Whether to feed the bees or not is a sticky issue with natural beekeepers. Purists don’t do it and one expert who sends me a newsletter now and then lost half of his thirty hives last spring because he doesn’t. Up till then he’d had a 90 percent success rate with his hives, but the Ozarks can be a brutally terrible place in weather terms and last spring was like that. It rained there constantly for 30 days. His bees starved because they don’t forage in the rain.
Does this benefit the bees? You could see this as nature’s way of eliminating weak hives and fostering strong hives. I disagree with that thought because even natural beekeepers mess with the bees. Manipulating a horizontal hive prevents bees from swarming by giving them nearly perfect conditions and allowing what seems to the bees like unlimited expansion. If your bees don’t swarm they don’t benefit the local gene pool, so the horizontal hive method does little to improve the local type of bee. Keeping bees naturally with the horizontal hive system is animal husbandry. A good farmers doesn’t let his livestock starve, and if you keep bees you shouldn’t let them starve either.
Feeding bees in a natural system is, however, basically different from feeding bees in the Langstroth system. In Langstroth hives keepers rob the hives of honey regularly and replace that natural food with sugar syrup that the bees convert into honey of lesser quality. The feeding is not in response to lack of food in the hive’s foraging area; it’s done to compensate for robbing the hive. Keepers may feed bees artificial pollen also, to stimulate production of bees in the Langstroth hive. That buggers the queen’s system and puts the decision to make brood in the hands of the keeper. The queen will lay eggs for new brood when the foragers begin storing pollen and will tailor the number of new workers to the seasonal food supply. Keepers will create large numbers of bees who may have nothing to eat but sugar syrup the keeper provides. If you are interested in that sort of honey, that’s a great idea.
In a natural hive system a keeper has the option of feeding when the bees need it. If the bees are left with sufficient honey for the winter, they don’t need sugar in the fall. It’s the springtime that’s the tricky part, because harvesting honey can leave the bees with no backup storage in a wet spring. Then the choice is to either let the bees starve or to feed them. You could set aside honey for such times, as beekeepers in the old days would do; you could buy honey for the bees; or you could provide some emergency sugar syrup. It’s not great as a standard diet but in difficult times it will get the bees by, and obviously the bees love it.
Spring here has been so cold and late that my hives are still mostly clustering in winter mode, but whenever the days are in the 50’s and sunny they are out gathering maple nectar and pollen. I’ve not fed them anything as yet, and I have some confidence in them because they survived one of the coldest winters in years without any help from me other than some extra winter protection. I built windbreaks for the hives and my hives were built from 2×4’s instead of scrap planks. I’m ready to feed them if the weather turns bad, though.
I have tried at least half a dozen home-remedy feeder ideas gleaned from the internet and I have had poor luck with all of them. My package bees needed a boost last spring so I tried feeding them store honey and I tried these different feeder ideas thinking that surely they must work if people are promoting them on YouTube. Maybe they work for some people, but they don’t work for me. A freezer bag with razor slits in the top just gradually leaked all the syrup out for the ants to clean up. A feeder made from a storage jar bought at the Dollar Store overflowed and dumped all the honey over the brim of the lid. A freezer tub with honey in it and an assortment of sticks for access just drowned bees. A tub with a plywood float on it, with holes drilled in the wood, gradually sucked the wood down into the honey pool and drowned bees. I didn’t have luck with any of the easy feeder ideas, except if my intention had been to drown bees. Bees apparently love to drown.
If you want a good feeder, I would recommend either buying a bee feeder from a beekeeping supply outlet or making your own from an extension service design. For my hives I’ve modified a commercial design and built my own version in order to save a little money. I’ve water tested the feeders and they seem like a good idea. As yet they aren’t bee tested, but I have some confidence in these feeders because they give the bees good traction and limit the amount of drowning space in the feeder. Because I’m using horizontal hives with oversized frames, I’d have to modify any feeder I bought, anyway.
For mine, the tank is a one-gallon freezer bag suspended inside a framework of half-inch grid hardware cloth. The only entry to the tank is through two feeder tubes made of 1/8 inch grid hardware cloth. The tricky part is building these without leaving any sharp spots that could puncture the bag, but it can be done.