The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

No free lunch for bees

Bee feeder

As we near the end of our first decade homesteading, I'm slowly but surely realizing that there is no free lunch on a farm. Seed balls look pretty but produce few surviving plants, the dream of an entirely self-sufficient chicken is (for most of us) only a dream, and you have to feed bees if you want them to feed you.

Empty honeycomb

Natural beekeeping suggests that you should only feed your hive in the fall if they otherwise wouldn't have enough stores to make it through the winter. Using that methodology, I've finally learned to keep healthy bees...but not to harvest honey.

Maybe if we lived in a much warmer climate where bees can fly and flowers bloom copiously for nine months out of the year, our hive would make excess stores with no sugar-water pick-me-up. But here, where we only enjoy five months between first and last frost, I suspect spring feeding is mandatory to get hives bulked up enough that they can harvest sufficient wild nectar to feed both us and them.

Feeding bees

To that end, we're taking advantage of some warm days to feed the bees. This hybrid hive ate a pint in an afternoon, proving that their populations are high and that I need to add another box if I don't want early bulking up to turn into a swarm like last year's. The Warre hive, in contrast, only sipped daintily at their feeder, suggesting their numbers are low enough that they might not even have survived without the bonus feeding.

I'm slowly working my way toward a compromise between the high-impact, chemically treated bees that produce all the honey you can buy in stores and the entirely naturally raised bees that survive well but don't produce much at all. The end result might be Langstroth hives fed early to bulk up their numbers then managed with low-impact Warre methodology. Only time will tell....

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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In you quest for more sustainable bees, you should look up Dee Lusby. She has a Yahoo group called Organicbeekeepers and shares a wealth of information on keeping bees without chemicals. Thank you for a wonderful informative blog.
Comment by Valerie Mon Feb 22 08:25:37 2016
Would the bees burn less energy if you added some 2" rigid insulation to the exterior to help regulate the internal temperatures? I would think this may help so they don't need to use as much honey to maintaining the correct temperature throughout the winter.
Comment by Brian Mon Feb 22 09:48:47 2016

I ran into an issue last year where I kept adding sugar water to my bee feeder because the bees were using it up so quickly. There was a lot of activity around the front of my hive but it wasn't until I noticed that the bees were fighting over the feeder that I realized another colony of bees had been helping themselves to my feeder. After all, they have about a five mile range were they may forage for resources but if little nectar is available, your neighbor's hive or a wild colony may be robbing yours.

I found that I could still feed my own bees if I added an entrance reducer to limit the numbers of bees that could enter the hive at a time. This way my bees could defend against any intruders more easily, but still get to the feeder from the inside. This entrance reducer may be as simple as a thin strip of wood that makes your hive entrance about an inch wide, depending on how much in and out traffic your hive normally has.

Comment by David Tue Feb 23 15:41:45 2016
Hi I keep bees in Northern B.C., Canada and I have to insulate my bees every winter. I do not feed them but I make sure to leave enough honey for them to survive the winter. Insulating the hives make it so they don't have to use so much energy to keep warm and then they don't eat as much too. Nice Blog! Happy Beekeeping!
Comment by Kim Thu Feb 25 18:15:53 2016

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