Bee Scientifics

Feeding Bees Part 1: Anecdotal Science

Measured Anecdotal Science

Deciding to feed bees requires quite a bit of forethought.  This is best to do BEFORE the bees are hungry.  How are you going to feed; what are you going to feed; when are you going to feed?  Luckily I had some, but not all, of this figured out. The other part of the equation is how do you know if feeding worked.

Foremost, I am a beekeeper, but I am also a scientist.  This is a very difficult balance because In order to answer the question “did feeding work” I must first define what “it worked” is.  Then, I need to have unfed controls and measure some parameters of unfed colonies against fed colonies and determine if the treatment (feeding) resulted in “it worked” or not.

As a beekeeper, this is excruciating.  I rely on every one of these colonies for an income, plus I need these colonies to thrive for future research already funded.  Collecting and analysing data is time consuming (expensive) and difficult.  Consequently, this story will not be a true scientific experiment, but rather a Measured Anecdotal Scientific process where I am making some assumptions based on my beekeeping experience and gathering the bare minimum essential data based on my scientific background in order to determine if feeding “worked”

Defining perimeters of this non-experiment

Bee Build in hive entrance

Telling the bees that their feeder is full.  GO check it out!

I am working on the assumption that if I did not feed, the colonies would die over winter.  So “it worked” will be finally measured in the spring as colony survival.  However, my experience overwintering 5 frame nucs in Victoria tells me that if colonies enter winter with 4.5 frames of bees, 2 frames of brood, at least 1.5 frames of honey with pollen, they have a very good chance.

With this information, I can change my definition of “it worked” to a colony being set up well for winter by the end of April.

As it is nearly the middle of March I can do some bee maths to anecdotally measure progress toward “it worked”: how many frames of bees and brood does this colony have now, what does the brood pattern look like, and is the colony infected by chalkbrood.  I can extrapolate these numbers to say “if the colony stayed on this trajectory, would it be ready for winter”. For example, a colony sitting on 2.5 frames of bees and 1 frame of brood with a spotty brood pattern in March would definitely not make it through winter.  A colony with 4 frames of bees and three frames of brood with good resources and good resource prospects for the next month would probably survive until spring in central Victoria.

To keep things simple, frames of bees (the number of frames completely covered by bees) are measured in half units.  Frames of brood usually follows frames of bees by 1 less, for example, if a colony has 4 frames of bees, they usually have 3 frames with brood on it.  The brood pattern is scaled at a 0-3 range with 0 being none, 1 being really spotty and 3 being really solid.  Chalkbrood is also measured on a 0-3 scale with 0 being none, 1 being a few cells, and 3 being completely disgusting.

Now that we have defined our parameters, we can start the non-experiment.

The right gear and know-how

As I said at the beginning, if you plan to feed bees, a little forethought goes a long way.  I am halfway prepared to feed bees.  I know what to feed and how to feed, and I even have some systems set up to do this.  It is just actioning these systems that takes a bit of time and experience.

I am feeding both heavy sugar syrup and protein supplement (free flight feeding as well as in-hive feeding).  I have also added some magic Bee Boost to the sugar syrup to boost the nutritional profile beyond just carbohydrates.  In some future posts, I will let you know about some interesting work with blue-green algae stay tuned. For now, I will walk you though my process of feeding hungry nucs with the goal of building up their populations to get ready for winter.

Sugar syrup

I have said that my nucs are 5 framers- this is true, but I keep a frame feeder in all year around so actually I have 4 frame nucs.  I will discuss the design of these nucs in a later post, but for now, just know that I have a frame feeder in and now there is some chicken wire in each feeder to act as a bee ladder.

I am feeding heavy syrup that I make in my clean wax melter by adding 50 kgs sugar to about 30 litres water.  I store this syrup in 20 litre plastic cubes that I get from People in Plastic in Melbourne.  Heavy syrup will not ferment and can be stored for a long time.  HINT: If you want to feed light syrup, mix it as you feed it because the life span is so short.  Light syrup WILL ferment quickly depending on how clean your container is and external temperature.

Protein supplement

For this non experiment I will be free flight feeding as well as in-hive feeding.  To free flight feed, I simply toss some Bee Build in a container and the bees are hungry enough to find it.  They collect it and bring it back to the hive as pollen. Bee Build is Australian made and owned, developed over the course of a decade to make sure everything about it is just right.  The ingredients are ground to less than 100 microns and oil is added to make sure the bees can collect it.  The nutrient composition is similar to the highest quality pollen, and we strive to source Australian organic ingredients.  This stuff is really good.

