Midnite Bee-Beekeeper's: Article April 1999
FEEDING NEW BEES
FEEDING NEW BEES
Each year I am confronted with questions like some of these:
a) The bees have never drawn the foundation in the second story. Why not?
b) I bought a "nuc" in April and they quickly drew the second story foundation,
but have refused to draw any of the fouhdation in the super I added on June
10th. Why not?
c) I split a strong colony in early May, added a second story of drawn comb
two weeks later, and added a super of foundation for swarm prevention on June
Now it is September and the super foundation is NOT drawn, the 20 frames of
the brood chamber are NOT well filled with honey or brood. Is this a BAD QUEEN?
d) I am a new beekeeper and got a 3 lb. package of bees in mid April and put
them in a brand new hive with all new foundation, and they have never made any
honey. How do they survive the winter?
There are dozens cf other similar questions and "sad stories". When I ask them,
How long did you feed them, or HOW MUCH did you feed them? The answers are almost
incomprehensible. "I gave them the rest of the can that was in the shipping
cage; isn't that enough?" "The "nuc" came with 2 heavv frames of honey in it
for bee food until nature started producing nectar. Did the seller cheat me?"
"Feed? Why? Bees are supposed to 'make' honey themselves, aren't they?" Many
of these people are parents who are quite used to FEEDING THEIR CHILDREN for
years, but seem to think that because a honey bee is an insect and a "normal
" part of nature, it can fend for itself.
Almost aggressively, they defend their "knowledge about honey bees" by tartly
asking you "Who feeds the feral bees, or the Africanized bees crossing the Rio
Grande into Texas, or one of your swarms when it escapes into the woods?"
Such a reply alerts me that this person's "knowledge about honey bees" does
not equal that found in kindergarten books. It would appear that most people
do not understand the various different relationships between nectar and a flower
blossom; and particularly, that many plants, trees, shrubs, crops, or vines
may indeed produce a pretty flower, but do NOT necessarily produce any nectar.
Further, some flora produce nectar that bees gather only if nothing else is
available, and the pear tree is a good example of this. Then, there are that
myriad number of flora that produce abundant pollen, but little or no nectar;
e.g., skunk cabbage, alder, birch, or corn.
Conversely, there are some flora noted for nectar production, and almost unknown
as pollen sources; e. g., tulip poplar, blueberry, or black locust.
The ecological ability of Americans has dramatically diminished as an urban
society has replaced the rural society of our grandparents day. People see a
multitude of brilliant flora everywhere they look, not only in the spring, but
the beautiful summer flowers seem endless, and they wonder why the bees are
not producing honey from this vast array.
I have been asked why honey bees don't work the magnificent flora of the Washington-Baltimore
area; e. g., azaleas, tulips, forsythia, glads, pansies, crepe myrtle, dogwood,
jonquils, roses, etc.
Even. more intriguing.is the fact that the very great majority of the nectar
bearing flora in our Maryland area has stopped bearing nectar before July 4th,
there is almost zero nectar in July and August, and fall nectar crops from flora
like goldenrod or aster is not dependable.
The dairy farms in our area a few years ago that raised clover and alfalfa
for cattle feed are now occupied by homes and blacktop. Further, the era of
slow cutting of alfalfa by horse drawn cutting equipment has been replaced by
the new era of rapid cutting ON TIME by fast tractors thereby not allowing the
alfalfa to bloom and hence there is little alfalfa honey today compared to 50
With the minor exception of the small mountains in our Western Mayland where
some basswood honey can be made in July or perhaps a small amount of buckwheat
honey in August, it is fairly safe to say that the only time that a adequate
supply of nectar is available for honey bee use in Maryland is April, May, and
Although the months may be different, the same thing can be said for the rest
of the whole country, meaning that rarely does any area of the country have
nectar production more than 2-3 months, and the bees may not even be able to
sustain their own lives with food if the beekeeper has harvested too much honey
or an unexpected drought followed the harvest.
Having mentioned the variables of nature, let me now explain how long or how
much food should be fed by the beekeeper to these NEW BEES for them to construct
the "furniture" (comb) of their new hive and to raise a colony population that
is large enough to gather stores to get the colony through its first winter
into the nectar flow of next season.
