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The current beekeeping culture, at least in my region, is heavy on feeding bees in times of dearth—”dearth” being a lean stretch of time when little to no honeybee forage flowers are blooming. The common wisdom, and previously my beekeeping philosophy, was that if we keep our bees in boxes, manipulate their hives and steal their honey, we should help them out in lean times. After all, we’re their stewards, are we not?
But what if all that feeding harms our bees?
Here are three reasons why you might reconsider feeding bees on your current regimen:
1. New Evidence Shows Hungry Bees Are Hardier
Some studies suggest that larvae raised during times of dearth, and subsequently ones who did not get enough to eat, were hardier as adults and more likely to survive lean forage times throughout their lifespans. This would mean that by feeding bees, we’re disconnecting them from natural struggle, and bypassing their opportunity to build stronger populations that are more acclimated to survival in the region where they live. Remember, honeybees are not native to North America, so they’re on foreign soil (to their genetics) no matter where they are on the North American continent.
2. Sugar Is Doused In Chemicals
One such chemical is found in Roundup—glyphosate, to be exact. This deadly chemical is widely used in conventional wheat, corn and soy crops, not to mention that it’s available in most home and garden stores as a weed killer. On wheat and soy crops, and now on sugar crops, the chemical is used on the plant right before harvest. This is called a “ripening” spray application. When the plant is exposed to the chemical, it knows it’s dying, so it sends up more seeds or fruit (this is the part that is harvested), making harvests bigger.
Make no mistake, glyphosate is bad stuff. It’s unclear when exactly glyphosate was routinely introduced to sugarcane harvests, but evidence suggests somewhere between 2004 and 2008. Glyphosate has been linked to an abundance of health issues including cancers and destroying the gut microbiome. But this issue is twofold, and it’s not just the chemicals: Glyphosate is also responsible for destroying an abundance of pollinator habitat, too, making forage scarce in other ways.
Honey Is Better—And What Bees Are Made For
If you absolutely must feed your bees—whether you feel like you’re doing them a disservice by not feeding them, or you believe they really will die without intervention—make sure to feed them honey. It is, after all, the perfect food for bees. They’ve gathered the resources, created the product and stored it away for winter. If you see that a hive makes a surplus on a given year (more than 40 to 60 pounds, which is the minimum they need to survive winter), put it away for a time of dearth. I keep at least one super full of capped honey (still in frames) stored in the freezer—per hive. That way I can harvest any surplus honey beyond that amount and know I still have a fallback. Just in case.
I’m not convinced we shouldn’t continue feeding bees. It’s a continuing question among beekeepers as a whole, because we must consider the changes in our environment—building of infrastructure continues to destroy pollinator habitat, and climate change has areas of the world heating to record highs, and rapidly. I wonder whether, in the years to come, it might be hard to grow the flowers for the bees that they’ve become accustomed to. We all might have to adapt—the growers, the beekeepers and the bees. I strongly encourage you to do your own research in this area. Read the studies, engage in dialogue with your fellow beekeepers and ask the important, difficult questions.