Should I feed my dog?
In a new series of articles, Bee Buzz Box will challenge traditional beliefs that are more folklore than reality. Some ‘time-established’ practices may not be in the best interests of honey bees but then we are all free to believe that gnomes inhabit the bottom of the garden – as well as our parliament.
In this first foray Bee Buzz Box muses on the wisdom of feeding bees and the widely held view that bees should never be fed.
So what to expect of our bees? It would be splendid if they were never to fall prey to disease, if they always gathered all they needed to sustain themselves and for them to happily share their summer bounty. The Land of Dairy Flat Road and Club Honey returned a seemingly modest 180 kg of liquid gold this year. However that should be reckoned against the fact that took about 60 kg of sugar in early spring to kick start near starving bees and rather more than 60 kg after we had extracted in early March. The past crook season put pay to that Garden of Eden scenario: we fed almost as much as we got so a zero sum game but we won. Our bees are healthy and well prepared for a long winter and we got enough honey to knock up a batch of mead.
In an ideal world our dogs – and bees – could rely entirely on nature’s bounty. Sometimes, as evidenced by the number of apple cores and discarded sandwiches my dog finds on regular walks, I’m inclined to the view that this may indeed be possible. I’d be less certain that, had I failed to feed, educate or immunise my children, they would have grown up to be healthy, wealthy and wise and be there ready to meet my every need in my dotage.
In good seasons, and with good disease surveillance and young queens, bees exceed all their needs and will invest establishing new colonies through the process we know as swarming. But what if, as our pets protest, they cannot feed themselves. Not feeding animals is famous for attracting press attention and for having offenders reported to the RSPCA.
… A Port Noarlunga South man convicted for failing to feed three dogs …. The magistrate decided not to record a conviction, and banned the defendant indefinitely from owning…
In most cases, leaving enough honey with the bees makes great sense. One might reconcile countervailing arguments about leaving ample stores or feeding sugar – maybe just a top-up – to meet overwintering requirements . However I find it extremely difficult to accept that bees can be left in the lurch simply because they ‘might survive’.
Common practice is to leave a super of honey and is a no fuss solution to meeting honey bee colony needs. On the other hand many commercial beekeepers will extract all but brood comb honey near seasons’ end and feed them heavily with sugar and pollen supplements to make up the shortfall. An apiarist making a living from bees will do much better selling honey at say $15 – $20 per kilogram and putting the strong end-of-season bees to work processing sugar syrup. Sugar retails at about $1 per kilogram. The choice is yours but leaving enough honey accords well with Thomas Seeley’s notion of Darwinian Beekeeping.
In this context it is interesting to stop and reflect on how bees operate in the wild. In many instances colonies do not survive winter especially if this follows drought. Drought sorts bees out and is a factor – apart from available nesting hollows – that limits the number of bee colonies the landscape will support.
Thus stated, it does say a lot about overstocking an apiary. For the back-yarder not overly concerned with getting any return on their bees, and willing to sacrifice their bees to nature’s call, there may be a case for not feeding bees and allowing them to perish. However, and this is a personal take, I’m a little challenged to accept that valuable bees can be allowed to so struggle as I believe that allowing bees to fail presents two problems apart from colony loss.
Firstly dead-outs are easy prey to wax moth and, if nothing else, the integrity of your equipment. Who wants to deal with tangled wax moth web and pupated wax moth larvae buried in wooden hive gear? More seriously, weakened hives are easy prey to robber bees and that increases the risk of spread of disease, notably AFB. Poor winter nutrition also risks of appearance of stress diseases especially EFB, chalk brood and, most importantly, nosema disease.
A healthy bee colony consumes about 130 kg of honey per year along with about 30 kg of pollen just to keep the engine running. We are only guaranteed a surplus, a resource we can sacrifice by allowing our bees to swarm. Feeding them more then they need invites the ‘Chinese honey syndrome’, making honey from cane sugar for sale in excess of their need to raise new bees each spring. Only feed your bees in spring if they are running low on stores!
Bee nutrition in the wild
What can we learn from bee survival in the bush or on the African savannah?
Honey bees, like ourselves, have multiple strategies for survival. In the normal course of events colonies of all nine or so species of honey bees swarm to replace losses. This is necessary to replace bees lost to predation (think bears, elephants, toads, bee eaters and traditional bee hunters) and disease as well as to opportunistically colonise landscapes (think New World landscapes including The Americas, New Zealand and Australia). As we have noted honey bees also lose colonies to starvation, a condition that has knocked out two Kenyan Top Bar Colonies caught short in our Jerrabomberra Wetlands Apiary over the past three years.
