Honestly, I’m not out to publicly shame natural beekeepers who believe that sugar is bad for honey bees. I just happen to be dumping sugar into some of my hives because some of my colonies might run out of honey before spring. Here’s a 3-minute video that demonstrates how I dump sugar into my hives when I’m too lazy to do anything else. (I also posted a 20-minute version of this video too.)
I could have sprayed the sugar with water to harden it up, but I didn’t. Some other thoughts off the top of my head:
DRY SUGAR OVER NEWSPAPER vs SUGAR BRICKS
Dry sugar feeding, sometimes called the Mountain Camp Method of placing newspaper over the top bars and then pouring sugar over the newspaper, is my least favourite way to provide just-in-case sugar for the bees. (That doesn’t include hard candy, which is in a different headache league of its own, at least for me.) Under the right conditions, it’s a quick and easy process, but if I need to add more sugar or protein later on, pushing aside chewed up newspaper with piles of sugar on it can be tricky — especially if the weather (extreme cold or high winds) doesn’t cooperate. The Mountain Camp Method is another one of those beekeeping strokes of genius that can become more of a headache than a solution at times.
After I saw how cheap and easy it was to make and install no-cook sugar bricks, I was pretty much done with dry sugar feeding. Both dry sugar and sugar bricks require a feeding rim, or a shim meant to provide space for the sugar, but slipping a sugar brick under the inner cover, 95% of the time, is much easier than removing the top from the hive for dumping in dry sugar. While neither method is easy if most of the colony is clustered over the top bars and clinging to the inner cover in a giant clump — which I’m confident has happened to every single beekeeper who has ever lived — there’s less heat loss and less disturbance of the bees by slipping in sugar bricks (or any kind of patty).
I used the dry sugar over newspaper method yesterday only because I haven’t had time to mix up a good batch of sugar bricks.
WHEN & WHY I FEED POLLEN SUBSTITUTE / PROTEIN PATTIES
I could leave all my colonies alone and they’d survive. But I want them to be strong in the spring so I don’t have to spend the first month or two of warm weather nursing them and hoping they’ll grow into large colonies — something I’ve gotten tired of doing with my bees in Flatrock. The colonies I have set up outside of Flatrock build up quickly in the spring, but the Flatrock bees seem to require all the help they can get. So they’re getting some sugar and protein. If they need it, they’ll eat it. If they don’t, they won’t.
The colony wasn’t strong going into winter and it’s running low on honey. It’s got enough sugar in reserve now to keep it alive for least month I’d say.
The protein patties, if the bees don’t have enough natural pollen in storage, will allow the bees to produce royal jelly, the food that baby bees are fed during the first portion of their lives. The theoretical math on that usually works like this: The presence of protein and royal jelly encourages the queen to begin laying so that 6 weeks later we’ve got our first cycle of brand new foragers ready to go out into the world and bring in pollen and nectar. (That would be around the middle of April.) Then the population builds and builds and I can steal brood to prop up weak colonies, I can make walk-away splits — all kinds of fun stuff.
That’s probably not going to happen, though. Most of my colonies seem to have a genetic disposition towards doing nothing until fresh natural pollen is available. Then the queen’s laying shifts from 0 to 60 in about two days. It’s a bit of shock when that happens — but it happens. So no matter how much protein I give the bees now, I’m not convinced it’s going to play off in 6 weeks.
Furthermore, there just ain’t that much for the bees to bring in around the middle of April. They might be able to grab some crocus pollen, but the first natural pollen and nectar flow doesn’t kick in until May. So I’m kind of jumping the gun by feeding the bees this early. But I don’t mind because the hives are next to my house where I can easily keep an eye on them. If I spot quick population growth, I’ll be ready for it, by either giving the bees more space to grow or making splits. I don’t expect weak colonies to get out of control in the spring, though, even with extra feeding.
But normally I try to time the pollen feeding so that the population of foragers peaks 6 weeks later around the time of the first major nectar flow.
IS IT BETTER NOT TO OPEN A BEEHIVE IN THE WINTER?
Yes. Ideally, I would have been able to build up this colony before the fall so it went into winter strong and full of honey. But I don’t live in an ideal world, which means I have to open my hives in the winter sometimes. It’s not the end of the world if done carefully.
DID I USE TOO MUCH SMOKE ON THE BEES?
No. Most of the smoke didn’t even touch the bees. Smoke isn’t the end of the world if done carefully.
WON’T THE BEES JUST TOSS OUT THE SUGAR?
They might. If they don’t need the sugar, they’ll toss it out like it’s garbage. This can be prevented by spraying down the sugar so it hardens. But there’s plenty of moisture inside the hive to harden the dry sugar, which makes it easier for the bees to dissolve and digest the sugar, and more difficult for them to toss it out.
The bees in that hive have everything I can give them now. I won’t check on them again until the end of the month.