Of Bees and Feeding

Bees on a feeder set out for them...

Bees on a feeder set out for them…

“I modified a hummingbird feeder just for bees.

This is an attempt to keep the bees off of the hummingbird feeders. There are 12 ports, each has a piece of a soda straw going into the nectar. A crumpled up piece of soda straw keeps the other bees from pushing them into the nectar.

Bees seem to be rather pushy. If they can not get into a flower, they push. If she pushes another bee into the nectar and drowns her, that’s what happens. Got to be careful that I don’t end up with a bunch of drowned bees.”


This from a web page, and there are many, detailing well meant efforts to help honey bees by feeding them sugar syrup. The feeding is often done, not just to help Mother Nature, but to keep wasps and bees from competing with hummingbirds at hummingbird feeders.

Alas, such feeding is unwise, and bad for the bees.

Sugar syrup does indeed feed the bees, and in cold winter areas, beekeepers feed syrup to their hives in spring and fall to ensure they have calories to keep them warm all winter. But syrup does not a good honey make!

Strictly speaking, it does not make honey at all, if we limit (and I think we should) our definition  of honey to “that which is produced by honey bees from flower nectars”.

Syrup does not have the complex and dense nutritional profile found in flower nectars. Water white syrup honey tastes pallid and sickly sweet to humans, can dilute and ruin the honey crop of your nearby beekeepers, and can cause poor nutrition and dysentery in honey bees.

Putting out syrup for bees will make the bees happy…very happy! It will make every bee within a two mile radius happy, and they will all have a party in your back yard. It will look like a swarm, and act as a disease transfer station, with potentially sick or pest ridden bees sharing germs, viruses and mites just as they do in the California almond orchards at blossom time.

So putting out syrup is not good for bees.

What is good for them, how can you give the little girls a boost?

You can plant flowers, in particular catmint. Catmint is a good mixer in any border, blooms repeatedly over a long period, has beautifully fragrant gray-green foliage, is tough and hardy, and gives bees plenty of nectary goodness.

You can plant a pollinator patch to help all the pollinators out there, thick with dill, fennels, catmint, hardy geraniums, malvas, and mints.

The bees will come, including the sweetly adorable bumblebees, and they will come in civilized numbers and behave themselves.

But how to keep them off the hummingbird feeders? That’s easy: put nectar guards on all the feeder ports or switch over to models where the syrup reservoir is too far from the feeder ports for bees and wasps to reach. Hummingbirds have very long tongues, bees and wasps do not. A good model is pictured below.

Enjoy the birds and the bees!






Cat Jaffee and local women beekeepers work with Caucasian honey bees (Photo: Rebecca Shannon Spicer). From http://gofossilfree.org/how-campaigning-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels-started-with-a-field-of-hungry-bees/

Cat Jaffee and local women beekeepers work with Caucasian honey bees (Photo: Rebecca Shannon Spicer). From http://gofossilfree.org/how-campaigning-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels-started-with-a-field-of-hungry-bees/


Toronto’s Globe and Mail posted an inexplicably tepid article recently, “Pesticides, Pollination and the Bees’ Needs” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/pesticides-pollination-and-the-bees-needs/article19782564/

Weakly waving a hand and saying, bees in danger….mehhhh…is an odd choice for publication. But I invite you to read it as a stellar example of “The Band Plays On” journalism. The remainder of this blog post is from my comment in the Comments section for that article.

We have, as the Globe and Mail suggests, moved well beyond the identification of Colony Collapse Disorder to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.

Bee colonies are collapsing worldwide from multiple causes (of which Varroa mite infestation and the ubiquity of neonicotinoid use are the prime factors). But bee declines are still well beyond a sustainable level, and the outlook is far from hopeful, particularly in Canada.

Canada’s bee industry is completely dependent on the import of fresh bee packages yearly from New Zealand, which itself is the last country on earth to remain free enough of pests and diseases to offer a clean source of queens and bees for export. The twin spectres of resistant AFB strains and the Small Hive Beetle arriving in Canada have forced us to keep the border closed to USA bee package imports.

Canada’s loss statistics are much more complex than a single average, with the big pollination operations staggering under the weight of their own bee losses and the increased expense of spring packages. Thanks to continent wide factors that include a hard winter in the east, a persistent drought in the southwest (home of most of the big bee breeding operations in the USA), continuing pressure from massive forage habitat loss, neonicotinoids in crops and groundwaters, Varroa and Nosema, bee package prices nearly doubled this spring from an already obscene level.

More importantly, bee scientists and watchers agree that in most of Canada (the warm winter areas are possibly doing a bit better) there are no feral honeybee colonies left; they simply can’t make it through the winter without assistance. They are too hungry, too diseased, too ridden with pests and pesticides. There is no natural reservoir of honey bees to draw upon in this country.

 The future of honeybees = the ability of beekeepers to earn a sustainable living.

