Sustainable Forages as an Alternative to Supplemental Feeding

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $9,798.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Ryan Higgs
Blue Ridge Apiaries

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: rapeseed
  • Animals: bees


  • Animal Production: feed rations, stocking rate
  • Crop Production: cover crops, no-till
  • Farm Business Management: feasibility study


    Project Context

    Modern beekeeping involves many variables.  Most of these, the beekeeper has limited control over, such as mite pressure, viruses, diseases, forage and weather.  Here, the beekeeper's best defense is often to maintain strong, healthy colonies.  To this end, one of the beekeeper's most valuable tools is the ability to supplement nutrition.  This idea was popularized in Doug Somerville's publication "Fat Bees Skinny Bees" (Canberra, 2005).  Here, the author describes the benefits of providing supplemental nutrition in terms of colony health and consequently as an effective means of decreasing colony mortalities. Implicit in his research is a simple principle acknowledging that well-nourished colonies can "out-grow" many of their maladies.  Supplementing nutrition stimulates growth, which enables the colony to replace bees that may be turning-over at an accelerated rate due to disease, virus, and/or mite pressure.  The principle is analogous to a bathtub that can lose water without completely draining provided that the facet is adding water at a proportional rate.  In this same way, a colony can sustain considerable pressure as long as bees are being replenished faster than they are being lost.


    Providing Nurition

    In "Fat Bees Skinny Bees" the author convincingly demonstrates the benefits of supplementing honeybee nutrition through the use of sucrose/high fructose corn syrup (hfcs) and pollen supplements which have been greatly improved in recent years. While providing supplemental nutrition through these vehicles has become standard industry practice, there are alternatives. Many operators relocate hives as forage availability shifts geographically as opposed to managing a "fixed" operation. This can include moving bees in terms of latitude, elevation or to take advantage of specific commodities such as canola or cotton.  The purpose of this project was to consider another alternative, namely to establish a forage plot as a means to supplement nutrition. More specifically, the project compared traditional supplemental feeding methods in the pre-spring nectar flow time frame with access to six acres of rapeseed.  During this portion of the season there is a gap in nectar sources between the substantial red maple bloom and the primary spring flow (blackberries, holly, tulip poplar).  This same "gap" is the best time to mate queens, resulting in heavier stocking rates in mating yards where resources often are not adequate to support the colonies necessary to achieve sufficient drone saturation.

    Project objectives:


    The objective of the project was to evaluate the potential for planting rapeseed as an alternative to providing nutrition via conventional feeding methods that rely on sucrose/hfcs and formulated pollen supplements.  Rapeseed ('dwarf essex') was specifically chosen for three reasons.  The first was alluded to above in the sense that as a flower source, rapeseed bridges a gap between significant nectar/pollen sources, which also corresponds with an increased demand for resources necessary for honeybee breeding programs.  Second, canola, an improved strain of rapeseed, is becoming a popular alternative to winter wheat in crop rotations across the South.  Many beekeepers have taken advantage of this trend by locating colonies near large plantings during the flowering period as a means of building colonies.  Canola/rapeseed is particularly valuable for growing colonies given its high protein pollen.  However, canola has its downside for beekeepers which is the third reason why rapeseed was chosen for this project.  Nearly all canola seed is treated with pesticides that are possibly expressed in the pollen, which is in-turn fed to brood.  The sub-lethal effects of this infinitesimal exposure to developing bees (as well as adult bees) is a subject of much controversy between beekeepers, researchers, and the manufactures of these specific pesticides.  Regardless of the effects, locating honeybees on canola adds a variable that can complicate managing colonies that already face a number of other challenging variables.  Alternatively, rapeseed, being less desirable as an oil crop due to its high eruric acid content, is rarely treated.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.