As I have said many times over many years, there is absolutely no management
technique known that can force bees to draw foundation and build comb in the
absence of a daily income of nectar, preferably natural nectar or its substitute,
1:1 sugar syrup!
It takes a lot of YOUNG bees to build comb, and the bees discourage the queen
from laying eggs by refusing to clean and polish empty brood cells if there
is a drought of nectar.
Hence, if the queen's egg production is cut back, the population of young bees
is diminished, and no comb is constructed. Further, there is not an adequate
population of bees to collect a fall nectar flow to build winter stores, or
a large enough population to build cluster heat in the winter to get the bees
through cold weather.
Bees will accept and feed on sugar syrup (artificial nectar) anytime there
is no natural nectar available. Hence, since the bees MUST have drawn comb to
store honey for winter stores and producing comb requires lots of young bees,
and since very little (if any) nectar is available during July and August, bees
should CONTINOUSLY be fed 1:1 sugar syrup from their start-up in April or May
until September without ever letting the feeder become empty.
Just in case this instruction is not clear, I will repeat it with a shorter
version: FROM THE START-UP TIME IN APRIL OR MAY OF A NEW COLONY OF BEES, THE
BEES SHOULD BE FED 1:1 SUGAR SYRUP CONTINUOUSLY THROUGH JUNE, JULY, AND AUGUST!
This may take 25 pounds of sugar or even more depending on many other conditions.
Don't be CHEAP! 25 pounds of sugar costs about $9-$10 and you have not only
saved a colony from dying, but you have built a strong colony of bees ready
to gather lots of nectar next season that makes honey you can sell for about
If the colony make 75 pounds, you give away 25 lbs. to friends, and sell 50
lbs. for $3.50 less the cost of the jar and a nice label ( net $3/pound), you
have the bees and $150!
The other alternative is be CHEAP and don't buy any sugar, your bees will
die, and next spring you will have to pay $40-$50 for another 3 lb. package
and you have LOST a whole year of time and joy. Most of you are TOO young to
know this; but sugar was rationed to all American people for 4 years back during
World War ll.
As I recall, I think the sugar allowance was one pound per person per month,
or 12 pounds per year. I remember Mothers complaining to the grocer that they
wanted sugar to make candy or a cake for someone's birthday party, but the grocer
couldn't sell them sugar without a ration stamp.
But in 1942, my father was learning to take care of MY 15 colonies of bees
while I learned more about nuclear energy at the University of Michigan prior
to my work with the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Ration Board
could give special ration stamps for up to 30 pounds of sugar per colony of
bees if the beekeeper needed sugar to keep his bees alive.
Can you imagine what was said to me, what questions were asked, and what the
local newspaper wrote when I went to the Safeway store in Bethesda and layed
down ration stamps for 450 pounds of sugar (nickel/pound then) to feed my bees?
That was almost 60 years ago, but I remember it like it happened yesterday.
THE POINT TO THIS STORY IS: The government of those days recognized the. importance
of honey bee pollination to provide food for humans, and our bees survived because
the government was not CHEAP in its thinking even at the risk of making many
humans absolutely irate. (Maybe it just indicates that Franklin Delano Roosevelt
knew more about honey bee pollination than William Jefferson Clinton; since
Clinton has ignored the beekeeper's problems with mites, as well as ignoring
the curtailment of university support of beekeeping and the reduction of extension
You have BAD BREATH!
If you think I am kidding, just ask a bee. Better still, maybe you have seen
a Video program about the Africanized Honey Bee where Dr. Justin 0. Schmidt
walks up to a swarm of apis mellifera scutellata with a 25' long plastic tube
in his mouth "taking his breath away" from contacting the bees.
He can touch the swarm bees with his hands or carefully move his whole body
around the swarm, and surprisingly, the bees almost totally ignore Dr. Schmidt
and do not demonstrate any defensive (or aggressive) behavior.
However, the scene dramatically changes when Dr. Schmidt removes the breathing
tube from his mouth, and does more than stand near the swarm cluster of bees.
Suddenly, there is an "explosion" of the swarm with thousands of bees beating
on the scientist's protective veil to get to the origin source of the human
breath that obviously offends tfiem, but more particularly arrouses a stinging
"fever" to sting anything around that they can sting.
