Feeding Bees in the Spring

By Michael Bush

Editor’s Note: Michael Bush, a well-known beekeeper, researcher and spokesperson, provided us with some of his extensive writings. We’re delighted to share excerpts here; thank you Michael!

Spring for the beekeeper starts at the blooming of the maples. This is when the bees start rearing brood in earnest. It’s important from this point on that the supply of pollen and stores is not interrupted as this can interrupt brood rearing. If this is a problem, pollen patties are a common solution.

You would think something as simple as feeding would not be controversial, but it is—on several fronts. Since feeding in the spring and feeding in general overlap and since feeding in the fall when needed or leaving enough stores is how you avoid feeding in the spring, we will touch on that as well.

First, when do you feed?

Q: When is the best time to feed the bees?

A: The best thing is never to feed them, but let them gather their own stores. But if the season is a failure, as it is some years in most places, then you must feed. The best time for that is just as soon as you know they will need feeding for winter; say in August or September. October does very well, however, and even if you haven’t fed until December, better feed then than to let the bees starve.
—C.C. Miller, A Thousand Answers to Beekeeping Questions, 1917

In relation to spring management, one of the issues is the amount of stores they burn up rearing brood. They often starve in late winter or early spring because of brood rearing. They burn up a frame of honey and a frame of pollen for every frame of brood they rear. From my point of view avoiding starvation is the reason to feed. We will talk about stimulative feeding shortly.

There are many reasons to avoid feeding if you can:

  • It sets off robbing.

  • It attracts pests (ants, wasps, yellow jackets, etc.)

  • It clogs the brood nest and sets off swarming.

  • It drowns a lot of bees.

  • It’s a lot of work.

  • If you use syrup there is the effect of the pH on the microbial culture of the hive and difference in nutritional value compared to what they would have gathered on their own.

Some people feed a package constantly for the first year. In my experience this usually results in them backfilling the brood nest and swarming when they are not strong enough and often failing. Some feed spring, fall and dearth regardless of stores. Some don’t believe in feeding at all. Some steal all the honey in the fall and try to feed them back up enough to winter.

Personally I don’t feed if there is a nectar flow and they have some capped stores. Gathering nectar is what bees do. They should be encouraged to do it. I will feed in the spring if they are light, as they will not rear brood without sufficient stores. I will feed in the fall if they are light, but I always try to make sure I don’t take too much honey and leave them light. Some years, though, the fall flow fails and they are on the verge of starvation if I don’t feed. When queen rearing, during a dearth, I sometimes have to feed to get them to make cells and to get the queens to fly out and mate.

So while I do try to avoid feeding, I end up doing it very often. There is nothing wrong with feeding if you have a good reason for doing it, but my plan is to try to avoid it and leave the bees enough to live on. Also, while I think honey is the best food for them, it’s too much work to harvest it and then feed it back, so when I feed it’s either dry sugar or sugar syrup, unless I have some honey I don’t think is marketable.

Pollen, if fed, is usually fed before the first available pollen in the spring. I have not had luck getting bees to take it any other time except a fall dearth. They often won’t take it in the spring as they prefer fresh pollen.

Stimulative Feeding

A lot of literature suggests that stimulative feeding is an absolute necessity to get honey production. Many of the greats of beekeeping have decided this is not productive:
The reader will by now have drawn the conclusion that stimulative feeding, apart from getting the foundations drawn out in the brood chamber, plays no part in our scheme of beekeeping. This is in fact so —Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, Brother Adam

The feeding of bees for stimulating brood-rearing in early spring is now looked upon by many as of doubtful value. Especially is this true in the Northern States, where weeks of warm weather are often followed by ‘Freeze up.’ The average beekeeper in the average locality will find it more satisfactory to feed liberally in the fall—enough, at least so that there shall be sufficient stores until harvest. If the hives are well protected, and the bees well supplied with an abundance of sealed stores, natural brood rearing will proceed with sufficient rapidity, early in the spring without any artificial stimulus. The only time that spring feeding is advisable is where there is a dearth of nectar after the early spring flow and before the coming of the main harvest.—W.Z. Hutchinson, Advanced Bee Culture

My Experiences

I’ve tried about every combination over the years and my conclusion is that weather has everything to do with the success or failure of any stimulative feeding attempt. Some years it seems to help some, some years it misleads them into rearing too much brood too early when a hard freeze could be disastrous, or having too much moisture in the hive in that precarious time of late winter when a hard freeze could still happen. Plus, the really impressive results are usually from feeding a hive light in stores. Leaving more stores still seems to be a more reliable method of getting a lot of early brood in my climate.

