Category Archives: Feeding

Everynuc feeder

I bought a few of these Ashforth-style feeders when I standardised on using Everynucs from Thorne’s a year or two ago. They’ve sat more or less unused since then, largely because the design of this poly nuc – a Langstroth-sized box adapted to take National frames – includes an integral feeder. This year I’ve used these nucs for queen mating and holding ‘spare’ queens when undertaking swarm control. Most of these have either migrated up to a full colony or been returned to the original hive, but I have a few left to take through the winter. These are now being fed up for the coming months. All are, or will be, housed in the bee shed overwinter for additional protection, though I’ve previously overwintered colonies in them outside reasonably successfully.

Everynuc feeder ...

Everynuc feeder …

Syrup and paint

The feeder is well designed, with an opening at one end leading to a good-sized reservoir for syrup or fondant. The volume of the reservoir is a little more that 3.5 litres when filled to dangerously near the brim. When using syrup – which I don’t – there’s a folded wire mesh screen that should prevent the bees drowning. They can climb up and over the dam to reach the syrup, but don’t have free access to the reservoir. This should reduce that distressingly high ‘body count’ sometimes seen with badly designed feeders. Additionally, the mesh screen prevents bees from leaving the hive when the clear plastic crownboard is removed to top up the reservoir. Convenient  🙂

Rodent damage ...

Rodent damage …

Like all poly hives, and particularly poly feeders, these should be painted before use (remember, Do as I say, don’t do as I do … some of mine aren’t painted due to poor planning). Syrup soaks into the poly if the surface isn’t sealed first. This can lead to problems with fungus growth and attack by rodents when the feeders are stored. As an aside, I try and remember to seal the entrances of my poly hives when not in use to prevent mice from destroying them … they seem very enthusiastic about having polystyrene chip parties at my expense. A couple of my poly bait hives have already been attacked this autumn – these just smell of bees and propolis (and now strongly of mouse 🙁 ) without the added attraction of syrup residues which would just make things worse.

The wire mesh screen on the Everynuc feeders is a bit ‘springy’ and probably needs holding in place with a couple of drawing pins (see image above). Additionally, both sides of the dam wall should also be painted and, when still wet, sprinkled with sand to improve the grip for bees accessing the syrup (as I show on the landing boards on my kewl floors).

Fondant

Feeder with fondant

Feeder with fondant …

At one end of the feeder, opposite the syrup reservoir, is a well that can be filled with fondant if the wire mesh screen is fitted. My crude measurements suggest it should hold about 1.5 kg of fondant if packed in tight. It might be possible to directly carve off suitably sized lumps from an intact block but it’s easier to pack it with a variety of offcuts and squeeze them down. Bees are be able to access the fondant from underneath and adjacent to the dam wall. As with syrup, feeding them like this means the fondant can be topped up without bees escaping.

Alternatively (and see the next section) you can simply stuff a big lump of fondant into the well of the feeder and omit the wire mesh – as shown above.

Easy top-ups

Easy top-ups …

I had a few concerns about how well the bees would access the fondant through the mesh – might the fondant dry out too quickly, would access be restricted as the fondant block shrank in size etc? Therefore, before it got too cold I set a couple up of feeders with or without the mesh fitted to see how readily the bees could access and take down the fondant (this post was started in mid-September). Both methods seemed to work fine though I suspect feeding through the mesh directly above the frames is likely to work better as the weather cools further, simply because it’s less far for the bees to travel and likely to be a little bit warmer.

Alternatively

Peter Edwards has recently written a short article in BIBBA’s Bee Improvement on modifying the Miller-style feeder supplied by Maisemores for their poly nuc. He simply drilled a series of ~25mm holes through the bottom of the one side of the feeder, leaving the other side unbutchered for delivering syrup if needed. A simple but effective solution ideally suited to Maisie’s double-sided feeder. Since I’m so wedded to the use of fondant for my autumn/winter feeding I may do this on a few of these Everynuc feeders as well … accepting that they’ll be trashed for use with syrup.

