We started out using frame feeders to feed our honey bees. Our logic was this: in-frame feeding reduces robbing and the they came with our initial colony, so why not.
Well….hundreds and thousands of dead bees later, we needed another option. We tried all sorts of bee preservers and floats but whether it was cork board, ladders made from metal mesh, or pool noodles, we still lost too many bees. (**side note** if you decide you want to go down this route, flat sheets of cork seemed to work the best of all the bee preservation devices we tried.)
Beyond dead bees, frame feeders have other issues. For one, they take space in the hive that your bees need for storing honey. They get glued in by propolis. And they are difficult to move when full and they suck to clean out. Our first nucleus colony arrived with a hive feeder sealed with honey comb. Long story short, we hate them.
We then went to mason jar feeders in an empty super. We bought little chicken feeders to attach to the jars and gravity fed the bees. These were inexpensive and they worked great, but they were small and emptied quickly. Moving to larger jars meant we had to sacrifice deep boxes and it was taking way too much equipment.
Around that time, we started talking to a fellow beekeeper who had kept bees for 50 years. He showed us his system and it looked disgusting. But he swore it work.
He had the ultimate in-hive feeder all figured out. He used a plastic bin – one that fit perfectly inside a super box and handfuls of dead grass.
But we had tried every configuration with our own equipment and looked through every bee feeder on amazon. It was time to listen to people smarter than us and do some honey bee feeder diy.
First we found the perfect “bin.” We use an old roaster pan. It fits perfectly inside a 10 frame super. We are going to upgrade to this aluminum roaster pan going forward because it’s a little taller and will hold more syrup.
You can see it here filled with sumac pods and then with pine needles.
We prefer to use pine needles because they don’t seem to ferment or breakdown as much as other material. We also have a few acres of pine trees, so…..
We keep the feeder off of the frame by using little pieces of wood. We used sticks in the beginning. They work in a pinch but are almost always uneven. Now we use Jenga pieces. Yes… Jenga! Nobody was playing the game anymore and they are infinitely useful to level our hives, block entrances, and prop our feeders. It’s good stuff.
Maybe you noticed a few lumps of something else in our feeders?
We add mushrooms to our bee feeders. Sometimes we grind them up – in a blender. Sometimes we just toss broken chunks in there.
Why are we adding mushrooms to our bee feeders?
Perhaps you have seen the facebook post about Paul Stamets (the mushroom guy) saving the bees? We’ve had it forwarded to use a few hundred times. And the research behind mushrooms and honey bees is legit.
And of course, they now have the mushroom mycelieum extract for bees for sale. It was pricey though. And not necessarily shelf or temperature stable. What if we could just introduce the mushrooms ourselves?
According to the major study linked above, the mushroom extracts reduced honey bee viral load by 79 fold. Even more interesting, the birch wood control was nearly as effective as the mushroom extracts. This calls to mind the fact that Honey Bee Healthy uses oak bark extract in their formula. And let’s not forget that bees traditionally make their homes in dead tree trunks. All food for thought.
The two mushrooms that showed the most promise were Anadou (fomes fomentarius) and Reishi (Ganoderma sp).
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More excited to find these fungi than anyone should be! New research showed a 79 fold decrease in honey bee deformed wing virus load from these bad boys!! (These are anadou conk – found on birch) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-32194-8 #honeybeehealth #bees #beekeeping #beekeeper #savethebees #health #nature #herbalism #healing #earthday #climatechange #bethechange #makeadifference
We have access to birch and aspens so we were able to gather some anadou and birch polypores.
These mushrooms are a beast to break apart. They are like solid stone! We were able to cut them into large chunks and some of those chunks were pulverized in the blender.
What happens when we add mushrooms to our bee feeders?
We only feed our bees in early spring and late fall IF they are short on stored honey. In 2020, we started with new packaged bees and fed in early spring. The weather was wet and cold and the bees eagerly consumed the sugar syrup. The main mushrooms we used in the fall were the anadou.
The Anadou mushroom is a hard lump. We interspersed it within the pine needles and over time it became soggy and mushy. Almost immediately the bees were found preferentially on the anadou mushroom chunks. Maybe it was because they were larger and acted as better anchors and solid surfaces to feed? Maybe they liked how smooshy they became?
Whenever the feeders were checked or refilled, more bees were found on the mushroom pieces than throughout the rest of the feeders. When the feeders were emptied (i.e. the used pine needles and mushroom pieces were dumped into the swamp edge far from the hive to reduce robbing and to limit the draw of bears) the bees clung to the mushroom pieces.
Did the Mushrooms reduce viral load, deformed wing virus or mite infestations?
In 2019, we lost our bees to PMS – parasitic mite syndrome. We treated for mites, but it was too late. They had already become so diseased and unhealthy. The bees were ultimately robbed and killed by neighboring colonies.
This year, our first “Mite treatment” was the feeding of syrup infused with anadou. And by infused, we mean we ground up a small chunk of mushroom and added 2 whole chunks to the feeder. Our bees took about a gallon of syrup in April (and an untreated sugar cake in March.)
Our bees roared out of the gates when the sun came out. Since we were starting from zero in 2020 and the apiary is in the dry sand plains of Minnesota, we were surprised that our bees were able to build up 3 full deeps and half a super. (It should be noted that in 2020, because of the COVID-19 epidemic, the county did not mow the ditches for the first time in years – it was AMAZING! We may not be so lucky going forward.)
We treated for mites using oxalic acid dribble in May and August. We had no bees with deformed wings. Did they have the virus? Who knows. Did they have a higher or lower virus load? We don’t know.
We know that they were healthy and they had low mite counts. Will they make it through winter? Good question!!!
UPDATE: Our bees DID survive the winter and came out ready to go! 2021 was one of the worst droughts in Minnesota history but our bees had all three deeps filled by July and gave 2 supers of honey. Thank goodness for trees and swamps! The prairie stayed brown all season and the plants that grew stayed under 6 inches. To see our winter set-up – click here. We are still using mushrooms and pine needles in our feeders, but we feed the bees less and less. They are gathering all they need. We also switched to using an OA vaporizer. It is soooo much faster!
Our flowers dry up and die in mid September. This is an extremely unfortunate fact about the sand plains. In the fall, we fed 2 gallons of 1:1 syrup with birch polypore mushrooms.
Because the study showed a similar reduction using birch wood, we are actively collecting fallen birch and oak pieces and of course any mushrooms found on those birch. The polypore are more abundant than the anadou. They may or may not have the same effects.
We are under the assumption that the mushrooms are not hurting the bees. The bees do show a preference for them and they make great floats. Again, this may just be for structural or size reasons. Either way, the pine needles and mushroom pieces offer enough help to keep the bees from drowning and they are giving them a potential chance to combat the viruses transmitted by the varroa destructor mites.
We will keep testing and as our apiary expands, we will do comparative tests. For now, we have strong, healthy, assertive bees. We will keep using our inexpensive DIY feeding system and experimenting with the mushrooms and barks in our area.
Please comment if you give this feeder system a try. Or if you have experimented with feeding your honey bees mushrooms, oak bark, birch or oak sawdust or anything else that may provide insight.