Feeding Bees in the Spring


I feed for three weeks in the spring, before the honey supers go on, and three weeks in the fall after the honey is harvested.  I feed cane syrup with essential oils.

Why Feed:

My spring feed has two components.

1) There is no forage from October to April in our area.  Although I leave about 70 pounds of honey on each hive, by March there is a good possibility of stores being very low.

This is especially true in a mild winter when the bees do not go into tight cluster and carry on eating their honey (the nerve of ‘um).  We just had a mild winter.  It’s the first year in a decade where we could drive to the farm every day.  Normally, for one to two weeks each winter, the snow is too deep to get up the hill to the farm even with 4-wheel drive, snow tires, and chains.    Mild winters are easier on me (no ¾ mile walks though the snow with groceries), but harder on the bees because they eat a lot of food and can run out by spring.

Big Leaf Maple Bloom

Big Leaf Maple Bloom
courtesy of Encyclopedia of Life

2) I want my bees to be building up by the blooming of the Big Leaf Maples.  These are our first major nectar source.  The Alders and wild Hazelnut trees have been providing pollen, but the Maples are the bees’ first sweet taste in the year.

Every year I write down when the flowers bloom (and when birds arrive, when green plants emerge, and the weather – good notes going back years are worth their weight in honey).  By my notes, the Maples should go into bloom around the second week in April.  Thus I need to start my up-river bee yard feedings in the third week of March.  The concept is build up, but no feed when the Maples bloom – so the bees will concentrate on them.

Of course nature does not follow humans’ plans, so I can be off by a week or two.  I had intended to start my down-river hives a week earlier than my up-river hives, but it rained for two weeks straight at that time.  I don’t open hives in the rain if it is not critical to do so.

I’m finally getting a chance to post this at the beginning of the second week of April.  I just finished the final feed on Friday.  That was the same day that I saw my first up river blooms of Big Leaf Maples. So, a week earlier start would have been better (but it had rained for 2 weeks at that time).

Up-River / Down-River an explanation:

I keep bees along a west to east corridor in the most northwest county in Washington state.

800px-North_Fork_Nooksack_River_from_Mosquito_Lake_Road_BridgeThe route falls pretty much along the North Fork of the Nooksack River.  The down river (westerly) bee yards see spring at least a week earlier than my up river (easterly) bee yards.



3-Wire bear fence protects Brookfield Farm bees at Spring Frog Farm, Bellingham, WA

Hives at Spring Frog Farm (down river bee yard)

The down river yards are in berry country – Whatcom county is the largest producer of Raspberries in Washington state, and Washington state is the largest producer of raspberries in the US (according to the internet).  The up river yards are in mountain wildflower country.


Bee hives at Brookfield Farm, spring 2012

Up River Bee Yard



The road along the river turns about 10 miles up river from my last bee yard and climbs to Mt. Baker, the second most glaciated mountain in Washington.







Have I mentioned how beautiful it is here?

Upper Northfork of Nooksack River, winter, near Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls

a few miles up river from the farm








Back to Feeding: The physical part:

Hive Top Feeder : Home made. Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

Feeder after bees have dined.

1) Remove the insulation that has been on the burlap that’s on the top bars.

2) Place a “dollar store” hive top feeder on the top bars. This is a plastic container in which I place thin pieces of wood. They are set in two layers, at right angles to each other.  Think “raft” and you have exactly what I’m doing.  The containers are from the local “Dollar Store”.  The cut wood is off-cuts of my husband’s furniture making

3) The burlap is folded over and placed next to the feeder – it acts as a ramp to the feeder

4) I add the feed.

What I Feed:

I started with a recipe I found on line; then over the years, made changes.  Nothing, I repeat nothing is scientifically tested – this just seems to work for me.

The Recipe I Use:

The following is based on making a pot of feed that produces 3.5 gallons of feed.

The pot I use is a four-gallon cook stew pot (if someone can explain the discrepancy to me, between the full 4-gallon pot and resulting 3.5-gallons of feed, please let me know.  I’ve always wondered).

½ pot of water
½ pot of cane sugar
1 teaspoon organic soy Lecithin (dry) – this is an emulsifier
2 ¼ teaspoons Lemon Grass Oil
1 ½ teaspoons Spearmint Oil
¾  teaspoons Tea Tree Oil
1 ¼ teaspoon Thyme Oil (Thymol)
Bring water to boil on stove.

While water is boiling:
Dissolve lecithin in 1/4-1/2 cup of boiling water – stir until dissolves
Add oils, stir.
Set aside

Take boiling water off stove:
Remove and let cool a bit – cold rooms, less time than warm rooms.
Add sugar – Stir until dissolves (usually the length of singing “Aupres De Ma Blonde
Add cup of essential oils, lecithin and water.

Stir.  Let cool

If another batch is to be done: RINSE OUT THE CUP THE OIL WAS IN BEFORE STARTING AGAIN – other wise the lecithin won’t dissolve as well (took me ages to figure that out).

