How Long Should I Feed Bees in Spring?

Ask the Expert!

How Long Should I Feed Bees in Spring?

Bill asks: 

Last year you told me to feed the bees until June because I was starting out with a completely new Top Bar hive, with no wax comb on any of the bars. Does that make any difference as far as your answer goes now that I have wax comb? 

When a hive is starting out in the spring, do the forager bees consume and share some of the nectar they gather with the “house” bees and store the rest that they don’t need for their survival? And is that the reason that they don’t need supplemental feeding once they have outside sources of nectar? 

I live across from Seattle on the east side of Lake Washington. I had no idea of the variety of plants and trees that bees can gather nectar from at this time of year! 

I gave the new colony comb honey, should I remove it so the bees will start storing their own nectar and making honey? 

Rusty replies: 

Modern Homo sapiens first appeared on earth around 300,000 years ago. Progenitors to humans go back further, perhaps as far as 2,000,000 years. Scientists arrive at different numbers, but these estimates give you an idea of how long we’ve been around. 

Bees go back much further. Bees evolved alongside the flowering plants about 140,000,000 years ago. Honey bees came later, maybe 100,000,000 year ago, but still remarkably far back. We can’t even comprehend that much time, but they survived, even without sugar syrup. 

Even today, honey bees swarm. They take off from the parent colony and set up housekeeping with no comb, no stores, and no guarantees. They set up in trees, caves, attics, water meter covers, back porches, and breaks in chimneys. No one feeds these colonies, yet many survive. 

From a practical point of view, you increase the chances of a colony surviving by feeding. Feeding can carry bees through bad weather or sparse forage. But in my opinion, beekeepers go overboard. Although there is nothing wrong with sugar to carry bees through a rough patch, it does not have the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that nectar or honey have. For that reason, I view sugar syrup as an emergency ration, not as feed for the long haul. 

I’ve started many colonies in empty frames with no combs or feed. Just like the wild swarms, these bees know just what to do. When I load a package, I usually leave the feeding can with them, and let them use that up and then they’re on their own. If nothing else, I want to encourage them to eat wholesome nectar, not refined table sugar. The bees’ cohorts way back when — dinosaurs and whatnot — were not generous with their refined sugar stash, so the bees had to do without. The short answer is no, your situation doesn’t change my previous reply. 

You are right about the foragers feeding the nurses. Nectar collection is a complicated process whereby the forager passes her stash to a nurse bee, who passes it to another nurse bee, and so on until someone finally stores it in a cell. Each of them add digestive enzymes and, if they are hungry, they pass some of it from the honey stomach to the digestive stomach for nourishment. Once the nectar starts coming in, it gets passed to anyone who needs it through the process of trophallaxis. When drones beg for food, they are fed the same way. 

I consider coastal Pacific Northwest to be the area between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascades, running from British Columbia down through Oregon. Some people also include the coastal areas of Canada all the way up to Anchorage. I keep my bees about 20 miles south of Olympia. People coming into beekeeping without a botany or gardening background are somewhat at a disadvantage because beekeeping is all about the flowers. I recommend you get a copy of Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon. It’s the best field guide to plants I’ve ever seen anywhere. 

Let your colony keep the comb honey. Chances are the bees won’t touch it, but it makes an excellent backup in case of prolonged cold or dearth. 

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