Feeding and Treating WVBA Bees

At September WVBA meeting I discussed feeding and treating as a follow up to Rich’s comments at August meeting on fall preparations. Not all beekeepers want to feed and fewer care to treat. The risk of not doing either is a colony that may not survive winter.

If bees are natural and wild animals why should we need to feed or treat them? Well for one they are NOT native to the U.S. and for another there are few Willamette Valley locations that have a fall nectar flow. A third factor, a big one, is Varroa mites, an unbalanced relationship for the host honey bee. Finally we don’t know – don’t know what winter will bring – will it be a mild late fall, an Indian summer, a mild, early spring or will the winter linger longer than necessary? If our bees don’t have the fall resources and they or we don’t know what the season might bring, good bee stewardship means prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised by something better.

What should a successful fall colony look like? Colonies should be strong – but can they be too strong? How do we know? By October colonies need to be consolidating and should cover a sphere of 5 to 7 frames set up in lower box or between the two boxes. We want a young vigorous queen heading the colony of survivor or hygienic stock. It is too late by Oct to requeen – this task was an August one.

The colony should not have signs of brood disease. Some unfortunately will be showing the snot brood (Bee PMS) syndrome – such colonies will have much lower probability of surviving our winter. In October we can try to feed such colonies and also consider using terramycin to medicate them – sometimes it helps. If diseased condition is too severe there is little hope of a rescue.

Finally the colony should have the top box nearly full of capped honey and there should be some evidence of bee bread stores – more than less is better. If low on food, we should consider feeding.

There are numerous good ways to feed the bees in the fall. We should use a “good” sugar source and either feed inside the boxes`(a Boardman feeder located on one side of the top box) or preferably with a feeder at the top. There are a wide variety of ways to feed – find containers and hive top configuration to your liking. Feeders can go directly on the top bars, through the inner cover, be a top feeder, or you can feed through holes in the cover. For containers use baggies, jars, plastic – find one to your liking and budget. Entrance feeders are generally not effective and worst may lead to robbing by other colonies or yellowjackets.

Feeding non-Langstroth hives can be a bit more of a challenge. You can attach a feeder (blue plastic recycling container was illustrated) to the outside (with inside entry for the bees, you can modify the top bars to accommodate a feeder or you can feed with the box itself adjacent to the outermost drawn comb, moving it further outward as the syrup is stored. You generally want to have all the honey stored to one side of the brood combs – storage on both sides may lead to splitting of the cluster or too few honey stores for the bees to expand to come spring.

Feed heavy syrup (2 parts of sugar to 1 part water by weight or volume) and continue to feed until the bees stop taking it, usually when it gets too cold or the top box is full of capped honey.

Honey you do not intend to harvest can also be fed to bees. If liquid, dilute it 1:1 with water. If still in comb, place the frames above the top box (with or without the inner cover) and then score the cappings to make a “mess” the bees will want to clean up.

Some beekeepers like to feed protein too in the fall. All the commercial feeds sold by bee supply companies are more or less equal. Some prefer to make their own protein patties. To be effective, the bees must recognize it (we add pollen or lots of sugar to the mix) and it must stay moist enough for them to consume. Patties are fed directly on top or between the 2 boxes but dry protein can be fed feed-lot style. If you do not need your bees early in the spring (to move to almonds or early fruit pollination) it is not economically advantageous to feed fall protein the Valley as we are blessed with plentiful and early spring pollens (provided the weather allows our bees to get to forage).

By October our varroa treatments become limited. Apivar (amitraz) treatment takes 42-56 days. Essential oil (Apiguard or Api Life Var) and MAQS (formic acid) are shorter treatment windows for the cooler temperatures, unless nighttime temperatures dip into the 40s. These materials can be very effective at knocking varroa mite numbers down. Larger beekeepers will often “clean up” colonies of varroa mites with a late fall treatment of oxalic or the hop beta acids of Hopguard II. The former is not yet approved (though it is likely to be available next season) and we have too little experience with Hopguard to know how effective it really is so these late treatments are not generally recommended unless and until you know how effective they will be.

If you do suffer losses (38% had 100% survivorship last year but loss rates were heavy at 36%) do the dead colony forensics. Why did the bees die? Did they run out of food, or if they still had stores were they in the wrong place for the bees to access or were there just too few bees to be able to keep warm. Was there a queen problem or as we are increasingly seeing was there Bee PMS (snot brood) and the bees just weren’t able to rear enough bees to have a large enough population of “fat” bees to overwinter successfully? The signs will be subtle but maybe, just maybe, you can gain something from the post mortem to help next August-October when you prepare for another fall.

Good luck with your overwintering.