Feeding bees

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Feeding bees

The ability of honey bees to direct their nest mates to new food sources has, without doubt, been an essential element in their evolution. Floral resources are spread through the landscape in a patchy and fragmented way and for each honey bee to find each nectar source individually would be so inefficient that it would compromise the survival of the colony.

The sophisticated social organisation that enables the efficient collection and storage of both nectar and pollen in times of plenty which allows then to survive during times of dearth is a key feature of the honey bees' biology. Tropical bees have slightly more flexible patterns of survival during dearth periods. They will probably store an excess of honey and pollen. However, they also have the potential to migrate or abscond to a place where nectar and pollen may be more easily available.  Beekeepers should be sure not to rob the bees of all their honey stores. The bees will need some of the honey they have stored to maintain their own life or they will either die or abscond.

Nectar and honey form the energy (or carbohydrate) element of the bees' diet while pollen forms the proteinaceous part of their diet. Both pollen and nectar are essential to normal colony growth.  Without nectar the colony has no energy with which to perform its normal tasks and without pollen young bees cannot be reared.

Where bees abscond frequently it is an indication that food, probably nectar is limited within the environment.  Feeding bees is common in temperate bees; perhaps where the bees have collected  insufficient honey or perhaps where too much honey has been harvested from a colony. In these cases  the feeding of refined white sugar (sucrose) will enable to bees to survive a long period of dearth.  Raw, unrefined brown sugar or molasses is not suitable for feeding bees as they lack the enzymes to deal with the complex sugars that remain in the unrefined sugar and will die of dysentery.  The writer has however, tried pulping the sugar from sugar cane and feeding the resulting  jelly like substance. This appeared to be acceptable to the bees. However, it went mouldy very quickly so needed replenishing frequently. There was no long term experimentation or feedback from this method to indicate how it affected honey bee survival.

Feeding pollen is also practised in areas where pollen is limited. This is most likely to be in the monoculture agricultural landscapes that are associated with large-scale industrialised farming. There are many places in the world where there is plenty of forage, both nectar and pollen. The level of bee absconding and ease of colonisation is probably an indicator of the richness and health of the environment (for the people who live there as well as the bees).

If beekeepers believe either pollen or nectar shortage is affecting the bees, the first line of investigation should be the availability of enough suitable tree species and the implementation of a planting programme if possible.

It is possible, but usually not feasible to feed bees sugar to reduce their propensity to abscond. However, in most places where beekeeping is being used as a poverty alleviation tool it is not an affordable technique. It is probably better that the beekeepers use the sugar for their household needs rather than for the bees. It is not practical in fixed comb hives. Feeding must be done within the confines of the hive if it is not to cause a frenzy of bees robbing and possibly killing the smaller colonies and taking their food. Sugar feeding, where it is practised, is usually done in the evening when there is less chance of disrupting other colonies in the area.  Special feeding equipment is also needed.

In most cases syrup made of about 1 kilo of sugar mixed into 1 litre of water is sufficient. There are variations on this recipe depending on the area of the world, the ambient temperature outside the colony and the possibility of the bees being able to ripen the sugar sufficiently for it to store correctly will affect the exact means of feeding the bees. Feeding sugar is usually practised at the start of the dearth period and the amount of sugar and honey the colony needs to survive through the dearth period is carefully calculated. There are some specialist procedures, such as queen rearing where additional, artificial feeding may be necessary.

Feeding pollen is normally practised at the start of the colony build up period. This is the time when protein demands will be highest as the bees are rearing large numbers of young brood. If the colony build up seems unusual and there are no signs of pollen in the colony then it is possible that supplementary pollen feeding may be helpful.  


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  • Language English
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  • Author Bees for Development
  • Publisher Bees for Development
  • Published Date October 2016
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