Presently that equation is under extreme threat. Because bees, and specifically the domesticated honey bee, are critical to our agricultural and food system, everyone needs to sit up and take action on this issue. Do you want to help the honey bees, do you like to eat the products of pollination? You don’t have to wait for regulators to wake up: buy organic, because if we don’t buy what they spray, they won’t spray it any longer

Plant season long bee forage in your gardens and on your roofs and balconies, that helps honey bees and the also struggling native bees (which by the way are important but remain relatively poor pollinators for most of our non-native crops). Plant spring flowering heathers, catmint, clovers, dandelions, sunflowers, Joe Pye Weed, herbs, fennels and dills, Phacelia and Echium vulgare. Lobby your local municipality, landowners and garden clubs to plant pollinator corridors, and forage meadows on all fallow lands. Write your governments asking for a ban on neonicotinoids, and also on tank mixes. Grow your own flower and vegetables from seed. Keep bees yourself!

And buy local raw honey, to help keep your local beekeepers in the game.

Photo by iStockphoto.com

Photo by iStockphoto.com



ancient-library-1280x800My post-university room-mate Mario was a quixotic, unpredictable person, lovable but maddening. He had some pretty crazy ideas, but taught me a maxim that has, ever since, informed and shaped my life: any intelligent person with a book can learn to do anything…

Nowhere is this more true than in the art and craft of beekeeping. It pays, and pays in handsome dividends, to read, read, read and ask endless questions. While it is true there remains a steep practical learning curve, that curve is considerably less challenging if you approach it from the standpoint of being well read.

Here in British Columbia, we have the provincial Apiculture department fact sheets.

And through an excellent post from Emily Heath’s Adventures in Beeland comes another set of wonderful fact sheet, these from the UK’s Department of Environment’s BeeBase in the UK.


Honey Math

It's a numbers game...

As a young-in-beekeeper-years beekeeper, my first learning project of 2014 is deciding when to split overwintered, strong hives such that I prevent swarming but do not weaken the original hive in terms of hitting the main June 15-July 15 nectar flow in peak numbers

It would be extra-nice if the split could also aspire to making a bit o’ honey for their doting beekeeper as well.

So while math is not my strong suit, I crunched the following numbers, based on our typical local startup, which is 1 kilo Arataki bee packages (New World Carniolans from New Zealand), which land just before mid-March, and in my experience build up very well, even on bare foundation.

1 kilo of bees = 2.2 lb. = 2.2 x 4000 bees = 8800 bees and a queen per package.

Let us assume the queen is sufficiently discombobulated and in need of comb to lay in for a few days, and at that point lays 1500 eggs per day that all hatch into little worker bees.

March 15 to June 15 is 12 weeks.

1500 eggs per day = 10,500 per week

12 weeks = 126,000 bees – 6 weeks of bees (average life span) = 63,000 bees = maximum hive population at any one time

Max forager force: if bees are old enough to be foragers at 22 days from hatching, and at best live 6 weeks = 42 days, then foragers have an optimistic work lifetime of 20 days.
20 x 1500 maturing per day = a max of 30,000 foragers at any one time per single queen hive.

Even if the hive is 63,000 bees, which I believe is a good sized colony, 16 pounds of bees alone, the 12 week buildup allows for two entire rotations of bees. But can we aspire to two entire hives full of foragers??

Max number of foragers means all bees hatched from 22 days to (22 + 20) days before June 15 are in the hive on June 15. That means laying must be at max (we will use 1500 eggs per day) from:
latest date for foragers laid: June 15 – (22 days + 21 days) = June 15 – 43 days

= May 03 = lay date of youngest foragers on June 15.

earliest date for foragers laid: June 15 – (42 days + 21 days) = June 15 – 63 days

= April 13 = lay date of eldest foragers on June 15.

This leads me to the conclusion…and please correct my math challenged mind if you see I have erred!…that a split made such that it has a laying queen by April 13 would arrive at June 15 just as strong as any decent overwintered colony.

April 13 is a bit early for creating new queens in my locale. I would be lucky I think, to get the bees to raise their own queen from a mid April walk away split. Drones are just appearing, the weather is ok but not predictably perfect…so in my case I think expecting a full honey forager force in mid June is not going to happen for my split.

BUT!!! It does mean that any split made at that time does not impair the mother hive’s ability to face the nectar flow.

So, from this little math exercise, I am thinking, and thinking locally:

1. Don’t make splits off honey hives after April 13.
2. Splits made on or before April 13 can be big splits without hurting the mother hive’s ability to meet the nectar flow.
3. Mid April splits may not raise up a queen successfully on their first try. But you do not want to give them frames of eggs and brood from your honey production hives….therefore, keep at least one strong hive intact, just as a source of frames of eggs and brood for the splits that fail to queen up (that strong hive can be completely split up in late May once it starts throwing its own main season queen cells).
4. Even honey production hives can afford to donate a frame or two of brood and eggs toward split making any time after May 24 as none of that brood will be main season foragers.

Further Considerations:

~Given that the local nectar flow is high for about 3 weeks (the blackberries bloom in flushes), all bees laid from May 03 + 3 weeks = May 24 will be main season foragers. All that brood should be left in the mother hive.

~We know that honeybees will adjust the workforce based on need as well as age-defined categories. I would expect during a big nectar flow like our local June/July blackberry bloom that workers move into forager ranks early?? Something to look into.

