"Why would anyone do that?!"
That’s the reaction we get when we talk to consumers about common beekeeping practices and we mention that many beekeepers give their bees “artificial feed”. The fact is: artificial feeding is a widely accepted practice in beekeeping, and, many times, it is necessary to guarantee the survival of colonies.
At Bee Seasonal we are committed to sharing with you as much information as we can about everything concerning bees, honey, and beekeeping. Today, we want to talk about artificial feeding.
What is an artificial feed?
At this point you already know that bees are used to three main types of food: honey, bee bread (fermented pollen), and royal jelly. Those are natural foods. Anything else is considered artificial.Common substitutes for honey when feeding bees
The main kind of artificial feeds used as honey substitutes is sugar syrups. These syrups are usually made of refined sugar. Some beekeepers go to the extent of using high fructose corn syrup as feed because it is much cheaper than refined sugar.Bees and Honey
To understand why and how beekeepers feed their bees anything but their natural foods we need to start with when and why bees produce honey. Bees collect natural resources like nectar during the nectar flow. This is a period in which plants are producing nectar in order to attract pollinators. The nectar is turned into honey through extensive teamwork. You can read more about it on our “What is Honey” post.
For the bees, honey and pollen are food. That’s mainly what they eat and feed to their larvae (larvae get fed royal jelly as well, and we will talk about that in another post). When bees make honey, they are also thinking about the future. During the winter there is usually very little or no nectar available, and bees need to eat. In an ideal scenario, bees have worked hard during the nectar flow (usually spring to fall) and saved some of the honey they produced to be consumed throughout the winter.
It is a very straight forward process. Bees collect nectar and pollen, produce honey and bee-bread respectively, consume some of that and store some for the months when there is no nectar and pollen available in nature (usually during the winter).
When there is not enough food, the hive might starve and can possibly die.
Now, there are a few reasons why, in some situations, bees do not have enough food.
Situation number one: No honey for the winter - There were not enough natural resources to be harvested during the “nectar flow” and bees cannot save honey and pollen for the winter;
Situation number two: No honey for the winter - Bees did produce honey, but the honey produced was taken away from them;
Situation number three: No honey after the winter - Bees produced honey and consumed all their honey during the winter.
These situations might occur due to natural causes. However, the lack of available food can also be caused by human intervention. And this is what we want to talk about.
Harvesting Too Much Honey
Some beekeepers are just too greedy. It is a matter of simple economics. Honey is an expensive product, and it makes no sense to some beekeepers, from a financial standpoint, to let bees eat honey during winter. Beekeepers can make much more money selling the honey and feeding their bees with a cheap substitute. The same thing works for pollen.
This is a serious problem if you consider that many of the naturally occurring sources of nectar have been depleted either due to farming or to urban spread.
Some beekeepers use artificial feeding as a way of medicating their bees. They add, for example, antibiotics, to a sugar solution and use that to feed their bees.
Boosting Colonies for Commercial Pollination
Bees are needed for commercial pollination. In order to be efficient pollinators, colonies must be active and full of worker bees. Dormant hives have small numbers of bees which is not what farmers want; they need booming colonies packed full of bees. To boost the hives the beekeepers must feed large quantities of artificial sugar syrup, as well as pollen substitutes. This happens mainly right after winter when colonies are still "waking up" (it's like giving energy drinks to them).
A common sight during almond pollination. Do you see the tin cans on top of the hives? Those are feeders containing sugar syrup so that bees have access to quick and easy sugar in order to improve pollination efficiency (tired bees do not pollinate very well).
Beekeeper and his hives covered with a net. The hives are being loaded on a truck and will be rented for the next pollination service.
Artificially Feeding Bees Is Not A Sustainable Practice
Bees are not used to eating anything but what they produce themselves. Bees have been gathering nectar and pollen for millions of years, mixing them with their own special enzymes, and placing them in cells on their honeycombs.
Honey is not sugar and cannot be substituted for anything else. It contains unique enzymes and nutrients that bees need, it also contains simple sugars that give them energy quickly. Honey also has its own pH (acidity) and the digestive system of bees is accustomed to it.
In the case of pollen, bees bring it to the hive and “add enzymes” to it, making some kind of pollen pickle that we call Bee Bread. This is a very nutritious food because they can assimilate it easily. This fermented pollen is for the bees what probiotics and prebiotics are for us. They help to support and introducing the many microorganisms that help bees digest their foods.
When these natural foods are substituted with the artificial feed we are messing with a lot of things we still do not completely understand.
It is not hard to imagine how damaging this could be in the long run.What can we do?
Beekeeping should be done only in places that can support colonies year-round. This means places where bees can work and produce all the food they need during the nectar flow (when plants are making nectar available).
During the winter, we need to allow bees to feed on the honey they produced over the rest of the year. Beekeepers should not harvest all the honey in the hives, leaving enough until the next flowering.
In case of emergencies and life-threatening situations, artificial feeding might be necessary, and beekeepers need to opt for sustainable, organic clean sources of nutrients for their bees.
It is good to keep in mind, however, that the fact that these life-threatening situations present themselves to us might be a sign that we are not in the best location for beekeeping.
How should honey be harvested?
Honey should only be harvested when there is enough and continuous nectar flow for the bees to produce a surplus. This happens when the areas around the hives are naturally healthy and biodiverse so that there are different sources of nectar available at different times (mainly from spring to fall).
That is one of the reasons why we partner only with certified organic beekeepers. These beekeepers have their bees in natural areas where sources of food are plentiful. And they help protect these areas.
They also only harvest part of the honey produced, leaving enough for the bees until the next flowering, and they do not participate in commercial pollination.
Remember to always ask your beekeepers if they feed their bees anything other than honey. If they say yes, ask why. Let's get educated and help really saving the bees.