One of the most common questions we get at this time of year is, "When do I start feeding my bees?" As usual with beekeeping, the answer is: "It depends."
Anytime we make an intervention in beekeeping, we should always be asking ourselves, "Why am I doing this, and what do I want the outcome to be?" When it comes to springtime feeding, there are usually a couple of different answers to these questions. Most beekeeper's interest in spring feeding is either trying to prevent starvation or trying to boost the bee population for honey production.
If you are trying to prevent starvation (you should be!), the first question you would want to ask yourself is how much food do they have. To answer this question, you can do what we call the heft test. Grab the bottom box by the rear handhold and give it a little lift. You are likely to experience one of three situations. First, the hive could be very heavy to lift in which case it should be pretty clear that they have enough food. Second, the colony could be alarmingly light and clearly in need of food. Lastly, you could still be wondering what is going on inside.
If your colony is low on food, and temperatures are cold enough that the bees need to cluster (below 55 degrees), you must feed the bees in a way that they can be in contact with the food. This means feeding with either solid food like winter patties or fondant directly in contact with the cluster. Liquid food in a feeder directly over the oval opening in the inner cover so that the bees can be in their cluster and in contact with the feeder at the same time is an acceptable alternative. A Boardman (front-door) feeder is a poor choice in this situation because the bees may be unable to break their cluster to reach the food.
When temperatures are warmer, almost any feeder will work. We recommend feeding 2:1 syrup (two parts sugar to one part water) in this case because what they need is sugar, not water. Additionally, 2:1 syrup freezes at a lower temperature.
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