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Honey bee colonies sometimes experience periods of resource shortage. It is alright to feed honey bees when they do not have enough food resources to keep the colony going. Feeding the colony requires you to have one or more types of feeders. There are also many different types of feed that can be given to honey bees and the main ones are sugar syrup and pollen. Pollen is usually fed in powder form, or in the form of pollen patties. Sugar syrup fed to bees is of 1:1 ratio of sugar and water, or 2:1. This article delves into the feeding of honey bees and how to build a homemade bee feeder for your apiary.
The Case for Bee Feeding
Feeding honey bees is generally not a first choice for beekeepers, unless it is extremely necessary. Normally, the best thing is to let the honey bees gather food resources of their own. Unfortunately, some seasons are not so good on the bees. During such times when nectar flow is not so good, you have to feed the honey bees. The best time to feed bees is in late fall, if you want to help them get through winter. In winter, it is not possible to feed bees because the sugar syrup would become too cold. It would require artificially heating the hive.
In addition to feeding honey bee colonies that have fallen on hard times, freshly installed honey bee colonies may need feeding. The same case applies to colonies weakened by disease, parasites, pests or predator invasions. It is useful to feed such colonies to help them regain their strength. Feeding a honey bee colony can be time and used to trigger brood production or wax production and drawing of comb.
Challenges and risks of feeding bees are not many and can be mitigated. Feeding with sugar often results in robbing by other colonies. It also attracts pests of honey bees such as ants and yellow jacket wasps. Sometimes, feeding honey bees sends them the wrong signal and could result in swarming, or brood production at a time when sustaining the brood is not feasible. This is why it is not advisable to feed when it is too cold.
Harvesting honey from beehives should not leave the colony without enough reserves. It does not make sense to harvest honey and then later feed the colony in the same beehive. Honey bees prefer honey as their go-to feed when they cannot go out to collect nectar. Beekeepers are advised to consider keeping some frames of honey to give to bees in case they are low on food reserves, instead of feeding them sugar syrup.
Types of Honey Bee Feeders
There is a variety of honey bee feeders to choose from. Various factors determine the best feeder for you, although any one you use will usually get the job done anyway. Drowning and robbing are the major factors to consider in choosing the a feeder to use. Some feeders trigger robbing more than others, while some others have a propensity to drown more bees in the feed syrup than others.
Other factors to consider when choosing a bee feeder are the cost, ease of cleaning and ease of use. The feeder you settle on should be easy to place in the hive and remove when feeding is completed. Secondly, it should not drown bees in the feed. When feeding bees, you should take measures to prevent robbing; such as using a robbing screen.
Frame feeders are made of wood or plastic. In the past, frame feeders made using very smooth plastic tended to drown a lot of bees. Newer types of plastic frame feeders are made a little rough on the sides. The roughness of the surface helps bees climb out of the feeders with ease. You can put a float such as dry twigs in the feeder to prevent drowning. Most frame feeders take up more space than a single frame in the beehive. A few manufacturers have slim versions that take only up one frame space, and have great ears so the feeder remains in place. Frame feeders are also called division board feeders.
Nearly all beekeeping beginner kits have a Boardman feeders included. This type of honey bee feeder is used at the entrance of the beehive. A Boardman feeder holds an inverted jar that may be a mason jar or resemble a mason jar. These are feeders that are very notorious for causing robbing. They are easy to check on, though you have to contend with the bees on the feeder when you want to refill the feeder.
There are many variations of this popular bee feeder named after C.C Miller. They are used at the top of the beehive. Tight closing of the feeder is required so that honey bees do not enter it and drown in the syrup. The access of a Miller feeder is variable based in the manufacturer. It is situated based on the preference of the manufacturer to make the access either easier for bees to reach, or for the beekeeper to refill. Large Miller feeders hold more syrup but are less suitable for use in cold conditions.
This is a zip lock bag that is filled with up to 3 quarts of bee feed sugar syrup. It can be laid on top of the bars of a beehive box. Small slits are made at the top of the bag using a razor blade to allow bees to suck out the syrup. Once the bag is emptied of the syrup, it is removed from the hive. This type of feeder is cheap to buy, easy to use and does not drown bees. It works in both warm and cold weather. Unfortunately, the bags can only be used once for feeding bees.
Bottom Board Feeders
The most popular of bottom feeders is the Jay Smith bottom feeder. It is a simple dam made using a block of wood. It is placed on the bottom board near the hive entrance. The Jay Smith bottom feeder can occupy a large space on the bottom feeder or be modified to sit on less of the bottom board. Bottom board feeders such as the Jay Smith feeder tend to drown a lot of bees. They are not suitable for use with weak hives due to their placement at the bottom of the hive where bees may not find them.
This is a great DIY bee feeder. Liquid syrup fed to bees is put in a container such as a quart jar, paint can or plastic pail. The container is turned upside down to hold liquid syrup in the bottle using vacuum – or air pressure. These honey bee feeders are great for feeding bees at the top of the beehive. They are however very prone to leaking if not set up properly. Inverted container feeders can also overflow when air pressure changes by large values in your area. Large inverted container bee feeders hold a lot of the feed syrup and do not need to be refilled often. They do not drown many bees.
You can make a DIY open bee feeder using any container. Add floats to the container to prevent honey bees drowning. Open feeders are best used outside the beehive. Bees from more than one beehive can be fed this way, so that you do not have to use many feeders or open up many beehives to install them. Open feeders easily set off robbing among bees in neighboring beehives.
Building a Homemade Bee Feeder
In this section, you will learn how to make a homemade bee feeder. Two bee feeders are detailed. One is the Boardman bee feeder, and the next one is a frame to use with baggie feeders. The frame can also be used for sugar dusting, making it multi-purpose beekeeping equipment for your apiary.
