The Classroom – May 2022
Q Do feed supplements work?
Are the various diet supplements for bees (SuperDFM and the various products from Honey-B-Healthy) effective? Has research been done? I cannot find any studies online.
Before I answer, I want to make sure and elaborate a bit on what you are asking so that we are all working from the same starting point. Beekeepers supplement the diet of honey bees three main ways: (1) sugar/corn syrup for carbohydrates, (2) pollen/protein substitutes/patties (for pollen deficiencies), and (3) dietary supplements (any “additives” to sugar syrup or pollen substitutes — often some sort of essential oil, probiotic, etc.). This is an important distinction as there has been a fair amount of research on (1) and (2), and very little on (3).
To me, the greatest opportunity for improvement in honey bee husbandry lies in (2) and (3). We know how to feed bees sugar. That is something many beekeepers do well. However, I would argue the jury is still out for pollen substitutes (another question for another day). We know even less about dietary supplements. They come in all forms with great fanfare and promise. However, there is not much research available to the public to determine how well these things actually work.
I conducted a quick search for research on both products you mention and could not find anything using Google Scholar. This fits my general belief that to my knowledge, there have been no wide-scale (or at least very few), replicated research projects conducted on most dietary supplements, at least that can be found in the published refereed literature. I say “found in the published refereed literature” as I know that some of these products have been tested in some labs, but the data are not available in the refereed literature. Consequently, there is little we can deduce from the information that is available to us. Many beekeepers discuss these types of products in online chat forums and their opinions vary substantially. Unfortunately, much of what we know about these products is based on anecdotal reports from beekeepers who use them or from information provided by the manufacturers.
Editor’s note: One (non-refereed) research project on this subject is Randy Oliver’s “A Field Trial of Probiotics,” published in the May 2021 ABJ. After a four-month trial in California, it was concluded that neither of two popular probiotic supplements provided benefit in terms of colony strength or performance.
Q Honey Bee Forage Selection
I would presume that honey bees would select their pollen sources much the same as they do their nectar sources; the better the protein percentage, the better the appeal. In one of my bee yards, the farmer grows 5000 blueberry plants (and 5000 raspberry plants). When blueberries are blooming, I hardly see any honey bees on the plants, yet they are full of bumble bees. Could it be that the protein level of pollen in blueberry blossoms is lower than that from other blossoms (say, apple trees) blooming at the same time?
I believe your honey bees are avoiding the blueberries because there is something much better for them, from the nectar perspective, blooming in the surrounding environment. I have seen this very thing happen in Florida and in my own backyard! Blueberries do produce nectar and pollen, but in low amounts relative to other plants that are likely blooming at the same time in the surrounding environment.
My wife and I have almost 80 blueberry bushes in our back yard. When I had honey bees in the yard, it was common to see very few honey bees on the blueberry plants when they were in bloom. I saw far more southeastern blueberry bees and bumble bees than I did honey bees. My knowledge of the surrounding plant landscape helped me know why this was happening. Where I live, blueberries bloom at the same time that wild cherry trees bloom. Those trees produce a lot more high-quality nectar than do our blueberry bushes. Consequently, my bees were flying over the blueberry bushes to get to the wild cherries.
Much of this has to do with energy dynamics. Honey bees tend to forage on the most energetically rich sources (from a sugar perspective). That means, they will fly over energy-poor resources (blueberries for example) to get to energy-rich sources (cherry trees for example). Yes, they have to fly farther to get there. However, what they are able to collect in the form of sugar energy overcompensates for what it takes to get to the sugar. This means that it pays bigger dividends for them to forgo visiting blueberries and focus on the other plants that offer bigger/better rewards. Now, the bees could be doing the same thing with pollen, i.e., going for a better pollen than that offered by blueberries. Yet, this is a less likely scenario in your case — not impossible, just less likely.
It is also possible that your bees are avoiding blueberries because the weather is not conducive for honey bee foraging. I see this a lot with blueberries as well. Blueberries tend to bloom early in the season when the weather can otherwise be quite marginal. Maybe the bees simply are not foraging because it is too cool, windy, or rainy for them to forage. These issues would bother bumble bees less than they would bother honey bees. All that said, I still believe that nectar quality is the more likely explanation in this case.
Q Where’s all the honey?
I am trying to plan out my 4th year of beekeeping with 2-3 survivor colonies (out of 5-6) here in SW Connecticut. I plan to develop quite a few nucs this year as resource hives and to raise queens. Frankly, I enjoy quickly working small hives much more than stacks of heavy boxes full of increasingly agitated residents.