That’s all folks

The last week has seen temperatures peaking in the low teens, with the first overnight frosts of the year. Active beekeeping is effectively over for the season. Colonies checked at the end of last week are taking fondant down well and two that I briefly inspected had reasonable levels of brood in all stages, wth the queen laying at a consistent rate albeit much less than earlier in the season. These new bees will help the colony get through the winter and – because mite treatments were completed several weeks ago – will have been reared in a hive with very low Varroa levels, ensuring they are protected from virulent strains of deformed wing virus. I have a couple more colonies to check in the next few days and one more nuc to move to the bee shed.

However, before the autumn tidying and winter tasks are started there’s still some reasonable weather to get out and enjoy the beautiful Fife countryside.

Ballo Reservoir and West Lomond

Ballo Reservoir and West Lomond

 


 The Ashforth-style feeder has the entrance at one end or side, the feeder with the double entrance in the middle is the Miller feeder.

 

Fife’s fondant mountain

A little later in the year than usual due to work commitments …

In late August 2014 I described how I feed my bees fondant in the autumn. It’s a simple, quick, clean and efficient way to feed colonies. Additionally, I’m reasonably convinced that there are advantages for the bees as well as the beekeeper. The advantages (over syrup, either homemade or Ambrosia for example) are numerous:

  1. Readily available, pre-packed and very easy to store.
  2. Ready to use … just unbox it, slice it open and add to the hive.
  3. Addition takes only a minute or two per hive.
  4. Compatible with many Varroa treatments (Apiguard and sublimation are two I’ve used at the same time as feeding fondant).
  5. No spillages (during preparation or delivery) so far less risk of attracting wasps or getting into trouble in the kitchen.
  6. No need for specialised equipment such as Miller or Ashworth feeders that need to be stored for the remaining 11 months of the year.
  7. It’s taken down and stored better in cold weather (than syrup) as evaporation of excess water isn’t needed.
  8. You can get later brood rearing as the brood nest isn’t packed out with syrup (possibly, see below).

Point 8 is perhaps debatable. This is my impression having used it for several years, though I’ll admit to never conducting a proper side-by-side comparison. Fondant is certainly taken down more slowly than syrup. A full block (12.5 kg) might take 4-5 weeks, though it can disappear much faster. Since the water content of fondant is not wildly different from honey it takes about the same amount of storage space. In contrast, even thick syrup (2:1 sugar to water by weight) needs to be concentrated by the bees, requiring more temporary storage (where the queen might be laying or you might want her to lay to raise those all-important winter bees), reasonable temperatures and more energy.

Don’t take my word for it …

Peter Edwards of Stratford BKA used to have a posting on feeding fondant but I’m reliably informed it’s disappeared in a website revamp. He was a strong a advocate of the ease and benefits of using fondant … so don’t think that this is just my crackpot idea. Actually, it’s not his crackpot idea either … it’s not crackpot at all. And there are very few new ideas in beekeeping.

I’ve used nothing but fondant for winter feeding for at least 5 years. I’m not aware of any problems doing this. My overwintering colony losses are satisfactorily low and almost always attributable to issues other than feeding. Like a Mac, “It just works.

How to feed fondant

Open the box and slice the block of fondant in half. There are two easy ways to do this:

  1. Use a strong breadknife in the kitchen. Cover the opposing faces with clingfilm. The idea here is to stop the fondant ‘fusing’ back together as you transport it to the apiary.
  2. Use a nice sharp spade in the apiary … forget the finesse, just stomp down hard and cut the block in two. Don’t worry about the few bits of mud and grass that get included.
Neater but harder ...

Neater but harder …

In both cases leave the plastic wrapping on and don’t cut right through it … the idea is to open the block out like a book and place it face down onto the top of the frames. I used to leave the queen excluder in place but generally only do this if there’s a reason I might need to inspect the colony again (with care you can lift the QE and fondant off together). The plastic wrapping on 5 sides of each half block stops the fondant drying out.

Finesse ... nul points ...

Finesse … nul points …

A block of fondant is about 20 x 20 x 32 cm. You’ll therefore need to work out a way of providing sufficient ‘headroom’ under the crownboard. The easiest way is to use an empty super. Alternatively, where I’ve got insulated perspex crownboards, I invert them over a simple eke allowing me to see how fast the fondant is used and top it up as necessary. If, like me, you consider hive insulation important leave this in place under the roof. If I’m using a super to enclose the fondant I try and use a polystyrene one for the same reason.

Poly super and fondant ...

Poly super and fondant …

I usually remove the empty  bag when I do the midwinter Varroa treatment, or before if they’ve finished it (in which case I might add another half block or so if ”hefting the hive’ indicates it’s still a bit light). The bees usually build some brace comb on the top of the frames extending into the bag. Just gently smoke them down and scrape it off, or leave it there until the Spring.

The end is nigh

Feeding the colony up for winter marks the end of the practical beekeeping season for me. I usually experience a mixture of sadness that it’s over again for the year, together with anticipation of what’s to come the following season. With the exception of a few nucs and some colonies in the bee shed, inspections and any sort of regular checks on the colonies are over. The summer honey harvest has been taken – hopeless this season unfortunately – and Varroa levels have been monitored and minimised.

Nevertheless, winter preparations such as feeding the colony up, uniting weak colonies which are unlikely to overwinter well, protecting the colony from mice or woodpeckers and hammering down the Varroa levels are some of the most important activities of the year. If done successfully there’s every reason to look forward to having strong, healthy colonies to start the following season.


You can purchase fondant from bakers and wholesale bakery suppliers such as Fleming Howden. The price I paid – thanks to a friend in the East of Scotland Beekeepers Association – was  £10.55 for 12.5 kg. Ordering in bulk – for example via a co-operative purchasing scheme through your local association – makes a lot of sense and will reduce (or remove altogether) the delivery costs. Single blocks purchased from your local baker might cost 50% more than the price I’ve quoted. Sugar prices vary on the commodities markets … in 2013 I paid about the same as this year, but in 2014 paid only about £9 a box.

BFP wholesale used to sell fondant and had regional outlets (Tamworth in the Midlands and Livingstone in Scotland) from which collection was possible. However, although they have gone into administration, I saw one of their lorries on the way to the office this morning and it appears that the Leeds and Livingstone branches may have been bought and remain operational.

 If you have the storage space it makes sense to buy in bulk. Keep it dry and away from wasps, rodents (and other beekeepers) and it has a shelf life of at least three years. You’ll also find it useful for a mid-winter boost, for feeding mini-nucs when queen rearing, for blocking queen cages and for Chelsea buns 😉

Baby, it’s cold outside

Beekeepers in Scotland (and possibly elsewhere) should be aware that the continuing cold weather will mean that strong colonies may have dangerously low levels of stores. Brood rearing has started in earnest by now and the increased number of larvae mean that stores are depleted at a very much higher rate than a week or two ago. For exactly the same reason, colonies in which the queen fails in the winter or early Spring (see the post in a few days) can often be identified by significant levels of uneaten fondant or stores, even before you open the colony and properly inspect them.

I checked two colonies in the bee shed this morning. One is very strong; they’re already at 8+ frames of brood and even managed to store a little nectar in the super during two warm days last week. There are drones already present and more sealed drone cells on the way. There are even a couple of ‘play cups’ in evidence, but no charged queen cells.

Late April weather

Late April weather …

However, the most important thing that wasn’t present was stores. With the low temperatures predicted to continue for at least the next fortnight there’s a real danger of the colonies starving. I replaced one of the outside frames with a full frame of sealed stores to tide them over for a bit (alternatively I could have added a block of fondant or some thin syrup, but I keep frames of sealed stores for just this type of eventuality). When I next check them I’ll almost certainly give them a second brood box with some drawn comb and a couple more frames of stores. That way the colony can continue to expand without starving and I can use the extra brood to make up nucs for queen mating once the weather improves.

The National Bee Unit have also recently released a warning about the April double-whammy of low food levels and high mite levels … this includes the sentence “Some of you may not have gotten round to treating your colonies with oxalic acid as the weather was so mild in winter“.

Gotten? Really?

Anyway, their advice usefully includes ways to control high mite levels at this time of year. This includes Apistan and Amitraz-containing compounds (though resistance to the former is widespread) whereas treatments that are temperature-dependent for efficacy, such as Apiguard and MAQS, should be avoided. Alternatively, three treatments with vaporised oxalic acid would be effective.

Varroa tray ...

Varroa tray …

The mite levels in the colonies in the bee shed are very closely monitored using Varroa trays in sealed floor units (so none blow away or get dragged off and eaten by creepy-crawlies – mite drop numbers are notoriously poor at giving a proper measure of mite infestation levels). Since the 23rd of February – 62 days ago – the two colonies in the shed have dropped 3 mites each in total. These colonies only received vaporised oxalic acid treatment last season – as early as possible after the honey supers were removed and in midwinter.


Frank Loesser wrote Baby, it’s cold outside in 1944 and it was performed by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán in the 1949 film Neptune’s daughter – see the clip from the original film at the top of the page.

 

 

Isolation starvation

Early Spring in the apiary

Early Spring in the apiary

During the autumn I united all but one of the weaker colonies in my apiaries (uniting the small colony with a large, healthy colony … there’s little to be gained by uniting weak colonies together at that time of year). The one small colony that did go into the winter has recently succumbed during the extended cold period we’ve had. On a day when other colonies had flying bees bringing in early pollen this one was suspiciously quiet. I lifted the crownboard and found a classic case of isolation starvation. The small cluster of bees were stuck with their heads buried in cells, despite the presence of sealed stores no more than 15cm away. There was no sign of disease, just a pathetic little cluster of bees. My records from the autumn indicated I thought this colony was “a bit on the small side … we’ll see”.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

You can see in the image that the bees had started rearing brood – there are about 30 capped cells in the picture and a few on the adjacent frame. There were good levels of pollen in the frames and sealed stores around the edge of several of the frames. However, in the prolonged cold snap the clustered bees were presumably unable to relocate to the stores and so perished.

Strong overwintered colony

Strong overwintered colony

Although all my other colonies had flying bees I took advantage of the sunny afternoon to add a block of fondant to them all, under a reversible insulated crownboard. I use the leftover fondant from autumn feeding which I’ve kept wrapped in plastic in the garage in a big box. The fondant is chopped up and stuffed into “carry-out” plastic food containers and covered with a sheet of thick plastic with a hole cut in the middle. Don’t use cling film to cover the fondant as the bees chew it up and make a terrible mess. Adding the fondant takes moments … a quick waft of smoke at the entrance, remove the roof, take the insulation out of the crownboard, lift the crownboard (giving it a sharp bash on the side to drop adhering bees onto the tops of the frames), add the fondant block near the cluster, replace the inverted crownboard, add the insulation on top and replace the roof. It takes longer to write than to do.

It’s even easier to add fondant to the Everynuc poly nucs. These have come through the winter really well and are bursting with bees. It takes seconds to peel back the plastic crownboard and slide a big lump of fondant into the feeder.

The added fondant should keep them going until either they need another top-up or the spring nectar flows start. Not long to go now 🙂

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

 

Buy!

Nasdaq sugar futures

Nasdaq sugar futures

Sugar prices are set on the world commodity futures markets and can vary significantly. These variations eventually filter down to influence the price we pay in the supermarket. This was obvious when I was stocking up on fondant at BFP Wholesale today. This time last year I paid about 15% more for 12.5 kg blocks … today they were under a tenner. Therefore now is a good time to stock up (and going by the graph the prices may drop further, but I’d run out so had no choice). Fondant keeps quite well in a cool dry place as long as you keep it wrapped up and out of the reach of mice.

Although the one-off cost of 25 blocks is not insignificant, it’s a relatively small outlay when you compare it to the value of the (stolen) honey it’s being used to replace. I’ve not yet done the sums, but have probably averaged 75-100 lb of honey from each production colony this year. It’s been a very good season. Each colony will get 1 – 1.5 blocks of fondant over the next month or so to keep them going until next Spring, with additional being used for overwintering nucs.

312.5 kg of fondant

312.5 kg of fondant …

 

Feeding fondant

Feeding fondant

Feeding fondant …

With the season nearly over, now is the time to feed the colonies well and treat for mites so they have the best chance of overwintering successfully. I almost exclusively use fondant blocks for autumn feeding. I prefer feeding fondant to using syrup or Ambrosia for several reasons:

  • I don’t have to spend hours over the stove making syrup from hot water and granulated sugar or collecting gallons of Ambrosia from our co-operative purchased tanks
  • I don’t need any specialist additional equipment (such as Ashforth or Miller feeders) which need storing for 11 months a year. Fondant is simply added under the crownboard (see below).
  • Fondant appears to attract fewer wasps and doesn’t encourage robbing by other bees, possibly because there are no spillages using it.
  • I think fondant encourages later brood rearing as the bees take it down more slowly than syrup, so the brood nest never gets packed out with stores leaving the queen nowhere to lay.

I first heard about autumn feeding with fondant from Peter Edwards of Stratford BKA 1. Most of my colonies have perspex crownboards with an inbuilt eke on one side. The 50 mm gap isn’t enough to accommodate a big block of fondant, but addition of a simple eke from 46 x 22 mm softwood provides sufficient space, and the eke (unlike the Ashforth feeders) is both inexpensive to make and has lots of other uses.

Fondant (often called Bakers fondant) can be purchased from places likes BFP Wholesale who have depots around the UK and offer competitive pricing – particularly if you purchase ten or more 12.5 kg boxes at once. At the very least you are likely to need one 12.5 kg block per colony. Prepare the fondant by cutting a block in half along the long axis. Cover the cut faces with a single sheet of clingfilm (if you don’t do this they ‘fuse’ back together and are tricky to separate again), reassemble the block and put it back in the box for easy transport.

Insulation in place

Insulation in place …

Feeding with fondant is simplicity itself … having removed the supers to extract the honey I leave the queen excluder in place. I add the shallow eke and place the block of fondant with the cut face down on the queen excluder. I replace the perspex crownboard inverted, and balance the insulation block on top, before replacing the roof. You can use an empty super in place of the eke and inverted crownboard but – with luck – they’re all full of frames ready to extract if it’s been a good season. I add Apiguard at the same time, rather than feeding and treating for mites at different times. There’s little late season forage here, so not a lot to be gained from delaying feeding.

The colonies take the fondant down over the next days and weeks. This happens at very different rates. Some of my colonies have already taken at least a quarter of a block (3+ kg) in about a week, with others barely touching it yet. However, by mid-late October I expect most to have emptied the blue plastic bag the fondant is supplied in. I then remove the ’empties’ and the queen excluder on a warm day and wrap the hives in DPM to prevent woodpecker damage. If the bees haven’t finished the fondant it can be left on overwinter, with any remaining being dissolved to make a stimulative 1:1 feed in the spring. Fondant has a long shelf life. If kept wrapped, cool and away from mice it will keep well over a year.

Hivebarrow and fondant

Hivebarrow and fondant

Leftover fondant

Fondant

Fondant

If you feed fondant rather than syrup in the autumn, or provide underweight colonies fondant in the spring, or use fondant to feed mini-nucs for queen rearing you’ll inevitably end up with leftover lumps. Some of these will be dry and pitted, some will have bits of bees embedded, some will have brace comb or lumps of propolis adhering. All can be used.

Just mix these leftovers 1:1 by weight with hot water to make syrup for spring feeding or – in my case – for Bailey comb changes. Fondant is about 85-90% sugar, so a 1:1 mix is actually a  bit thin, but it saves doing the maths accurately and will all be used. By mixing with boiling water from the kettle everything should be sterilised.

Just remember that all that wax and propolis will melt in the hot water and will form a scummy ‘tidemark’ around the edge of the saucepan. Ideally use a saucepan dedicated for the task or, like me, discover that a half cup of washing powder and some elbow grease will restore the pan to its original condition.

Protein boost

Pollen boost

Pollen boost

It’s about eight weeks now until the autumn sown oil seed rape (OSR) is in full flower (late April). At the moment it’s about 4″ tall and looking rather sorry for itself in the waterlogged heavy clay soil. However, as the day length increases and the temperatures rise it will soon grow. To properly exploit the abundant OSR nectar and pollen a colony needs to be strong. That means that the workers laid in the next month or so are critical – some will be foragers during the main flow, others will be responsible for raising these workers.

Maximum daytime temperatures here are still 6-8oC … just about warm enough for flights during the middle of the day. However, not warm enough to forage for long or to travel far to collect pollen. The colonies are no longer clustered and a peek through the perspex crown board shows they are pretty active and expanding in numbers. To give them a bit of a protein boost to raise the all-important brood over the next few weeks I’ve today given them some pollen. Although it’s usually recommended to prepare pollen patties bees will also directly use dried pollen, and this is much easier to prepare and administer. 

Tuck in !

Tuck in !

I’ve prised up the corner of the crown board on my colonies, scraped away a bit of the brace comb on the top bars to provide a flat surface and laid a small piece of card on top containing no more than a tablespoon full of dried pollen. I’ll top this up as needed during March. I think it’s important not to give them too much … firstly, there won’t initially be the need for it and, secondly the damp atmosphere in the colony means it might go mouldy before it’s used. It’s a 10 second job to give them a top-up – the crown board  doesn’t even need to be removed, just lifted slightly along one edge.

OSR

OSR

The fields full of bright yellow flowering OSR feel a lifetime away on a squally, cold, early March morning. However, a bit of preparation now means the colonies should be in great condition to exploit the heavy flow and for queen rearing.

 

 

Kieler frame feeders

Kieler poly feeder

Kieler poly feeder

The polystyrene frame feeder supplied with Kieler mini mating nucs occupies one third of the box (see image right from Modern Beekeeping). Although it can be used to feed syrup or fondant it only fits the bottom box and is too deep to be used in the upper body. To overwinter queens and small colonies in these boxes they usually need to be double depth. This causes two problems – the feeder is often below the cluster and refilling it, or even checking to see if it needs topping up, requires separating the upper and lower body. Even during the queen rearing season the supplied feeder is not ideal – by occupying a third of the box it takes valuable space bees and brood could occupy. To overcome these problems I build simple frame feeders to take fondant. Using scrap wood and some offcut queen excluder they occupy half the space of the supplied polystyrene feeder. With 21 mm softwood for the frame these can take ~200g of fondant. They can be used in either the lower or upper body of the mini nuc. I place them at the opposite end of the box to the entrance, immediately below the plastic sheet used as a cover board. Checking them only requires lifting the corner of the plastic and replacing them takes just a few seconds – in mid-winter this can usually be achieved without disturbing the colony at all. Finally, unlike the supplied poly feeder, I’ve never had brace comb built within one of these frame feeders and so the queen doesn’t enter them.

Kieler frame feeders

Kieler frame feeders

Overwintering queens in mini-nucs is usually possible in the UK and will be covered in a future post.