Hive Check – Week 4 and 5: Feeding the bees for winter

One thing that I have learned so far with beekeeping is that the bees, and a good beekeeper, always need to be thinking of and preparing for the season to come. And so even though it is August, and still hot as blazes outside, my bees are busy building comb and storing as much honey as they can manage. They are not doing this because they will be enjoying the honey right NOW, but because they are building up their stores to get them through the winter. And in the dead of winter, starting sometime in February, they will be warming up the inside of their winter cluster formation to a balmy 35 degrees C (95 degrees F) so that they can start raising brood (bee babies). Not because they need all that stress on their reserves, but because they need to start preparing the population of bees to get out to collect as many resources as possible in the summer. It is interesting to watch these insects that never seem to stop working and are always, always preparing for the day ahead. And if I want to have any success at keeping bees than I need to share this mindset. There is no “living in the moment” so to speak when you are a bee(keeper).

So ahead of my week 4 hive check, in mid-August, I made the decision to start feeding my bees. I did have a bit of hesitation, after all the bees were still bringing in nectar from the environment. But then I had the pleasure of taking a course one evening a couple of weeks ago about “Preparing your hive for winter”. It was a great reminder that as summer is coming to an end we should be doing everything we can to help the bees in their winter preparations. You may have heard that bees spend an incredible amount of time foraging – common statistics on the matter say one forager bee will produce 1/10th of a teaspoon of honey; or it takes 556 bees and 2 MILLION flowers to make one pound of honey. So if my bees didn’t have to spend all this time foraging for nectar they could be packing on the honey much faster. And so here is what I have done so far to feed my bees:

Step 1 – Choose a style of feeder

There is quite a lot of selection when it comes to type of feeder to use. I wont go over them all here but instead will explain why I choose the feeder I did. The first decision to make is an internal feeder or an external feeder. I think this decision is easy at this time of year – never use a feeder that is outside of the hive! As the amount of nectar decreases in the environment, honey bees and wasps will begin to look for other sources of sugar. And inside a beehive there is a lot of sugar! So strong honeybee colonies and wasps will actually invade other, often weaker, colonies and rob them of all of their resources. And having an external feeder can act as a beacon, calling all the other sugar-loving insects to the party in your yard. So you want to have a covert operation – make sure the feeder is one that will be enclosed inside the hive.

There is also a decision to make on where within the hive it will go. Some feeders fit in between the frames of the bees, while other feeders go on top of the inner cover. For this I decided to go with a bucket feeder, which will fit on top. There is nothing fancy about this bucket. It is literally a plastic pail with a tight fitting lid and gasket. The lid has a couple of holes in the center that are covered by a mesh screen, so that when inverted the bees can access the syrup from the screen. I went with a 3 gallon bucket, and purchased mine for $13 and change. They are also easy to make at home, with lots of information on the net about how to do so. The main reason that I went with this style is because it holds a lot of feed and it is easy to clean and keep in good working condition. The theory behind how this style of feeder works is that when turned upside down a vacuum is created that will prevent the syrup from dripping out. Sounds easy. So with bucket in hand I went on to step 2.

Step 2: Preparing the feed

What the bees really need here is pure carbohydrates in an easy to store manner that will last them through winter. Normally they collect nectar, which is about 70% water, and then the house bees will fan the nectar to dehydrate it until it is about 17% water, which can then be safely stored for a long period of time. The best thing to feed in the warm months is sugar syrup that they can take and turn into honey, just as they would with nectar. It is important to note that bees are really only after the simple sugar, or “empty calories” – they don’t need other stuff in there that would be harder on their digestive systems. So the best sugar to use is very refined white sugar.