~Given that our numerically optimal date for splits is April 13 or earlier, and that our local weather is not optimal for raising queens at that time, if you want max honey production, you could requeen April splits with bought queens (which can be had locally when the NZ packages arrive).

Hoping to have a lively set of thoughts and reflections on my Honey Math in the comments section!!


Green in 2014

I was gobsmacked when, shopping at a reputable bee supply company recently, I asked which colour marking pen I needed for 2014. The clerk sniffed “I’m into Mason Bees.” And turned away.

I was too shocked to say what I should have, which is, “Shall we ask your employer the answer to my question?!”

But I looked it up when I got home and green is the colour for 2014. Here is a table for you, courtesy of http://www.beeinformed.org:

Queen marking colours2014 Green

2015 Blue

2016 White

2017 Yellow

2018 Red

I will post the chart again in 2019!

The Banquet of Life

photo by Getty

photo by Getty

“We live in a toxic world that will have a negative impact
on honey bees and will for a long time. It’s the new
normal.”, stated Dr. Tim Lawrence in front of cherry
growers at the Northwest Cherry Grower’s Institute in
Yakima, WA. Dr. Tim Lawrence is Island County’s WSU
Extension Director. He has expertise with honeybees
based on his work as a commercial beekeeper for 20 years
and has served as a research associate inWSU’s Honey
Bee Health Program.

Growers who want to fight against Colony Collapse
Disorder (CCD) should plant flowers.

“Bees need more than one crop.

Plant flowers,” he said.

Justin Bere, architect

Justin Bere, architect

Plant More Wildflower Meadows

As we’ve heard repeatedly over the past couple of years, the bees are disappearing, which, since they pollinate around 16% of the world’s flowering plants, can only be bad news. But here’s the good news. One of the simplest and most effective measures to speed their return – alongside restrictions on pesticides and better commercial beekeeping techniques – could also be the most attractive.

Around 1.3m hectares of wildflowers and hedgerow have been lost in the industrialisation of British agriculture, and 3m acres of wildflower meadows have gone since 1945, causing both birds and bees to struggle to find enough to eat. But Landlife, the charity which established the UK’s first wildflower centre in Merseyside in 2000, has been creating new habitats in derelict industrial spaces – sowing wildflower meadows among brick rubble and crushed concrete – and has since found both bees and birds thriving there. “We now have fields where we can count eight different types of bumblebee per square metre,” says Richard Scott, senior project manager. “That’s 80,000 bees per hectare, so you can really hear it.”

It’s a far less costly method of treating wasteland than topsoil and grass, which offers very little for wildlife, and a beneficial side-effect has been a decrease in antisocial behaviour in areas where they plant. Landlife believes a concerted effort to replicate these projects in towns could create a huge matrix of bee habitats nationwide. “Very often these solutions are overlooked,” says Scott, “but wherever we sow, people are demanding more.”

To get involved, visit wildflower.co.uk

(from Emma John’s article “Ethical Ideas”, Observer)

from 9Caledarcom

Sprouts for Life: salad blends containing canola and clover

Stock Seed: Pollinator Blend

American Meadows: Honey Bee Wildflower Mix

Applewood Seed Company: Bee Feed Mix

West Coast Seeds: Bee Garden Blend

Victoriana Gardens: Honey Bee Flower Seeds

For season long nutrition and delectation:

Crocus, Scilla

Spring Flowering Heathers, Apple trees


Catmint, clovers, phacelia, echium vulgare, fennels, dills, mustards

Rosemary, thymes, salvias

Caryopteris, sedums, sunflowers, coneflowers, Japanese Knotweed


from ontfin.com

from ontfin.com

The Music of the Spheres

from Biophobia, Anonda Bell artist

from Biophobia, Anonda Bell artist


Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.



from Last Night as I Lay Sleeping

by Antonio Machado


image courtesy of Kington Dtkiler UFO Farm

image courtesy of Kington Dtkiler UFO Farm


from Scenic Reflections

from Scenic Reflections

Dang. The long range forecast took a sudden…plunge!

Here in the greater Vancouver metropolitan area, we are experiencing an “extreme weather event week”. Temperatures by day will barely lift above freezing, wind chills will drive them down, and overnight lows are expected to be in the minus 10 Centigrade (14 Fahrenheit) range.

Oh my.

With one month to go until Big Leaf Maple and Red Alder bloom, this cold snap could well catch marginal colonies with new brood, an agèd and reduced population, and low-to-no stores. A perilous situation.

Mercifully, the weather is clear and sunny, as it often is when we have temperatures like these. With any luck, the sunshine will heat hives just enough that the cluster inside can break and access stores or emergency feed. In spite of that, the survival of many colonies is now in jeopardy.

Which makes this a strange time to be thinking about swarm prevention! But that is what we are all thinking about, with spring just around the corner. I have been polling my local beekeeping contacts, asking the question:

What strategies do you employ for spring Varroa  and swarm control?

And why?

I hope you will all check in with your comments, advice and experience as well. Meanwhile, think warm thoughts.

image by Brooke Steytler

image by Brooke Steytler

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