I have fed really thin (1:2) thin (1:1) moderate (3:2) and thick (2:1) syrup at every time of the year except a honey flow, but again to simplify the issue to stimulating brood rearing, let’s stick with the spring.

I see no difference in brood stimulation between any of the ratios. The bees will suck it down if it’s warm enough (and here it seldom is in early spring or late fall) and it will induce them sometimes to start brood rearing when the bees’ common sense is that it is too early. So for simplifying even further, let’s just talk about feeding or not feeding syrup.

Difficulty Getting Bees to Take Syrup Early in Northern Climates

If you try to feed any kind of syrup to bees in my climate in the late winter or early spring, the results usually are that they will not take it. The reason is that the syrup is hardly ever above 50º F (10º C). At night it is somewhere between freezing and sub zero. In the daytime it’s usually not above freezing on those rare occasions when it’s actually 50º F in the daytime, the syrup is still below 32º F (0º C) from the night before. So first of all, trying to feed syrup in the late winter and early spring usually doesn’t work at all—meaning they won’t even take it.

Downsides to Success

Then, if you get lucky and get some warm spell somewhere in there, long enough for the syrup to get warm that the bees will take it, you manage to get them rearing a huge amount of brood, say near the end of February or early March. Then you get a sudden subzero freeze that lasts for a week. All the hives so induced to raise brood die trying to maintain that brood. They die because they won’t leave it and they die because they can’t keep it warm, but they try anyway.

Variable Outcomes

This might be an entirely different outcome in one year than another. Certainly if your gamble pays off and you get the bees to brood up in March and you manage to keep them from swarming in April or May (doubtful), don’t get any hard freezes that kill some of the hives off, or they are built up so far by the time those freezes hit that they can manage, and you manage to keep that max population for the flow in mid June, maybe you’ll get a bumper crop. On the other hand, you get them to brood up heavy in March, get a subzero freeze that lasts a week and most of them die; it’s a very different outcome.

In a different climate, this might be an entirely different undertaking. If you live where subzero is unheard of, and clusters don’t get stuck on brood from cold and can’t get to stores, then the results of stimulative feeding may be much more predictable and possibly much more positive. Then again they may brood up too early and swarm before the flow.

Feeding Considerations

Dry Sugar: This is not the best spring feed, except as left over from winter, but in my experience it made a lot of difference overwinter and in the following spring. Most of the hives ate the sugar. Some ate most of the sugar. They did brood up while eating sugar and they could eat it even when it was cold. They don’t go as crazy over it or as crazy on brood rearing, but I see that as a good thing. A moderate build up from stores they can get at, even in the cold, is a much better survival bet than a huge build up at a time they could get caught in long hard freeze on syrup that they won’t be able to get to if it’s cold.

Type of Feeder: I will admit that the type of feeder also plays into all of this. A top feeder in the early spring (in a colder climate) is worthless. The syrup is hardly ever warm enough for the bees to take it. Baggie feeders, on the other hand on top of the cluster, they seem to be able to get at, as well as dry sugar. A frame feeder (as much as I don’t like them) against the cluster is taken much better than the top feeder (but not as well as the baggie feeders). In my climate (Nebraska) any feeder very far from the cluster will not get used until the weather is consistently in the 50s F (10s C) and by then the fruit trees and dandelions will be blooming so it will be irrelevant.

You might get some syrup down them in late March or early April with a baggie feeder or a jar or pail directly over the cluster or if you reheat the syrup regularly, when everything else fails.

What do you feed? I prefer to leave them honey. Some think you should only feed honey. From a perfectionist view, I like that. From a practical view, it’s difficult for me. Honey:

  • sets off robbing a lot worse than syrup.

  • spoils a lot more easily if I water it down, and I hate to see honey go to waste.

  • is very expensive (if you buy it or just don’t sell it) and labor intensive to extract it. It seems wrong to me to go to the trouble of extracting it, only to feed it back.

I’d rather leave enough honey on the hives and, in a pinch, steal some from a stronger hive for the weaker hives, rather than feeding. But if it comes down to needing to feed, I feed off, old, or crystallized honey if I have it, otherwise I feed sugar syrup.

Pollen: The other issue of what to feed is pollen and substitute. The bees are healthier on real pollen, but substitute is cheap. If I feed pollen, I try to feed all real pollen, but sometimes I can’t afford that and I settle for 50:50 pollen substitute. On just substitute you get very short-lived bees. I don’t notice any difference at 50:50, but I still think 100% pollen is best.

  • email