Free Flight Feeding Bee Build

Increasing the surface prevents the “frenzy” of bees fighting for resources.


I will also be feeding pollen patties in the hive.  I have been working over the past two years to make a pollen patty that is easy for beekeepers to use and the bees readily eat.  After A LOT of trialling, I think I have finally gotten it right.  This mix uses Bee Build as a base, and has some extra special Ingrediants to keep it from drying out in the hive and make it extra attractive to nurse bees.  Since developing this new formula, I haven’t met a hive that hasn’t gobbled it up.  Mission accomplished!

Concluding thoughts

Please note, that I know this is poor science.  By doing all of these things, I cannot say anything conclusively about any of them individually.  However, I don’t really care.  My end goal is to do anything I can to get the bees healthy enough to make it through winter.

These nucs have new queens reared from hygienic breeding stock and destined to contribute to our breeding program next season.  Loosing these nucs wouldn’t just be a loss of bees, but it would be a major setback in our breeding program.  I realise this situation isn’t ideal, but I am going to do the best I can with what I have on-hand and hopefully learn/teach along the way.

Should I Stay or Should I Go….

Hang in there girls

Spotty Brood Pattern
Spotty brood pattern from lack of protein
Early chalkbrood
Early chalkbrood

It’s the beginning of March in the Box-Ironbark of Central Victoria.  The last time I stood in this apiary, I told my bees of my father’s passing and that I wouldn’t be able to shift them to greener pastures, I had to go away for a while.   I had just taken their queens and given them cells. I told them to hang in there, hoping the feed they got from the Red Gum this year would hold them over. 

Six weeks later, I returned to the apiary of 50 mating nucs (5 frame and two-way 8 frame) and 15 honey/drone mother hives in March fearing the worst and hoping for the best with my three year old sleeping in the carseat.

I walked around the apiary, lifting boxes.  Light.  Little flight. No pollen coming in.  Yuck.  I opened a few lids to find jittery, flighty, unsettled, hungry bees.  They still had  honey in the combs, but not a bit of pollen.  The brood was suffering and most colonies had 3 frames of bees.  They would not make it through a Victorian winter.


The next right thing

The container of heavy syrup I left in my ute six weeks ago was still there, as was my watering/sugaring can and I went around giving each colony a drink.  I refilled the free flight feeder with Bee Build and coated the bees in each entrance with the powder to let them know their feed was refilled.  Within 10 minutes, the feeder was buzzing.  I needed to make some decisions about the next move (or not).

Weighing the options

Although I have been keeping bees for over 15 years, I have only been in Victoria for 6 years, and only running this number of mating nucs for 2 years.  I have a ute, but no trailer.  I have some secure sites around Bendigo, but no real options to move to greener pastures.  I have a three year old and am confined to working within the constraints of creche.  I understand bees, but am just learning about Australian flora.  I know how to feed bees and have devoted considerable time to understanding the best recipes and products, but few in Australia think it is possible to build bees on “artificial diets” (except Tasmanians).


A little help from my friends

I spent the following week looking into buying or borrowing a trailer and talking to my local beekeeper friends about options to shift the bees.  I gathered options, weighed the advantages and disadvantages, did my maths, did a gut check, and have decided to stay put and feed bees.

I figured that there is no point in me touting products and supplemental feeding if I am not willing or able to follow my own lead.  The next series of posts will document the process of trying to build bees for winter on a supplemental feeding regime.  In theory, it should work, we will see.

A hive of activity as Australia’s commercial bee keepers are surveyed

An upcoming survey of the Australian honey bee industry will collect baseline data that will provide information on the current economic situation of Australian beekeepers.

Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, said the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) survey would provide a thorough picture of changes to the national industry along with an up-to-date profile of the physical and financial characteristics of honey bee businesses.

“In addition to data on the demographic and socioeconomic circumstances of people in the industry, the survey will capture the adoption of research and development initiatives, the state of honey bee health and the size of the commercial pollination services sector,” Minister Joyce said.

Minister Joyce said the value of Australia’s bee industry extended far beyond the quality products produced to the valuable pollination services of honey bees.

“More than 12,000 registered beekeepers are tending to more than 520,000 hives across the country that produce about $90 million worth of honey and beeswax each year,” Minister Joyce said.

“Bees are important not just because of the honey they produce. About 65 per cent of Australian agricultural crops respond to honey bee pollination. Among others, Australia’s $346 million almond crop depends entirely on bees for pollination.

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