In terms of how to make the syrup we must remember that in order to be stored as honey the bees have to get the moisture content way down to about 17%. So to help them on this process as the season is coming to a close and time is not on our side, it is a good idea to make a concentrated syrup out of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. It you use a lower sugar to water solution it will just take the bees longer to get it ready for storage. If you use a higher sugar to water ratio you run the risk of the sugar crystallizing back out at room temperature. So 2:1 is the best in the fall, and you will need to make it on the stove top with the help of heat, in addition to stirring, to get the sugar to fully dissolve.

Fresh batch of sugar syrup – my two year old insisted on trying it and, not surprisingly, found it delicious!

So I purchased a 20 kg bag of white table sugar, added 8 cups of it along with 4 cups of water into a large pot and made a simple syrup. I let it cool then threw it into the bucket, and repeated with another batch. My bucket was only about 1/3 full but I was ready to check the bees so I headed out the door.

Step 3: Installing the feeder.

Ok this is where I failed. Many. Many. Many times. Everything I had read about the bucket feeder was you just put it upside down with the mesh screen inline with the hole in the inner cover. A magical vacuum thanks to the wonders of physics will keep all that sugar syrup in the bucket until the bees go and take some. Simple. Right? Well I got to my hive, and did my hive check which went well enough. Got the hive reassembled except for the lid and had the smart idea to invert the bucket over the lawn so I could make sure this thing would actually work. Well as soon as it was upturned my beautiful syrup was gushing out. I tried a few times and every time more syrup leaked. Frustrated, sticky and discouraged I decided to go home to read up more about how to actually use this thing.

When I got home I tried a mallet to help seal the lid down. Didn’t help. I watched a couple of youTube videos. Didn’t help. I tried tipping the bucket quickly. Didn’t help. Slowly. Didn’t help. So I tossed the syrup, washed the bucket and decided to just experiment with water. So I filled it up about 2/3 full and up ended it. Instant success! No leaks, no drips. What???

So after laying awake half the night wondering why this wasn’t working, I got up early the next morning and started making a larger batch of syrup. Perhaps it was because the bucket had only been 1/3 full. I made a few larger pots full, filled my bucket about 2/3 of the way, sealed the lid with a mallet, and tipped it over. And again sugar syrup was gushing out. I was crushed. I took physics throughout high school and into my third year at university – how could this little bucket that everyone made sound so easy be defeating me? So I sat down again to google what on earth was going wrong. And finally on some random message board I saw a comment that “the syrup will leak until the vacuum is created”. Was I just being inpatient? So once again I tried tipping the bucket over. And as I watched the syrup leaking out I waited. And after a few minutes the leak had slowed to a slow drip and then, mercifully, just stopped. Success! So I headed back over to my bee yard with an empty pot to catch the leaking syrup, tipped the bucket over and let it leak over the pot until it stopped. I got it positioned on top of the inner cover and then placed my two empty medium boxes around it so that it would be completely contained inside my hive. I went back the next morning, concerned that the syrup had been leaking all over the bees all night, but thankfully my bucket was still about as full as the day prior and everything looked good.

The bucket is on top of the inner cover and will be enclosed in the two medium boxes I have and the hive lid.

Just a note on why I took that pot – it is important to not spill any sugary substance (be it honey or sugar syrup or whatever) around the bee yard. Again it will attract other honey bees or wasps and increase the risk of robbing. So the first time when I spilled the syrup on the lawn I emptied a bucket of water on it to dilute it or “wash” it away. The second time I took the pot to catch the spilling syrup, which I then took back home with me to discard. It is a small step, but anything I can do to help safeguard my bees is worth it!

A week later I went back for my next hive check and the bucket was empty! I found a couple of frames that were heavy with recently capped honey. The bees were looking great, and I was content knowing that I was doing what I could to help them get ready for the seasons ahead. Today I took over a fresh batch of syrup. I have already used the 20 kg bag! A note for next year (or anyone looking for advice on feeding bees) – get two buckets per hive so that you can have a fresh one ready to go and the bees do not have to wait!

No Bee left behind! When I picked the frame up the bees formed this chain ensuring none of the bees fell. They really are amazing to observe!

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