I am not really in this for the honey, but I do need sufficient production to keep my wife and family/friends/neighbors happy — and to get the bees through winter. In the past years, I have struggled to bring in any kind of sizeable honey crop. They build up nice in the late spring but consume most of it by August.
I am starting to wonder if I am in a bit of a suburban/urban desert. No real crops nearby, but lots of trees and nearby highways with things like autumn olive and other blooms. I was hoping that would be sufficient. Of course, in past years, they have probably been too busy drawing comb and filling the brood chamber to be sufficiently large to make much surplus honey. I also think robbing (intra-apiary and a handful of nearby neighboring beekeepers) is a factor. I was just wondering if there is a way to assess whether I am really just in the wrong area to support a small (<20 hives, including nucs) apiary?
It is possible to live in an area where there is not much nectar available. I live in such a location. I typically tell folks that it takes about three years of being in an area to determine if it is a good area for honey production or not. One bad year could be an anomaly. Two could be a coincidence. Three or more begin to suggest to me that the area is not that great for honey production.
In my own case, the bees make about one super of honey in late February/early March. The honey is not good at all. So, I leave it on the hive for the bees. They make a second super of honey in August/September. It also is really bad. I leave it on the hive. This means that I produce no palatable/marketable honey in the area where I live. Beekeepers in my area have to move their bees to other locations to make honey. This could be what is happening in your case. As I shared, it takes about three years of trying to produce honey in an area before one can know if the area is a good one for producing honey.
That said, other factors could be at play as well. Colonies have to be strong going into a major nectar flow before you can know if an area is good for honey production. To do that, Varroa must be controlled. The queen must be producing a lot of offspring. Swarming must be controlled. Assuming these three are happening, then I would default to it being a less-than-optimum place to keep bees for honey production. If you are not managing Varroa, your queens, and swarming well, then the colonies’ lack of honey production is more likely due to these issues than low nectar availability in the surrounding landscape.
Finally, it is also possible to keep more colonies in an area than the area can support. Sometimes, the area may be adequate for honey production, but only for ten or fewer colonies. In that case, ten colonies may produce 30 lbs. of honey each (totaling 300 lbs.) and 30 colonies may produce 10 lbs. each (totaling 300 lbs.). You get the same amount of honey in both cases, but clearly the area is resource limited.
My recommendation is that beekeepers keeping bees in an area for the first time should ask other local beekeepers about their honey production. In my case, someone from my area warned me before I moved to Florida that the area where I planned to live was bad for honey production. I scoffed at this a bit, thinking I could manage bees to make honey in a desert. Boy, was I wrong! I recommend you reach out to your local bee club so that you can ask a few beekeepers what the typical production is in your area. If they report it to be high, you might need to assume that the problem lies with the colonies and not nectar availability.
Q Securing hives to pallets
How are bottom boxes secured to pallets (4-way or 2-way)?
The bottom boxes (the brood chambers) are not attached to the pallets directly. Instead, they are held in place using pallet clips. I have included a picture to illustrate this point. The pallet in the figure accommodates four colonies, though only one is on the pallet. I have circled a pallet clip in the bottom right of the image. You can see that this pallet clip extends both ways into the neighboring bottom boards. The brood chamber of a hive would fit over the right side of the clip if you were placing it over the bottom board in the bottom right of the pallet, or over the left side of the clip if you were placing it over the bottom board in the bottom left of the pallet. The raised wall of the clip goes just inside the brood chamber, keeping the box from sliding on the pallet.
I have arrowed a second pallet clip in the upper half of the picture. You can see that the brood chamber of the hive on that bottom board is around the raised right half of the pallet clip (it is now inside the box). Only the left raised wall of the pallet clip is visible, ready to accommodate a hive placed there. Beekeepers typically use only two pallet clips per hive. This keeps the hives from sliding on the pallet, especially while the pallet is in transport. All that said, the brood chambers are not screwed, nailed, or otherwise fastened to the pallet. They are simply “secured” using the pallet clips and by the bees using propolis. Propolis is not enough by itself! You must use pallet clips; otherwise, the hives are prone to sliding on the pallet when the pallet is in transport.
Q … and walkaway splits on pallets?
Any ideas on walk-away splits on pallets? I [have heard that a beekeeper in] New York State split a double box brood chamber (walk away) and let the queenless box raise a queen. [This beekeeper] had thousands of hives!
I am pretty new to the term “walk-away split,” though I have been splitting colonies this way for more than 30 years. It seems to be a new term to describe an old management technique. Let us start from the beginning for the benefit of the readers.
A split, as the name implies, is when a single colony is split into two or more colonies. There happen to be many ways to split a colony (many, many in fact). Yet to keep it simple, I will begin with a standard, 10-frame Langstroth deep hive body occupied by a strong,