When we first started out beekeeping with two hives, we didn’t need anything to feed other than a bucket, some sugar and a couple of in-frame feeders. These, of course, were for those necessary periods in the fall, winter and early spring when forage isn’t around.
If you had told me that we would eventually spend hours feeding dozens and dozens of hives, I would have laughed. If you also told me that we would assemble a collection of all kinds of feeders, inner covers and boxes, all in the search for the most effective delivery system with the least impact on the bees, I would have shook my head in denial.
But here we are, a few years later, and in our bee yards you will find those many types of feeders. Boardman feeders. Jars that fit on top of inner covers with holes in them. Top box feeders, both the plastic kind with an access point in the middle covered by mesh, and wooden ones with the access point at the end. In-frame feeders, both large and small, tall and short, some without tops and screens to prevent drowning, and some without, but into which we’ve placed sticks and corks.
And, of course, freezer bags. Lots and lots of freezer bags. All sorts of feeders, some we’ve now abandoned as inferior, others we’ve kept to fit the various types of hives we have – from five-frame nucs to 10-frame singles to double-box Langs.
And into all of them we must pour our syrups without creating robbing or too much of a mess.
After spending hours feeding the bees by hand, it became clear that we had to speed up the process and also reduce the mess. Despite our best efforts we often found bees drowning in the syrup buckets or in the garden watering can we used to transfer from bucket to hive.
We’re not large enough to justify the big pumps and pre-mixed syrup of huge commercial operations, and we also have to mix the syrup at home before taking it to the yards, where we have neither ready access to piped hot water or electricity. So we needed a cost- and time-effective way to speed up the process while also solving the problem of drowning bees.
The solution came in the form of a little 12-volt pony pump and a deep-cycle marine battery I picked up on sale at Princess Auto. I installed a regular light switch box with a cover plate to control the pump, which uses a rubber impeller and can move up to five gallons of fluid a minute, depending on viscosity. The whole thing cost under $150, including the pump, battery, fittings, wiring and hose.
I fitted the pump with cam lock connectors so that we can easily connect or disconnect a garden hose fitted with a plastic ball valve at the other end. The contraption isn’t very elegant-looking but it works like a charm and it is light enough to lift on my own. I built a small wall around the battery to keep it from sliding around.The pump is also very easy to clean, something that MUST be done at the end of every feeding lest it get clogged with drying sugar crystals.
Initially we made up our sugar syrup in one of those 55-gallon blue plastic barrels, which I also fitted a 3/4 inch gate valve. But it meant making the syrup in the barrel while it was strapped into the back of the truck. (You can find sugar recipes on Beesource.com, but in our case to make 2:1 we mix 20 kilos of sugar with 10 litres of water.) The barrel is only practical when I am going to use up all the syrup in one go. I’m not strong enough to lift a partially-filled barrel in and out of the truck bed.
So we came up with a middle-of-the-road solution. All of our syrup is made in five-gallon buckets. Each lid has had a two-inch hole drilled in the centre, fitted with a rubber bung I picked up from the local winemaking shop. After mixing the syrup I put on the lid and close it off with the bung.
Out in the field, I use a short garden hose as the intake siphon for the pump. I just take the bung off the bucket, put in the business end, and attach the cam-lock end to the pump. The lid keeps the bees from getting into the syrup. If they are really flying up a storm, I can wrap a small towel around the hose at the lid to seal off the small gap. After the bucket empties, I move the siphon over to a new bucket with bung removed. The many buckets mean the centre of gravity is lower and is spread out in the back of the truck, resulting in no slopping mess as I go over bumps.
The system has made it easy to refill the hives with a minimum of disruption to the bees. Whether it is jars, freezer bags, in-frame feeders or top feeders, we can fill them with syrup in no time. Using a longer garden hose does affect the efficiency of the pump – the longer it is, the more syrup the pump has to push. The mixture rate is also a factor; a 2:1 mix is thicker and is harder to push out.
But it all seems to be working well and we have developed a happy rhythm as one of us goes ahead and takes off lids and inner covers while the other one follows and feeds. I put the truck in between the rows of hives and we can reach half a yard of 60 colonies in one sweep.
What once would take us half a day or more now is done within an hour. And the bees are happier because they’ve not had to endure spilled syrup, robber neighbours and a lot of disruptions.
I shot a little video with a GoPro the other day and when I have a chance I will post it.