This video presentation proves that a picture is worth a thousand words. It
has long been known that all honey bees, even the quiet European "nectar collector"
from our backyard colony, are excited and become aggressive at the odor of carbon
dioxide from exhaled human breath. This has been painfully obvious to some beekeepers
who have purposely blown their breath on a frame of bees to view the presence
of eggs or larva in the frame.
Don't use a mouthwash or gargle Listerine before working with your bees, because
that treatment is not going to help. You breathe in oxygen from the air, your
lungs cause a chemical reaction than converts this oxygenated air to water vapor
and carbon dioxide which you exhale. Carbon dioxide is odorless to humans, but
certainly not to a bee, and drives them into a nasty attitude.
Although much has been written about honey bees attacking beekeepers most frequently
about their face than any other part of your body, perhaps you have not paid
much attention to the cause of this, i. e., the exhaled carbon dioxide.
Hence, I am suggesting to all the new beeHAVERS out there as well as the careless
beeKEEPERS that you might have a less frustrating bee inspection by advoiding
blowing your breath on your bees.
It is finally SPRINGTIME and my bees are zooming all. around hoping to find
Jule's Gold, so let us go out and participate in the JOYS OF BEEKEEPIING!
WHEN? HOW MANY? COMB or FOUNDATION? SUPER SIZE? 9 or 10 FRAMES? QUEEN EXCLUDER
or HONEY EXCLUDER? HARVEST TIME? PROTECTING COMB?
Year after year, all of these points are answered, books are filled with pages
of information, my previous PINK PAGES are old and voluminous, but every year,
it seems like every beekeeper in APRIL still has questions about two things:
Income Taxes and Supering.
The great majority of you do NOT have a scale hive like some of us have to
tell the exact moment a nectar flow "comes to life" for OUR apiary, not YOURS.
A super should be in place BEFORE a nectar flow starts in order to provide
space for bees to move honey or initial nectar OUT of the BROOD chamber so the
queen has laying space. In the Washington, DC area, this will be around Cherry
Blossom Festival time or our first abundant dandelion bloom which is about the
2nd week in April.For many years, I have supered on April 15th.
I remind you that the period before the real nectar FLOW is SWARM SEASON and
many a swarm might not have been lost, if a super was in place a week or so
before the nectar flow starts to prevent BROOD CHAMBER CONGESTION, the Number
ONE cause of swarming
What good is that super sitting in your garage or basement? For many years,
beekeepers added another super when the first super was about half or 2/3 full,
maybe due to lack of supers, lack of research to investigate this, or more likely,
"it was the way that Daddy did it".
However, since migratory beekeeping has become popular and the US Dept. of
Agriculture has researched supering techniques during the past few decades,
research has clearly shown that due to the "hoarding" instinct of the honey
bee, the placement of several supers of DRAWN COMB (NOT foundation) on a colony
all at one time.results in more honey production and less swarming during a
nectar flow than adding one super to another as they are needed.
I put 5 Illinois supers of DRAWN COMB on each colony on or before April 30th.
Page 618 of the 1992 Revised Edition of The Hive and Honey Bee agrees and recommends
the use of multiple supers of drawn comb rather than single supering.
It is very apparent from questions asked and statements made that many beekeepers
just do not understand the bee's need of STORAGE SPACE.
Many are puzzled by knowing that their bees will normally produce about 3 supers
of honey during April, May, and early June, why then should a colony have 4
or 5 supers in place during the entire nectar flow?
Honey bees do NOT collect thick, viscous honey which is only about 18% water
and bring it to the hive and super it. They collect thin, slippery nectar which
might be 80% water and bring it to the hive to STORE it until they can ripen
(cure) it and reduce its volume from 80% to 18% water, hence making honey.
Storing all this thin watery nectar requires a lot of storage space, and if
there is none present in the hive, first the bees will build lots of burr comb
even partially filling up bee space and then, THEY WILL SWARM!
Swarming during a nectar flow is TOTALLY DIFFERENT than a swarm in that "swarm
season" just before the nectar flow which is primarily due to brood chamber
congestion. A swarm produced during a nectar flow is caused by a single problem
- LACK OF STORAGE ROOM FOR THE NECTAR.