African and many races of the Asian Honey Bee swarm very prolifically and – unlike the northern European races of the Western Honey Bee – frequently abscond or migrate. They do so to escape predation or abandon diseased comb but very often their chance of survival is increased by moving to regionally available flower resources. For a discourse on bees and plant phenology (flowering patterns) dip into Honey Bees of Africa.
European races of the Western Honey bees do not have this choice. Abandoning the nest in winter, or even in times of summer dearth, only decreases not increases their chance of survival. They must store all the reserves they need for a full year cycle and may do so (for example in parts of Canada and equivalent northern European climes) in a period as short as several weeks. So in a severe winter or following a poor honey flow the chances of the individual wild colony surviving can be quite low. But a least a few colonies survive and those that do repopulate the landscape in good years.
How and when to feed bees
As we have noted, traditional wisdom has it that you leave a complete box of honey so that bees (a) don’t run out during winter and more likely (b) run out in August and September when they are trying to build their numbers up quickly to take advantage of an early honey flow. Starting early also allows them to maximise their honey gathering on the main flow, usually in box woodland from November through to January.
Bees eat a power of honey – and have insufficient means to collect more – in the late-winter, early-to-mid spring phase of colony build up. Think of it, a queen can lay out a full frame of brood in about three days, three weeks later that frame of brood will emerge and cover three frames of comb… The colony soon exhausts it’s supply but by mid September supplementary feeding of bees is both wise (if supplies are short) and necessary.
ASo assuming your bees have not put away sufficient winter stores the questions are of how much and when to feed. It’s always a good idea to keep feeding bees until they have that full super of stores. That may be up to say 15-20 kg, a lot of sugar best fed as heavy (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) syrup. Frame feeders, inverted containers and 2L kidney shaped feeders in a spare top super as well as large volume top well feeders – such as found on Paradise Hives may all need constant replenishment so don’t expect that 100 mL Boardman entrance push in feeder to go far.
I like to complete feeding in February and March after the end of the honey flow – a good time to assess whether the bees will make it themselves and then not open or disturb the bees from Anzac Day until the first week in September. It’s relatively easy to stock bees up with heavy sugar water in warm weather but never feed sugar as syrup in winter – it is almost certain to trigger serious nosema and induce outbreak of other stress-related disease problems – as will opening bees under wintery day conditions. Commercial apiarists chasing pollination contracts are forced to stimulate their bees early but are wary of leaving hives open or stressing brood.
This ‘be prepared’ strategy allows me to forget the bees and take a long off-season break. That never dissuades Beginners’ Corner questioning of how to feed bees in winter. If you tilt a hive, it is pretty light weight and you didn’t make that preparation, feeding is of course necessary. In an emergency place granular white sugar on top of the hive mat under the lid – pick the warmest spell possible and don’t leave the hive open for more than a minute or so – or, much better place dry sugar in a top feeder that neatly avoids opening the hive.
There are two risks in adopting this must-feed approach apart from risking upsetting the warm bee cluster. Firstly under cold conditions bees may not be able to reach the sugar (or outside frames of a top bar hive) and may starve in a seeming tide of plenty. Secondly and perversely bees may remove sugar and drop it outside the hive front entrance. This happens most often in spring when there may be a light nectar flow and the bees are not in immediate need of feeding. I’ve given up on dry sugar feeding, largely because the bees can be slow to use the resource but more particularly the bees can quickly consume heavy sugar water, typically 2-5 L per day under good conditions, and because I prefer not to risk colony well being coming into winter. Never make the mistake of thinking your bees can cope with cold wet sugar syrup in the depths of southern highlands winters.
Do I feed my dog? Yes, but – as with bees – it’s wise not to overfeed. And we feed the dog daily and the bees seasonally but only as needed, and always before the animals starve.
Seeley, T. (2017). Darwinian beekeeping: An evolutionary approach to apiculture. American Bee Journal 157(3):277-282. http://www.jocobee.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Seeley-2017-Darwinian-Beekeeping-An-Evolutionary-Approach-to-Apiculture.pdf and http://www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org/darwinian-beekeeping
Hepburn, H.R. and Radloff, S.E. (1998). Honeybees of Africa. Springer-Verlag. Berlin; New York, 370 pp.
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