I do 3 pots at a time, and make just over 90 gallons of feed each spring and fall.

All Fed – Trees in Bloom

Big Leaf Maple Buds

almost ready to bloom

I’m writing this just as I have just finished all the feeding. Some bees are chowing down heavily, some are eating at a steady pace, and some are ignoring the feed.  Happily, most hives have lots of honey left from last year – and no matter what I feed them; their honey is the best thing they can eat.  Best yet, we’re about to go into 3 to 4 weeks of Big Leaf Maple Bloom, followed by vine Maples.  Now if it would just stop raining (yes the rains came back, as they always do here).

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey. Do you feed?  If so, what do you use?  I learned about Tea Tree Oil from another beekeeper.  Another friend is experimenting with putting stinging nettles and dandelion leaves in the syrup water (I’m very interested to see how that goes for him). Beekeeping’s all about constant learning and evolving – the bees don’t stop changing, so we need to change with them.

About brookfieldfarmhoney

Brookfield Farm, a small off-grid apiary in Maple Falls, WA focuses on the beauty and bounties of Washington’s wilderness. I sell honey from our bees, whose naturally-treated, antibiotic-free hives are home to bees who fly Washington’s mountains and farmlands. Herbal salves and lip balms from Brookfield beeswax. Delicately infused honeys and vinegars. Varietal honeys from independent Washington beekeepers. Karen Edmundson Bean: beekeeper, photographer. Her love of the wilderness inspires her to discover new ways of bringing the wonders of nature to others. Brookfield Farm : the tastes, textures, sounds, and images of nature.
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12 Responses to Feeding Bees in the Spring

  1. This is very timely and helpful! Thanks for posting!!

  2. I am keen on raising bees in the near future so your information is really helpful and much appreciated.

  3. I do appreciate your explaining the use of the dollar store feeder. I use the jar feeder, (for the life of me I cannot remember the name of it), but would like to have started feeding earlier. I got a container like yours and tried feeding them earlier but the bees kept drowning. Even with ‘a’ piece of wood floating in the syrup. So I than devised a ladder made out of plastic mesh, thought this would help. No good. However, I see you cover most of the surface of the syrup with floating pieces of wood. Clever. I will try that next time. For now it has warmed up enough to use my entrance feeder. (That jar thingy)
    Crocuses and Daffodils are blooming here in south-east Idaho. Very soon the dandelions as well as the Apricot tree, a week or two away, followed by the Cherry, plum, then Apple. Of course the Maples about 5 blocks away. The honey flow will be on very soon.
    Bees are doing quite well.

  4. mkong philip yunji says:

    Thyanks for the technical information you send to me. I urgently need a bee suit. How can I get one in 5 days back in Yaounde, Cameroon?


    • I have no idea – I would think a European company would be your best bet. Anything shipping from the suppliers in the US would take ages. Good luck – in the mean time perhaps mosquito netting worked onto a solid hat would work, at least it would keep the bees out of your face and hair (they get stuck in my hair, I hate that). Good luck in your search

  5. I’d like to thank you for the efforts you have put in penning this blog. I am hoping to view the same high-grade content by you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my own website now 😉

    • Thank you. I’m glad I’ve given some inspiration for you start a website. My only advice is “be gentle with yourself”. The internet never ceases to confuse me with changes and glitches….

  6. Hi Karen, thanks for the syrup recipe! How did the dandelion and stinging nettles additions go for your friend. I have been looking at the Red Clover Tea in my local health food store and thinking hmmm…….

    • You know, I never asked him — I shall do that. It would seem a good idea to me, both plants have high concentrations of good stuff in them, and bees go to both plants. I once had a swarm land on the the nettles (good bees, they were easy to collect). Red Clover I know nothing about, except that our honeybees have issues only because their tongues aren’t long enough (more Caucasian honeybee genes needed? They have longer tongues….)

  7. Gary Miller says:

    At one time in my life I owned a couple mineral claims in Arizona. The nearest town had a very large commercial honey operation and had a contract with BLM to place hives on BLM land on my claims. You would not think there was much forage for honey bees in the high desert of Arizona and you would be correct. The commercial operation fed their hives by digging pits, lining the pits with plastic and filling them with sugar syrup. To keep the bees from drowning they placed straw on top of the syrup. This gave the bees lots of floating surface to walk or stand on while feeding. It seemed to work quite well. .

    Perhaps a dollar store container with straw on top for the bees to walk on while feeding.

    • The lake of sugar sounds rather frightening — both for the bees and anyone eating that honey (unless they drained it after a week or two – which would not be very cost effective). I use wooden floats in the dollar store feeders (off cuts of my husband’s woodworking) – They float like wall-to-wall rafts (5 below one way, then 6 on top at right angles), and then bits of grass where there’s a gap.. I think 1/8 hardware cloth would work, but I get the wood and bits of grass for free. You know, I would think there’s lots of desert flowers in Arizona for forage…

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