Such a swarm is 100% FAULT OF THE BEEKEEPER in failure to provide enough super
space, and that space when the bees needed it! I have written ad nauseum that
FOUNDATION is NOT the same as drawn comb, and has to be used with a totally
You must not have more than one super of 10 frames of foundation on a colony
at any time, because the bees will make holes in some, only draw the center
frames and ignore the side frames, or only partially draw some frames - all
of this resulting in a MESS.
If you do not have adequate drawn comb and have to use Foundation, you wait
until the top super is about 1/3 to 1/2 filled with nectar and then add another
super of 10 (never 9) frames of foundation on top of the partially filled super,
and repeat as necessary.
Many good beekeepers only use 9 frames properly spaced in a super because the
drawn frames are wider (thicker) and makes upcapping easier; but you can do
this with frames of drawn comb ONLY, and never, ever, with foundation!
Some are confused about the definition of a super and the various sizes of
A super is a box of frames used to store honey only, and hence, it is SUPER
imposed on the top of the brood chamber area. Any size hive body that you like
can be used as a super.
Many migratory beekeepers who have young strong employees use the standard
deep 9 1/8" frame in a deep hive body as a super; but when filled, it weighs
about 90 pounds (and if it is the top body, full of bees too, a hot humid day,
and 100' carry to your truck, you will swear that it weighs 200 pounds.)
I use the popular medium (Illinois) 6 1/4" frame in a medium (Illinois) 6
5/8" super body, and when filled with honey, it weighs about 50 pounds.
The last size used for extracted honey is the Shallow 5 3/8" frame in a Shallow
5 11/16" super body and when filled with honey, it weighs about 40 pounds; but
this Shallow Size, while still in use, is rapidly being replaced by the medium
In recent years, many beekeepers have switched to using the 6 5/8" medium
(illinois) body for everything: brood and honey. By doing this, all bodies and
all frames are interchangeable because everything is ONE SIZE. I switched 15
years ago (wish I had done it 66 years ago) and now always have the correct
size frame for everything. I predict that this will be the standard hive in
our next century (not affected by the Y2K syndrome either).
Many of the "old time" beekeepers refused to use a queen excluder, referring
to them as "honey excluders" because they believed that the bees have a difficult
time going through an excluder.
Research has never been able to confirm this; and the great majority of beekeepers
of today use excluders. Back in the days before the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor, I did not use an excluder because I was primarily raising 4" x 4" Square
Section Comb Honey and queens do like to be confined to these small areas.
However, when I started doing research about bee behavior and management techniques,
I used queen excluders because I wanted to specifically limit the queen to my
selection of her location.
I firmly believe in the advantages of using an excluder for all beekeeping;
and I much prefer the wood bound excluder to the newer metal bound or plastic
excluder because I have seen the thin metal bound or plastic excluders violate
bee space and cause burr comb. Also, wood bound excluders (I paint them RED)
are quite visible from an outside view of a colony, whereas a thin excluder
might not be seen and left on a colony by mistake maybe resulting in a dead
In our Maryland area, there is little if any saleable honey made after about
June 10th in most years. I harvest before July 4th by using a fume board with
benzaldehyde, and/or an air blower, but only extract frames that are 90% capped.
Those frames that are not fully capped are put back in supers and put back
on my strongest colonies, and these can be extracted later if needed or left
for winter feed if you feel you might want a backup supply.
Remember that drawn comb is a beekeepers most valuable possession, so CAREFULLY
protect your extracted frames. In the paragraph above, I mentioned frames of
UNcapped honey being placed back on strong colonies. Keeping the INNER COVER
in place on top of those uncapped frames, put the supers of dripping wet extracted
frames on top of the inner cover and seal the top super shut to prevent robbing
with a double screen plus a telescoping cover and leave everything in place
for about a week. Those extracted frames should then be completely empty, clean
of honey, and dry; and, if so, remove them and take them to your basement, your
garage, or garden house.
Stack them tightly and treat them with para-clichloro-benzene (PDB), and seal
them up so that the wax moths are killed. These may have to be retreated with
PDB every 30 days until it gets cold in November; but PROTECT THAT DRAWN COMB!
This covers most details about supering, and I hope it is useful to you.