When we got our first two packages of bees, we were told to feed them syrup while they built comb in our brand-new hives. This was a whole new area of beekeeping: when to feed the bees, what to feed the bees, how to feed the bees.
When should we feed our honey bees? Feed them when it helps them survive. That can be when you’re establishing bees in a new hive, in very early spring, during summer dearth, in fall to prepare for winter, in mid to late winter if their own honey supplies are getting low.
There is more to it than that. Each region has a different climate, different concerns, and has its own practices, and every beekeeper has his own opinions. This is what we’ve learned so far and a few views of our own.
When Should You Feed Your Bees?
A good practice is to feed based on the needs of the hive.
You can feed your bees in every season of the year. Some people will feed a new hive nonstop, especially if the bees continue to eat up what you’re feeding them.
The goal is that the bees will be able to take care of themselves all year round. Natural food, rather than human-supplied supplementation, is better for your colonies.
Let’s go through feeding, season by season:
- in the spring
- a new package of bees
- a new swarm of bees
- during summer
- in fall
- in winter
Feeding Bees In The Spring
Established hives that have made it through the winter are low on supplies and begin foraging flights to bring in nectar and pollen as soon as the weather allows.
To give the hive a head start to the season, feed 1:1 sugar syrup that simulates nectar flow and also feed pollen patties. This will encourage the queen to begin laying eggs and building up the colony.
If your area has good weather and heavy nectar flow with ample pollen, you may not need to feed. We feed here because our springs tend to have many cold and rainy days interspersed with lovely warm spring weather.
Feeding A New Package Of Bees
They had a new queen, a hive with no honey stores, no pollen, no drawn comb. This is often the situation when you are starting out.
It takes a tremendous amount of nectar or honey for bees to build wax comb for the queen to lay eggs in and for the workers to store honey and pollen in. To give your bees a boost, feed them.
At this time of year, you’ll be feeding sugar syrup (more about that below). Keep feeding your bees until they have comb drawn on several frames and there are brood cells, showing that your queen is laying. This can be for several weeks. Decide by looking at your hive, not by looking at the calendar.
Do not feed too long. What can happen if you feed too long is that the bees diligently fill all the cells with nectar, leaving the queen no empty cells to lay eggs in. This is called being “honey bound”. If this happens, your bees may swarm. Yes, as new beekeepers, this happened to us.
Feeding A New Swarm Of Bees
A swarm of bees is in the same situation as a new package of bees. They do have their own queen and they are loaded with honey for their adventure, but they still go into a new hive.
Feed them until they are established. If you’ve put the bees into a hive with no drawn comb, feed as long as you would a package of bees.
Feeding During Late Summer
Lest you should think that we stole all our bees’ winter honey stores, we collected a total of fewer than two gallons of honey from five hives. Not much.
This was when we were introduced to the reality of what is known as the “summer dearth”.
To our eyes, flowers are blooming everywhere and life for the bees is good. From the bee perspective, favored nectar sources are just not producing enough nectar to supply the hive. This happens during the dry spells of the summer or during droughts.
Out came our feeders, and in went the sugar syrup.
We also made sure there was water available. We always have a plant saucer filled with stones and water. During the dearth we filled Boardman entrance feeders with water for each hive.
How long to leave the feeders on?
Ask five beekeepers and you’ll get seven answers – at least that’s been our experience.
When we began to feed, the girls would go through a gallon of syrup a day. Eventually, as the next set of plants started blooming and the bees had some sugar syrup honey stored, they stopped consuming as much syrup or stopped eating it entirely. Then we took off the feeders.
Two things to remember.
On that last point, if we had been using ‘western’ size brood boxes rather than deeps, we would have taken the frames from our honey supers and put them in with the bees.
All bees are affected by the dearth. This means that bees from strong hives may try to rob honey from weaker hives. It is a time to put on entrance reducers and to close off other openings to keep out marauding yellow jackets, hornets and wasps.
