive full of pollen substitutes and sugar water.  Though well intentioned, these beekeepers’ colonies can experience grave consequences as well. 

Understanding the nutritional needs of your bees and knowing how and when they can access these nutrients from their environment will help guide you to make decisions on whether or not feeding is necessary.

Macronutrients Required by Honey Bees

Honeybees require three different macronutrients to maintain colony systems and functions, energy, and growth.  Macronutrients are nutrients derived from food sources that make up the largest portion of an organism’s diet.  Let’s review each of these macronutrients, their importance in a honey bee colony and in what food sources they are found.  If you’ve done any studies in human nutrition, this will all sound very familiar! 

  • Carbohydrates:  Carbohydrates provide fuel and energy for the colony to function. The primary source of carbohydrates for the colony are found in both nectar and honey. 
  • Protein:  Protein and amino acids are necessary for muscle and glandular development and for repairing tissues. The primary source of protein and amino acids for a colony is found in pollen. 
  • Lipids (fats):  Lipids include different fats and essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6s.  Lipids are necessary for brood rearing and a proper balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is necessary for learning for good brain health. Honey bees obtain lipids from pollen. 

Additionally, honey bees require a number of micronutrients: vitamins and minerals that are required but in much smaller quantities than macronutrients. Vitamins are obtained from pollen, while minerals are obtained from pollen, some nectars, and from standing water (that may be a bit “dirty”.) 

Ready to Learn More?
 Want to learn more about honey bee nutrition, including the role of royal jelly and bee bread in hive? Check out our Honey Bee Nutrition class on May 21.  You'll leave with a comprehensive understanding of nderstanding the needs of a hive so you can identify if  supplementation is necessary, in what ratios and amounts, and how frequently you should be feeding.

Plus, check our our Ask a Beek this Friday at the Honey Ranch!  We will be talking all about pheromones of the hive.  I'm pretty excited about this one, and I can guarantee even the most experienced beekeepers will learn something new.  

For the Bees,
Tara Dawn

Join us for this month's Ask a Beek at the Honey Ranch! We will be discussing pheromones of the hive-there's a lot more going on than most of us realize!  Event is FREE. Drinks start at 5 and workshop starts at 5:30pm!
Are you a new beekeeper? Did you just install your first hives? We just listed a new Hive Inspection Class 101 just for you! Join me on June 4th for this timely class to help you identify all the different castes, pollen, nectar, and honey; what you should be looking for every time you inspect your hives, how frequently you should inspect, what and when to feed, and more.  Register here!
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