YOUR BEES ARE WHAT YOU FEED THEM!
by
 
CHARLIE STEVENS
Condamine Apiaries, Warwick, Queensland

  
During the 1970's and 1980's, the Australian beekeeping industry benefited from world leading research into honey bee nutrition. Research conducted at the Queensland Agricultural College, by Graham Kleinschmidt and his associates in co-operation with the beekeeping industry, enabled Australian beekeepers to become the best informed honey bee nutritionists in the world. 

It was not uncommon to listen to honey producers discussing the need to work a honey flow and then a pollen flow in order to maintain colony strength. Honey producers became concerned over protein levels in their bees and progressively they began to focus on pollen supplements to offset natural protein sources. 

In hind sight, I believe that we have only scraped the surface and that not a lot has been done since the late 1980's, in terms of practical research. There is a need for more follow up research, much more can be done to assist honey producers in the field to come to grips with the jig saw of honey bee nutrition. 

The following comments outline the evolution of supplementary feeding within our own operation, as we progressed from sugar syrup feeding to protein cakes. 

Sugar 

During the period from 1970 to 1975, we regularly experimented with feeding sugar syrup. The syrup was fed either in top feeders, or in plastic bags. 

Why did we feed sugar syrup? Initially as an experiment to stimulate breeding prior to a Yellow Box honey flow on the Queensland Darling Downs. Hives were fed in late spring (September / October), at the time they had been placed on Turnip for pollen. They syrup mix was 2.5 bags of sugar per drum, our preferred feeder was a 4 litre top feeder. 

Results: The thin syrup stimulated brood rearing in hives and as a result, the collection of pollen. Hive populations rapidly expanded and we were able to take a good crop of Yellow Box. During this five year period of experimental sugar feeding on good pollen flows resulted in strong colonies and increased production. 

Why feed sugar syrup? To stimulate pollen collection, brood rearing and improve the morale of the colonies generally. Our preference for a feeding rate of 2.5 bags per 200 litre drum did not see the bees storing the syrup, we have never seen bees cap cells of sugar syrup. At no time have we ever fed "thick" syrup for stores, preferring always to leave honey on hives for stores. 

Our operation produces its main crops of honey in the Channel Country, we have never fed sugar while working Yapunyah. We do feed syrup when needed prior to moving to the channel country. It is our experience that bees, when working Yapunyah, have plenty of intestinal fortitude! We ensure they are working reasonable pollen sources and tend to only work that country when we expect it to yield honey. 

Open feeding? We never feed sugar syrup in the open and would not encourage it, the disease risk is too great and we only want to feed our own hives. 

Feeding dry sugar is not part of our management practice, we have tried it but found bees tend to pick it up and cart the grains out the front of the hive within half an hour of feeding. They can then be seen licking at the dumped sugar when dew or other moisture gets onto it. 

Pollen feeding is not to our liking either, as a straight supplementary feed it is very expensive and as a result we have chosen not to feed pollen. Pollen must be irradiated to ensure it is disease free, another cost to be considered. 

Soy flour, we have used soy flour because we thought it was cheap and easy to feed. Was it worthwhile? In our opinion NO. We found it was hard to attract the bees to eat it. We were also concerned that the open feeding could bring with it bee diseases like European Foulbrood, American Foulbrood and Chalkbrood if robbed / collected by neighbouring hives. We did not consider our bees benefited from soy flour feeding as the diet was not balanced enough for our liking (or theirs), thus we ceased feeding soy flour. Open feeding in our opinion is not good practice. 

Protein cakes have been very rewarding to our operation. Our preference is for pollen enriched protein cakes made by CB Palmer & Co of Ipswich Queensland 

We have been using these cakes for 5 years on a regular basis. 

When do we feed? 

As soon as we hit a honey flow or before, if a small flow of nectar and pollen is available. Our normal time to begin using the cakes is towards end of March. This is a key period of time for us as hives are going into their final preparation, prior to moving to the Channel Country, and protein levels in the bees is critical if they are to be able to sustain the heavy winter honey production we expect from Yapunyah. As stated earlier, we may at this time also feed sugar syrup to stimulate expansion of the brood nest and increase colony population to the levels we require prior to the shift. 