Should You Feed Bees In The Fall?
Most beekeepers around here feed in the fall. In the Pacific Northwest, which has mild temperatures and long autumns, that can mean feeding in October.
How do you know if they have enough honey? The general rule of thumb is the weight of the hive.
This weight varies by climate. I was checking online to see the differences between southern and northern states, and how many pounds a hive should be to get through the winter can vary by 60 pounds or more per hive. Check with beekeepers to see what the standard is in your local area.
The easiest way to check the weight is to screw an eye bolt into the slatted board, attach a luggage scale, and lift the side of the hive. This is an approximation, but it is good for keeping an eye on relative weights throughout the fall and winter.
This is the time to move to 2:1 sugar syrup. It is a mixture of 2 pounds of sugar to one pint (pound) of water. The heavy syrup is closer to the consistency of honey, and some beekeepers think this is an added incentive for the bees to store it. We do it because everyone else around here does.
Should I Feed Bees In Winter?
If your bees haven’t enough frames of honey stored to last through the winter, yes, you should definitely feed your bees.
If you have checked your hives in late fall, you will know how many frames of honey they have. If you weighed your hives in the fall, you can weigh the hives at intervals through the winter and compare how the honey stores are holding up.
It is better to feed and have the hive make it through to the spring than to guess they have enough honey stores and have a dead colony.
One of our friends, who rarely loses a hive through the winter, puts on candy boards and quilt blankets the first week of November every year. Another checks his hives and rarely feeds until January.
During the cold months, you’ll feed solid sugar, not liquid syrup.
What Should I Feed My Bees?
Sugar in one form or another is the standard food to feed bees.
Depending on the time of the year, you may be feeding your bees:
- sugar syrup
- sugar/sugar cakes
Liquid sugar syrup is used when the weather is 50 degrees or above. Here, the nights will dip into the 40’s, but the days are warm.
- In spring and summer, use 1:1 syrup, which is one pound of sugar to one pound (a pint) of water
- In fall use 2:1 syrup, which is 2 pounds of sugar to one pound (pint) of water
The sugar has to be thoroughly dissolved in the water, so many beekeepers use hot water. You can make large batches this way. I’m not a fan of handling hot sugar syrup, so we run smaller batches of sugar and water in our Vitamix at high speed for a couple of minutes.
In winter give the bees fondant, sugar cakes or granulated sugar. Liquid syrup will get too cold for the bees to eat. If the bees aren’t using it, it can mold.
Fondant is a sugar candy made by boiling sugar and water till it reaches 235 degrees, the soft ball stage. It is removed from heat and, when cool enough, kneaded or beaten in a mixer until it is white and silky smooth. This is made into cakes or patties to be given to the hives.
Some beekeepers sprinkle granulated sugar onto newspaper directly on the frames of the top deep and some put it on the top of the inner cover.
We mix granulated sugar with a small amount of water and put it into several small pans to dry and harden into cakes.
Our mentor has tried half price after Christmas candy canes with good results.
Bees invert the sugars in cane sugar from sucrose to fructose and glucose. Fondant begins this process. Adding a small amount of vinegar and some other ingredients may also accomplish this. Whether it is necessary or even helpful for people to start this process for the bees isn’t thoroughly established.
With dry sugar or fondant, the bees don’t have to work to remove the moisture. They can use every advantage in the middle of the cold season.
What type of sugar do you feed bees?
We use plain white cane sugar. As beginning beekeepers we were told not to use beet sugar. The theory is that beets are sprayed with pesticides which can be toxic to them. I would think that it would be toxic to us, too! Other than that, I haven’t found any information on why white granulated beet sugar would be harmful.
We use cane sugar because we can buy it in 25-pound bags inexpensively at Costco.
Do not use raw sugar, organic sugar or brown sugar. These can contain substances that harm the bees. Molasses, for instance, that is in raw sugar and brown sugar can cause dysentery in bees. Not good.
