Let’s get one thing clear from the outset – bees feed themselves. And they feed themselves above all else on nectar and honey. That said, there are several ways in which a beekeeper can help out with a little additional nutrition. Whether it be sugar water, pollen patties, or corn syrup, there could be any number of reasons for doing this.
Many (non-beekeeping) individuals are familiar with the power of a little sugar water to revivify a flagging or even motionless bee. This simple concoction is the basis of nectar and accordingly, various types of sugar solution is precisely what beekeepers often feed to bees needing a little extra energy.
Yet whereas nectar and honey provide the bee with energy in the form of carbohydrates, pollen constitutes a bee’s protein source. As you might expect then, beekeepers often try to provide this vital nutrient as well should they decide to feed their bees.
Indeed, bee feeding habits in nature are closely deferred to whenever beekeepers decide to artificially feed their bees. And it must be said, there is debate over whether you should feed your bees at all (except for some circumstances where it is obviously necessary). This goes back, in part, to the fact that bees simply feed themselves and, in many cases, feeding them is just not necessary.
There are some slightly more complicated reasons for feeding them though, mainly down to the fact that different bee colonies can have different preferences for the pollen or nectar of a particular plant. This preference is dictated by several things, not least of which is the specific nectar composition of each plant (more on this below) which not only makes it unique (and uniquely attractive to bees) but is also impossible to exactly replace with sugar water or any artificial sugar solution.
Sometimes though, feeding your bees can be recommended – or even necessary – but doing so in the proper manner requires some knowledge of how bees, which are remarkably self-sufficient creatures, feed in the wild.
Bee Feeding Habits
As I touched on above, bees have only two main sources of nutrition. Indeed, bees left to their own devices will scarcely touch anything else. These are nectar (later becoming honey) and pollen, and together they provide all the nutrition a bee needs. Nectar is a sugary liquid that provides bees with carbohydrates – in short, the energy they need to move about. Think back to the scenario of the flagging or motionless bee and the sugar water and you get the idea. Pollen, on the other hand, provides protein for bees (as well as other substances). Pollen is essential for brood production and the development of young bees. As beekeeping expert, instructor and author of Queenspotting: Meet the Remarkable Queen Bee (you can buy it from Amazon here), Hillary Kearney, has put it, “you can think of it this way: honey=energy, pollen=babies.”
Nectar and pollen, of course, are produced by flowers intending to lure bees with a sugary reward (as well as scent and appearance) in order, quite simply, to avoid going extinct. The transference of the pollen from the male to female parts of the flower is directly the work of pollinators foraging for the nectar they themselves need to stay alive. The most major of these pollinators are, of course, our eternal friends, the bees.
Nature, however, is a merciless place and these flowers are, of course, actively competing for the interest of bees. How do they do this? It is not, as you might expect, by simply producing the most nectar or simply existing in the highest densities (although this naturally helps). In fact, flowers make their nectar unique.
Indeed, each species of flower’s nectar (and pollen too) will have a unique composition. This is possible because, contrary to what you might expect, nectar is not just a sugar solution. It also contains (in small but potent concentrations) amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, organic acids, alkaloids, phenolics, glycosides, terpenoids, metal ions, and other volatile oils. Pollen, too, features small but highly significant concentrations of the whole range of these additional chemicals. You might like to see this paper for an in-depth study but, the salient point to all of this is that every flower’s nectar and pollen is unique and you simply can’t recreate that with artificial feeding.
This variety of nectar and pollen composition has two important effects with regard to bee feeding habits. The first of these is, like so much in the world of bees, still relatively poorly understood. This is whatever nutritional effect these additional components have in their respective proportions. Does more amino acid have this effect, more enzyme that? Well, there is much scientific interest in precisely this topic, with conclusions that certain nectar and pollen ingredients can ward off parasites or improve a bee’s immune system. For example, it has been found that p-courmaric acid (found in pollen) can help regulate a bee’s natural detoxification systems. We might wonder now what other hidden benefits are offered by the natural form of these remarkable substances. And the corollary to all of this is that, naturally enough, you could be denying something to your bees by going artificial.
Bee Preferences Differ
The second effect is much simpler – certain bees and certain colonies really seem to prefer particular flowers when collecting nectar and pollen. One of the most amazing things about the bees is that, although a single species, they exhibit as much diversity of preference as the many species of flowers do of nectar/pollen composition. Put more simply, your bees like things a certain way. You could, of course, try to tailor your feed to your bees’ preference but them lacking the ability to speak to you means that you could find this a tricky business!
Of course, this is not to say that you shouldn’t feed bees, or even that bee feeding is only an emergency resort. But being aware of the dangers of artificial feeding – if it can be termed in that way – as well as understanding how bees feed themselves is the first step to making the right decision. Which leads us to…
When Should I Feed my Bees?
So with all of this – quite considerable – information to consider, when should you actually feed your bees? Under what circumstances? And how regularly? While it may even have been concluded in a study that the majority of widely used alternative food sources do not provide what nectar, honey, and pollen do, this does not mean your bees wouldn’t benefit under certain circumstances.
The first, and perhaps most pressing of such circumstances, is when a colony is literally in imminent peril. This can happen and for different reasons. The colony might have been weakened by a lack of food stores, damage, or even a rather negligent beekeeping novice harvesting too much or all of the honey, leaving the bees none to eat.
Such are the emergency reasons, but a beekeeper may also decide to feed a colony if it is only recently – and tenuously – established, or perhaps to give their bees an artificial boost before spring (which is when bees will start making their food).
These are but a few reasons why you might need or want to feed your bees, but how can you tell? Are there some hard and fast indicators that suggest to the beekeeper that it is time to feed? You can, thankfully, gauge the energy and general health of your bees by observing a couple of things within the hive. If your bees are not festooning (that is to say, constructing new honeycomb) then something is definitely up. This is one such metric that you can apply simply by looking.
You might also wish to check your bees’ honey or pollen stores within the hive. You should ideally see these, if anything, increasing. If you see them dwindling, it might be time to consider feeding.
What to Feed My Bees
As I have already discussed at length, when it comes to bees, it is all about nectar, honey, and pollen. With regards to artificial feeding, it is these foodstuffs that are deliberately approximated to. Even the humble sugar water is simply an imitation nectar.
You might want to check out this article for some very detailed information on supplementary bee feeding (including some useful ratio figures) but, generally speaking, bee feed products are widely available and able to be used fairly intuitively.
A helpful rule of thumb is to keep in mind that nectar/honey is for energy and pollen for broods. What problem do you have, exactly? A poor brood might lead you to supply your bees with some pollen patties. Are your bees slacking in hive construction or foraging? Perhaps a little corn syrup or sugar water might be in order.
A special mention might be due to the famous sugar water station. Well known to beekeepers, this can be a great supplementary feeding option that involves no tampering with the hive (excess feed around the hive can attract pests) and which can give you a good indicator of whether it is needed or not. Do your bees forsake their golden temple and crowd your little feeding station? If so, it certainly looks like it might be needed after all!
Ultimately, keeping one thing in mind might prove exceptionally useful: bees feed themselves, but they sometimes need help.
To finish with, I came across this video, which I think is very informative and may give you some additional information. Enjoy: