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Feeding new bees and Natural bee keeping

 
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I built a top bar hive this year with old (unsafe) second hand tools. The hive came out well. My nine remaining fingers and I are new to this, and worried about not getting a swarm in time, we bought a bee package.

I wasn’t keen on feeding them sugar syrup but the guy who sold them, and the info I got from Michael Bush’s website and Christi Hemenway’s book suggest feeding a new package really ought to be done until they can produce some honey.

Any thoughts on this? Feed or not? Sugar or honey? For how long? Supplements to the feed (EM-1? mushroom infusion ala Paul Stamets?). I’d like to be as “natural” and treatment free as I can.

I did feed them 1:1 sugar syrup with some added supplement the seller gave me (some kind of spearmint and lemongrass I think).

Thanks for any info.
 
Author & Beekeeper
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If you don't mind, I'll first answer two questions that you did not ask, and then address your question on feeding.

First, I REALLY do not recommend starting a hive with bee packages. Not only they are not acclimated to your climate and have very low disease resistance, but the drones your package-bee hive will produce will be mating with local queens, undermining the viability of their offspring. So not only your experiences with package bees will be far from joyful (as you can tell already - they now require feeding, and will need much more care down the road), but by bringing in non-local bees you help destroy what remains of the local wild honeybee population. Catching a local swarm is a far better alternative in most places, except in those where beekeepers have been bringing in so many packages and queens that no local genetics remains!  Package bees are NOT compatible with treatment-free beekeeping. Natural beekeeping authorities starting from Georges de Layens (author of Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives) and all the way to Fedor Lazutin (see Keeping Bees with a Smile) and Kirk Webster (see his chapter in Raising Honeybee Queens) have been saying that #1 condition for success in natural beekeeping is working with local honeybees only. By the way, for those starting with packages and nucs, Lazutin has been recommending to induce your colony to swarm as soon as possible (by limiting the hive volume so they become congested). This way the new queen will mate with local drones and her offspring will already be "more local" than from the original queen. Killing the original queen once the colony is well established and has plentiful brood (including open brood and eggs, from which they will raise a new queen) is another alternative to make you hive more local and increase their chances of survival.

Second, you will find that a top-bar hive is more difficult to manage successfully for a beginner beekeeper than a horizontal hive with removable frames. The top-bar hive was developed for use in tropical climates with no winter and with plentiful honeyflows almost year around (and for beekeepers accustomed to handling frameless hives). In other climates, its lack of insulation, the elongated shape, and the relatively small size of comb creates problems with successful wintering, overheating, ventilation, uncontrolled swarming, etc. - in addition to higher chance of cross-coming and comb collapses.  You CAN keep bees successfully in top-bar hives, but it is just not as hands-off as a horizontal hive with frames such as the Layens (which is the most popular horizontal hive in the world with 150 years of successful use in temperate climates).  

As to your original question, you do need to feed your package if you want the bees to survive, and 1:1 sugar:water (by weight) feed is safer than honey (which may carry the spores of foulbrood unless you have a way to tell that it is guaranteed to come from a foulbrood-free source). Take all precautions against robbing (reduce the size of the entrance; give the feed late in the evening - and only as much as they will consume overnight, etc - see the Layens book for details). How long to feed depends on the weather and natural nectar availability. If the weather is nice and lots of flowers are in bloom, a week or 10 days should be more than enough. Many beekeepers, though, feed their bees sugar any time when there's no nectar.  By the way, some of the sugar you feed them will end up in honey - be aware of that.  This is one of the reasons I never feed my bees sugar, but, then, I never bought any bees either.

Since you got commercial bees, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with best practices for conventional hive management. The Beekeeper's Handbook by Sammataro and Avitabile is a good guide; and ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture or The Hive and the Honey Bee are good references. On top bar hives, specifically, the most comprehensive resource is Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping by W.A. Mangum.
 
Jason Oliphant
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Thanks for the prompt and detailed response. I was a bit afraid of all you said about purchasing a package rather than trying to get a swarm of locals.

I am in Boston and the fellow who got my bees advised me — although I don’t think he was that educated on natural keeping. I asked him about swarms and he said I could wait and try but then I may likely be without for the season. He also said that any swarm I’d get would in most probability be from someone’s hive of purchased bees anyway and not really wild. He believed that “unfortunately there really are no feral bees around anymore.”  

Basically he was suggesting it’s too late here to get local wild bees — as you said local beekeepers have already brought in too many purchased bees.
I hoped that giving them a good home without conventional interference they would adapt and become more “naturalized”.

So I am a bit disheartened now. But to try to make the best of where I am can you tell me a bit more on the options?  You mentioned killing the queen— I guess the newly raised one would mate hopefully with a feral drone in the wild.  

You mentioned weakening the wild genetic pool locally with my drones, so could a case be made to destroy the entire colony leaving the comb and try to replace with a swarm? It sounds terrible and drastic but seems the logical conclusion to your reply.

I’m loathe to do any killing but got the good of the larger bee community and my hive, perhaps?  

And what about his argument that a swarm would be as non-wild as the ones I bought? And if that’s true, is it worth the risk of killing the queen to introduce genetic diversity if that “diversity” is non-local anyway?

I am sincere in my questions here. I really want to do this right even it means starting over from scratch, but with a new fund of knowledge. I appreciate your input and advice.
 
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I've tried for years to catch a swarm. Still unsuccessful and I have people looking for them for me. I've bought package bees. I've used a home made top bar hive. The top bar hive was a failure but it gets pretty cold here and they couldn't keep it warm enough. The package bees were fine by me but it's important that you aren't as stupid as I am and make sure they don't suffocate under the snow.

yes, feed them. Depending on what you have for them to eat around you you might need to continue feeding them. My property is the type where I have so much food my bees THRIVE. People in the same zip code as I am have hives that barely survive. So depending on your own plant stores you may need to keep feeding.
 
Jason Oliphant
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Thanks Elle.  You say your top bar hive didn’t survive the cold and snow. What region are you in?  I’m in New England (US).

I live near a small urban wetlands and a large non-pesticide Arboretum so I feel that bee food should be plentiful.
 
elle sagenev
pollinator
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Jason Oliphant wrote:Thanks Elle.  You say your top bar hive didn’t survive the cold and snow. What region are you in?  I’m in New England (US).

I live near a small urban wetlands and a large non-pesticide Arboretum so I feel that bee food should be plentiful.



I'm in Wyoming. They did freeze to death the year I put them in the top bar hive. That is with me using 6" of insulation and tarping and doing all sorts of other things to try to keep them warm. The bee keepers around here told me it was just too big of a hive to start a package in, they could never keep it warm enough. Of course April/May it's still snowing here so there's that.

I think it's your first year and if you aren't sure about how they'll do I'd feed. I had an external feeder I just kept sugar water in for the first summer. They didn't really use it when flowers went into bloom but it was there if they needed it. I bought nucs this year and I fed them. I've given them each 4 cups of sugar water at this point and the feeders are empty but as the flowers have begun their bloom I haven't refilled them.
 
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