How much do we feed and how often? 

The protein cakes are approximately 100 mm x 50 mm x 15 mm and we give each hive 2 cakes at 21 day intervals. If conditions go off, we may increase the number of cakes fed per hive. The only restriction we place on feeding is the cost, we would prefer to feed all hives two cakes at 14 day intervals, prior to and during nectar flows. The cost of the cakes are $143 for a 20kg ctn of approx. 200 cakes. Other sizes are available 

There are 20 kgs of protein cakes per carton and one carton will feed 100 hives. 

Has feeding protein cakes been worthwhile? Without hesitation we say YES! For two seasons we only feed the cakes at mediocre levels and took a little time to learn the right time for feeding and the amounts required to produce consistent results.  

Our policy now is "If in doubt - FEED" 

  • If hives are down prior to a honey flow do we feed? YES.
  • If the bees are on the way up but pollen a little short, do we feed? YES.
  • If pollen is coming in heavily, do we feed? NO.
  • Do the bees stop eating protein cakes on a heavy pollen flow? NO.
  • Do bees like protein cakes? Not particularly.
  • Could they be more attractive? No need, they consume them at a steady rate without being too fast.
Cake placement is in a super of sticky combs, the cakes are placed between the bottom bars of the centre frames, above the queen excluder. We do not favour placing the cakes between the wall comb and the wall of the hive. In our experience, the bees are not attracted to them in the position, the outer areas being cooler and less densely occupied by bees could be the reason for this. 

Two queen hives working on good conditions have produced amazing amounts of honey for us when stimulated by feeding protein cakes on a good Yapunyah flow. Our two queen hives consist of 2 x 5 frame units in a ten frame hive body, the centre divide has a 50 mm metal divider strip placed on top of the divider to keep the bees and queens away from each other at the centre. 

We prefer the queens to be related as we believe this makes them more tolerant of each other. The best yield we have achieved using the two queen system was 300 kg per hive from 120 two queen hives.  

Protein cakes were fed every time a super of honey was removed. 600 single queen hives on the same honey flow being fed protein cakes in the same manner, produced approximately 150 kg per hive. In poor seasons, two queen hives are less successful in the Channel Country, the bees will often kill one queen and thus diminish the brood area available. To overcome this problem, we pull the divider and supply an extra protein cake. 

Where one side of the two queen unit drops back a little in brood area we will often feed an extra protein cake to stimulate the brood rearing. When placing protein cakes in two queen hives, the cake is positioned over the centre of each unit in the super of sticky combs. At this stage of the season, if the colony is not producing honey and others are the non-productive hives, are marked for checking and not fed. They are often queenless. 

Crops worked with protein cakes include, Yapunyah, Blue Top Ironbark, Narrow Leaved Ironbark and Yellow Box. Among the natural flows worked in the channels are Gidgey, Sandfire, Ellangowan and a wide variety of wildflowers in better seasons. 

Hive population is critical, we endeavour to operate hives with at least five well filled out frames of brood and maintain hive population levels in the area of 35,000 bees per hive. To sustain these levels we must provide supplementary protein, this is where the protein cakes come into their own. We have no faith in supplementary foods for bees that do not contain pollen or honey! Our bees are what we feed them. 

From our observations we believe that by caring for the nutritional well being of our hives, assists hives in dealing with bee diseases often related to stress. 

For the future we plan to continue to fine tune our supplementary feeding program and have developed an interest in the value of supplying water by means to top feeders to hives. Comments by researchers and our own experience of supplying water for hives indicates that a ready supply of water may add another dimension to our understanding of the complete nutritional needs of our bee hives. 

Research into honeybee nutrition should be ongoing, we have already benefited as an industry from research in this field. 

The area of cost effectiveness needs to be carefully studied in order to convince many uncommitted honey producers of the value of supplementary feeding. We have diminishing honey resources, but are in the unique position to improve yields from existing resources by better utilising our management tools. Supplementary foods themselves may need to be evaluated in order to ensure that only the most useful formulas are used by beekeepers. 

Perhaps the title of this paper has a place in our overall view of this subject "Your Bees are What You Feed Them", feed them well and they will feed you well. 
 

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