Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fall inspections: Do I need to feed and how much?

In my previous posts, I have often mentioned or advocated feeding in the fall. Reading those posts, one may come to the conclusion that I am feeding sugar syrup to my bees quite often, which of course is quite different from the reality. I would like to take the time to explain how I determine if the bees need feeding, how much and how often.

Determining whether I need to feed


I will definitely feed:
  • New packages
  • Nucs babysitting a queen cell
  • Cell starters and cell finishers
  • Colonies that are going into winter and are weighing in under the recommended weight by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA). Those are:
    • 135 lbs. for a standard 10 frame double deep with stores taking up 70 lbs. Alternative configurations for this setup are the 10 frame 3 medium or the 10 frame 4 shallow configuration. This is approximately 10 deep honey frames, 15 medium honey frames or 18 shallow honey frames.
    • 95 lbs. for singles with stores taking up 55 lbs. Alternative configurations for this setup are 2 medium boxes or a shallow and a medium. This is approximately 5 and a half deep honey frames, almost 12 medium frames in an all-medium setup, or 10 full shallow frames and 3 and a half mediums.
  • Nucs that are going into winter (mine are 4 frame deeps) that have less than 14 lbs or 2 deep frames of stores
I don't have any personal experience with the following, but I have seen it recommended from several reliable sources, including Brother Adam in Beekeeping At Buckfast Abbey. You can find the book on Amazon: Beekeeping At Buckfast Abbey with a section on mead making
  • Feed immediately after the bees have been working a quickly crystallizing honey crop such as canola, oilseed rape or heather. Here is a link for a more comprehensive list of quickly crystallizing honeys.
In those cases, Brother Adam cautions against trying to overwinter on such stores as he believes they cause dysentery. He recommends extracting all available honey and feeding the bees thin syrup to replace their stores.

Determining when to feed


Start feeding new packages, nucs, cell starters and cell finishers as soon as you establish them. Check the weight on your hives going into winter when your fall flow is done. In this way the bees will have the chance to make the most of the naturally available pollen and nectar and you will still have the time to replenish their reserves before the cold weather hits. Please note that the majority of the hives should not need feeding at this point. The bees should have their brood nest and stores organized for winter. Having light hives going into winter should be the exception, not the rule.

Determining how much or how long to feed


Usually, the bees are pretty good at letting us know when to stop feeding. In the spring, newly established packages will stop taking syrup altogether or significantly reduce their syrup consumption when they find a good alternative source of nectar. If you are first year beekeeper when this happens and you are not sure when your local flow is, take note! Your flow is on. Sometimes, the bees will keep taking syrup all along, especially if it is mixed with feeding stimulants such as HoneyBeeHealthy, essential oils or certain herbal teas such as mint or peppermint. In such cases, they will still give you additional indication that they have plenty of nectar available. For example:
  • Your new package has drawn out the brood nest boxes. They have plenty of brood and at least 28 lbs of stores. It's time to let them go and see how they do (keep an eye on their stores in case they get caught in a dearth). Incidentally, this is the same amount of stores G. M. Doolittle likes to see in his book: A year's work in an out-apiary; or, An average of 114 1/2 pounds of honey per colony in a poor season, and how it was done
  • All the frames are wet looking or have nectar in them. The bees have stored nectar in all of the frames and did not leave any space for the queen to lay in. Give them some space and lay off the syrup.
  • The bees are building new wax on top of the frames and storing syrup/nectar there. This is one of the signs of a strong flow. Give them some space and lay off the syrup.
  • When fall feeding, your hives have reached your desired target hive weight or the bees have filled and capped the recommended amount of honey frames.
Before you start feeding, it is good to figure out a clear goal and how you are going to accomplish it. This is especially important when you are feeding during the fall, as overfeeding can cause a late swarm (a most unfortunate event in late fall).

Start by estimating your hive weight. A word of caution: most beekeepers overestimate their hives weights when lifting the back of the hive. If this is your first time weighing a hive, here are some tips to help you get an accurate measure:
  • Use a scale. You don't need to use a fancy hive scale and you don't need to lift the whole hive. Any hanging scale similar to this deer hanging scale will suffice ($13). Make sure your hive is level. Attach the scale to the back of the hive and lift, then repeat at the front. The front and the back weights, when added together will approximate closely the total weight of your hive.
  • Try to do a frame count. You can see the approximate frame counts in the section called "Determining whether I need to feed" above. Ideally, when doing a frame count, you should also keep an eye on the amount of brood and pollen stores in the hive.
  • If you don't have a scale, and you are not able to do a frame count, try to "calibrate" yourself. Stack weight similar to your hive's target weight to a spare telescoping cover or bottom board and try to lift it. Dog food bags work good for this. You want your hive to be heavier than that. Try to do the "calibration" as close as possible to the actual hive weigh-in.
If your bee hive weighs more than your target, then congratulations! You don't need to feed. This should be the case in the majority of bee hives. Otherwise, determine the difference between you bee hive's current weight and target weight. This is the amount of sugar, not syrup, that you need to feed. Please note that if you need to add more than half a box weight worth of sugar, you might want to rethink your bee hive's current configuration. Check out my post "Fall inspections: Finding the right size box for your bees" for more details on how to possibly downsize your hive.

For fall feeding, due to the short time period, I prefer feeding 5:3 sugar syrup. Since the concentration of the sugar syrup is close to that of 2:1 sugar syrup, the bees tend to store it rather than to raise brood on it. In addition, I don't have as much trouble getting sugar to dissolve completely in the 5:3 syrup as I have when making 2:1 syrup.

Some handy tips and tricks that I've learned through the years:


  • In the fall, it's easier to get bees to fill out a frame than to draw out a frame. If my nucs are not making good progress on drawing out their frames, I will replace the undrawn frames with extracted "super" frames to help them out. I use the same size -- deeps -- everywhere.
  • If I need to feed a bunch of smaller colonies, I sometimes add a drawn super to a stronger colony and feed. The stronger colony will fill it and cap it faster than the smaller ones. Then I redistribute the capped combs among the smaller colonies as needed. In this way, you can save some effort and reduce the robbing pressure on the smaller colonies.
  • When feeding, especially in the fall, always reduce the entrances and install robbing screens to reduce the chance of starting robbing. Keep in mind that it is very easy to start robbing and very difficult to stop it.
I welcome all questions and comments, so please don't hesitate to leave me a note in the comments section below!