The Short Version
The Major Problems Facing Bees and Beekeepers
Number one is varroa. Varroa changed the virus dynamics within the colony. If either the bees or the beekeeper don’t keep the varroa infestation rate down to fewer than 5 mites per 100 bees, colonies start to suffer. At about 15 mites per 100, viruses go epidemic, and the colony will generally die. Lack of varroa management is the number one reason that colonies die, other than from sheer neglect (see Feeding).
Many recreational beekeepers want to go “natural” and “treatment free.” I commend you on those sentiments, and hold that as a goal to reach (it is much harder to do so if you are making your living from your bees). But keep this in mind: you wouldn’t expect a broiler-type chicken bred for living under controlled conditions to survive in the wild. And you can’t expect commercial bee stock bred for living under intense beekeeper management to survive in the wild just because you want to be Mr. or Ms. Natural. I strongly suggest that beginning beekeepers make life easier on themselves and their bees by first following standard practices until you get the hang of beekeeping; then you can try going treatment free (see Varroa Management or Treatment Free).
It is not necessary to feed a colony. I ran hundreds of healthy colonies for years without ever feeding a drop of syrup or a single pollen patty. But that was only possible because I moved my hives to good forage throughout the year.
It became far more difficult to keep bees healthy after the arrival of varroa. In my traditional yards in the dry Sierra foothills during summer, colonies went downhill without supplemental protein. In order to cut out my summer migration to better forage, I learned to feed pollen supplement, with fantastic results!
And then I learned how sugar syrup, fed at critical times, could also greatly improve colony buildup, health, and wintering. The short version is to feed light syrup for stimulation, heavy syrup for winter stores. Feeding nucs, packages, or even overwintered colonies during spring buildup really helps them. In our dry late summers, light syrup along with protein patties encourages broodrearing and greatly improves colony health.
Caution: if you are growing a new colony, it is possible to overfeed syrup to the extent that you plug out the broodnest, leaving the queen no place to lay eggs! You can kill a colony with kindness. Don’t keep feeding unless you are inspecting the broodnest from time to time.
I normally leave enough natural honey on the hives for them to winter on (in my moderately cold area, I want a strong double-deep hive to weigh about 120-130 lbs total. However, if the bees put on dark honeydew as winter stores, it may help to replace the combs of honeydew directly above the cluster with dark drawn combs, and then feed heavy syrup for the bees to refill those combs with.
The type of sugar does not appear to be critical. Cane or beet sugar work fine. Commercial sucrose/HFCS blends may even be better. Some beekeepers feel that inverting the sugars also helps, but that is beyond the scope of this short version.
The one clear responsibility that a beekeeper has is to make sure that his colonies don’t starve! There is no excuse for allowing animals in your care to starve. Starvation usually happens in late winter/early spring. Heft your hives regularly to make sure that the bees always have a reserve of honey or syrup honey. In a pinch you can even feed dry sugar poured over a piece of newspaper laid on the top bars.
If you live in an area with pollen dearths, feeding high-quality pollen supplements can make all the difference in the world to your bees. I know, it’s not natural, but neither is the food that you feed your dog or cat, or even your children. Get over it!
Although the use of small cell foundation to help the bees control varroa has an impassioned following, there is little empirical evidence that it actually helps (see http://www.elgon.es/diary/?p=37 for a review). However, in the single trial in which I tested it, the results appeared to be positive, so I keep an open mind. I can say this–many have tried it, sometimes at large scale, and were disappointed in the results. Others find that mite resistant stocks do not necessarily require small cell to be successful at controlling the mite.
If I wanted to practice truly “natural” beekeeping, I’d allow the bees to build their own combs in foundationless frames, rather than trying to force them into any specific cell size. In my own operation, we keep a single foundationless drone frame in each hive (in the upper brood chamber, to the outside of the broodnest), as I feel that it is completely unreasonable to expect the bees to maintain 20 brood combs without any drone brood! See “Drone Trap Frames.”
Drone Trap Frames
See Mike Palmer’s video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nznzpiWEI8A