What about honey?
You may wonder if you can feed your bees honey. The reserved answer is ‘yes’.
To keep your bees safe from disease and contamination, the only good honey to feed them is by giving them frames of honey from another of your beehives. The caveats are that the hive you take honey frames from must have an overabundance of its own honey and that the bees are healthy.
You don’t want to give your bees combs filled with old honey because it may have fermented. Honeycomb from the current year should be good.
We also set out the frames we’ve extracted honey from to let the bees clean up the bits of honey that are left. We do no put them near the hives because there it may cause aggressive behavior between our bees. Repeat: not near the hives.
Don’t feed them honey from the store. You don’t know the quality or purity. It can have contaminants or be watered down. What is fine for us might be bad for your bee colony.
Pollen is essential to bees when the queen is laying and there is brood to be fed.
If some of your hives have produced large numbers of frames of stored pollen, you can use that as a supplement. Most pollen fed to bees is a substitute made by the beekeeper or bought from a supplier.
There are times when bees can use additional pollen. Some beekeepers think that bees need pollen going into winter. Some believe it is only necessary coming out of winter if there aren’t many pollen-bearing flowers available. This can be during spring build-up while the bees are coming out of winter and the queen is laying brood.
If feeding pollen early in the winter, you should choose a supplement that is lower in protein that won’t encourage egg laying. You want to wait until spring for the queen to start increasing colony size. Suppliers have both winter pollen substitute – “winter patties” and springtime brood builder patties.
Honey Bee Feeding Equipment
There are feeders for different seasons and even there you have choices for the ones you will use in your apiary. I’m going to talk about them from the small hobby beekeeper standpoint.
Types of feeders:
- top feeder/Miller feeder
- frame feeder
- in hive feeder
- Boardman feeder
- candy board
- external feeder
Everyone has their favorite feeders and that may be because of personal experience or because that’s what they were shown first and they still use them.
Top feeders, also called Miller feeders, sit on top of the top brood box. On the outside, the feeder looks like a smaller brood box. On the inside it is divided into a box on each side that will hold syrup. Between the syrup boxes is space for the bees to come up from the brood box and into the feeder.
The inside of the top feeder can vary. It may have a wooden raft that floats on top of the syrup, so the bees have a place to stand while eating. There may be an arch of screen over the space and into the syrup that the bees can walk on.
The advantage of top feeders is that you can add syrup without opening up the top of the brood boxes and disturbing the bees.
This is the kind we use. This spring we’re going to shift to the top feeders with the plastic inserts. We found that the all wooden ones can leak, despite what we thought was thorough caulking.
Frame feeders replace two frames in the brood box with a feeder that holds up to four gallons of syrup. There are screened ladders into the feeder that the bees can use to get to the syrup. You do have to open up the top brood box to refill these feeders.
In hive feeders, which we haven’t used, use containers that are filled with syrup, inverted, and placed on the inner cover over the open vent above the top hive body. To protect them and the colony, put on a deep to surround it and then put on the top cover. Depending on the size, the containers can be very heavy to lift after you have refilled them.
Boardman feeders are hive entrance feeders, using a glass or plastic jar to hold syrup. We prefer to use these for water during the dry season. Having a feeder at the hive entrance can encourage robbing by other bees and can attract yellow jackets.
Candy boards have a funny name and they aren’t boards. These hold winter fondant or sugar cakes. They are short wooden boxes that sit on the top winter deep. The bottom is hardware cloth that the bees can either reach through to get at the sugar or fit through to climb on the sugar cakes.
External feeders or open-air feeders are away from the hives. These feeders are used for spring and fall syrup feeding. Commercial apiaries will use barrels to feed massive amounts of syrup. I don’t know about commercial bee yards, but in the small apiary, these can cause fighting amongst the bees and can attract other insects and bees from other apiaries, which may be carrying diseases.