Last year when I realized I needed to feed my bees on an on-going basis through the summer I slapped together a feeder made of a half gallon plastic storage container with some plastic canvas and cable ties used to make an access ladder system allowing the bees to climb up and over the lip of the container, then walk down to the edge of the sugar water. I drilled some access holes in a piece of plywood, added a spacer to maintain bee space below, and plopped it on top of the top brood box, then put the plastic contraption on it, dropped an empty super body on to enclose it, added sugar water, and put the top board and cover back on. Basically I made a rooftop indoor swimming pool for the bees, and it generally seemed to work. It was relatively quick and easy to fill, not prone to leakage, and I had very few drownings (maybe 20 or 30 total, most being bees that got behind the ladder system and couldn’t get back around).
It did have a few downsides though. It was relatively small, and on a few occasions when they were feeding heavily they emptied it in under a day. Checking and / or filling it meant a direct hive opening and it wasn’t uncommon on an afternoon check to get a face full of bees. It also was a bit awkward to remove, since the super body, plywood platform, and feeder tub with ladder all had to be individually handled.
After the bees stopped taking sugar water as the temperature dropped, one of the things I tried to do to entice them back to it (before switching to straight sugar) was to add a piece of a bee patty to the sugar water in the feeder. Not only did it not draw bees to it, it led to the sugar water starting to go moldy. After trying to clean the mold off the feeder and ladder, I realized I couldn’t get it all off and needed a new one. It had taken too much effort to cut and piece the plastic canvas together, so I looked for another option.
I ended up deciding to make a hybrid. I liked the security against leakage provided by a tub, but I liked the ease of filling, capacity, and separation offered by an enclosed access top feeder. With summer temps often swinging 40 degrees or so between day and night, I felt that there was too much potential for wood movement for even a very tightly built “sealed box” version to not leak. So I settled on a traditional top feeder style access but with an aluminum roaster pan serving as a removable tub.
Milling the lumber was straightforward – it would be a super sized box with an extra cross board and an inset floor raised to allow the proper bee space below. For simplicity and since it isn’t really a load bearing unit I opted to use basic butt joints glued and stapled rathar than fingers or laps. All told it was a matter of cutting to length, making a few grooves, drilling ventilation access holes in the plywood floor (after all, this feeder will likely be in place all summer and air needs to rise through it to escape out the vented top), and assembling the box. I used a couple of pieces of scrap 1x stock as spacers to keep the full width access passage open.
Next came the most challenging portion – creating the access and ladder pathway out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth and some 1x scrap stock. Since I had to reduce it to the width of the roasting pan I had debated trying to cut and wire stich the sides where it narrowed together, but in the end it seemed easier and better to just make the depth the size of 1x stock and staple scraps along the edges to close it off. By using a metal bending brake it was relatively straightforward to create the basic profile, then trim and fit it to the box dimensions with hand snips. To ease eventual removal for cleaning or replacement of both the access / ladder assembly and the roasting pan, I opted to attach the assembly to the box by bending a flange on the assembly which fits into a corresponding groove on the top of the end board and the dividing board. The assembly flanges slip into the grooves, and the weight of the top board and cover pressing on it ensures it stays closed. As a final step I used scraps of hardware cloth to cover the vent holes.