Making a Boardman Bee Feeder
You can make a simple Boardman bee feeder using easily available materials. For the project, you need to have a container, and a lid that is wider than the top of the container. A big jar by the size of the top and its height allows you to hold a lot of syrup in the container. The lid must not cover the top of your chosen container so that syrup can freely flow out.
For best results, a shallow lid is used so that a very thin layer of syrup is allowed onto the lid. It helps avoid bees drowning in the syrup. You should also make the notch very small so that the syrup flows from the container in small amounts at a time. The rim of your lid should not be too low to avoid spills. You can place twigs around the lid in the syrup to prevent honey bees from drowning.
The feeder you make has the container inverted over the wide lid. You can make a small notch in the container to allow syrup to flow out, or place a small item such as a twig or matchstick between the container and lid. The small space under the container will allow syrup to flow out when bees drink up the syrup on the lid.
Your DIY Boardman feeder can be used at the top or bottom of the beehive. Upper placement is often favored due to the ease of accessing the feeder for placement, refilling and removal. Make sure the feeder is level when you place it in the beehive.
Making a Frame for a Baggie Feeder
Feeding honey bees using a baggie feeder is a great way of doing things because you avoid bees drowning. The frame we describe in this section helps you place the baggie feeder on a suitable platform that is not your beehive frames. By using a separate placement platform, you can have absorbent materials under your baggie feeder to soak up any spills. With on-frames placement, spills seep into the frames and cause you trouble in the beehive later on.
An added advantage of this frame is that you can use it for sugar patty placement, pollen patty placement and dusting honey bees with powdered sugar.
The feeder frame is a simple wooden box with screening and a mesh. It is best made using 1 x 8 wood pieces, but you can also build one using 1 x 6 wood. Using 1 x 8 wood for this project allows you to make 2 feeder frames. Using 1 x 6 wood allows you to make only one frame, and some part of the wood is wasted – or at least not needed for the frame. Here, we describe building the frame using 1 x 8 wood. Cut 4 wood pieces. Two should measure 14-¾ inches, and two should measure 19-7/8 inches.
Follow these steps for joinery and finishing:
1. Join the sides using spline joints. The spline joint is a self-squaring joint that uses grooves cut in the ends of the wooden pieces to be joined and using a bar of wood between them. Gluing is necessary for a strong spline joint.
2. Assemble the box using wood glue and clamps to hold everything tightly together. Wait for the glue to dry fully before proceeding to the next step. You can leave the glue to dry overnight and resume the process the following day.
3. Mark cut lines on the outer surfaces of the box. You are going to cut 4 rims from the box, so marking lines will help you make straight cuts. Two rims from each side are cut at a thickness of ¾ inches. The first cut line you mark will therefore be ¾ inches from one edge of the box you made, and the next line is ¾ inches from the first line. A third line is marked at 2-½ inches from the second line. Repeat the first and second lines on the other edge of the box. In total, you should have 5 cut lines.
4. Drill pilot holes for screws. After you cut out the two rims we have marked above, you will sometimes reattach them to the rest of the box/frame using screws. Drilling pilot holes before cutting makes sure than the holes are perfectly aligned. The shorter sides of the frame can have one pilot hole each while the longer sides should have at least 2 pilot holes each. Both edges of your box/frame should have the pilot holes drilled into them.
5. Cut out the rims you marked. Use a suitable tool that is easy to cut with. The cut you make should give you 6 pieces: 2 spacers and 4 rims.
6. Working with the rims cut from one side of the box/frame, staple wire mesh to the top of the lower rim, and staple screen cloth to the bottom of the second rim.
7. Reattach the rims to the spacer using 2-½ inch screws.
- Using the frame requires you to unscrew the rims and reattach them in various configurations. When used for feeding, the screen is removed so that bees can access the feed syrup. During dusting, both the screen and mesh are used so that the mesh provides support for the screen.
- After making the cuts, you may reinforce the joints on the various pieces using wood staples.
- This process of making the dusting/feeder frame gives you two frames using 1 x 8 sized wood. You can keep one as a spare, or give it away to another beekeeper.
How to Prepare Sugar Syrup for Feeding Honey Bees
When preparing sugar syrup to feed to bees, boil the water to kill microorganisms. It helps the syrup last longer without fermenting. You should also add sugar to the water when it is still hot so that the sugar dissolves much faster.
There are two types of syrups you can use. Their recipes are written as ratios of sugar and water. One is 1:1 syrup and the other is 1:2 sugar syrup. Some texts have the second type written as 2:1. In the end, it conveys the same information. The variable number in this ratio for sugar syrup preparation, corresponds to the amount of sugar that can be added into the syrup.
An interesting addition to sugar syrup that beekeepers sometimes use is essential oils. These oils have been found to have benefits in controlling parasites of honey bees – especially Varroa mites. The addition of these oils in bee feed should be done with caution because errors can result in killing the bees. It is better to add too little, than make the mistake of adding too much of the essential oils in the bee feed. A tablespoon of the essential oil is enough for every 1 liter of sugar syrup you give the bees.
A Final Word
Feeding bees is a necessary undertaking that beekeepers have to do. A healthy colony with enough food resources does not require feeding. Weak colonies or those facing starvation must get this important intervention if they are going to survive. Even if you never need to feed bees, it is great to have a bee feeder. You can use it to provide water to bees, and have the thing ready in case you ever need it. The homemade bee feeders in this article are easy to make and cheaper than what you would buy from the beekeeping supplies shops. Both beginner and experienced beekeepers keen on making something for their bees can build a homemade bee feeder using the detailed procedures in this guide.
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