Sugar Water for Honey Bees

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Most beekeepers know that there will be times when feeding bees sugar water is a good idea. As a Master Beekeeper, I know that sugar water does not replace natural nectar nutritionally. But, it will sustain a colony that is low on food. Here, I share the various ratios involved in making sugar water for bees and explain how I routinely use it for my colonies.

Honey bees collecting sugar water from feeder provided by beekeeper.

If you see someone pushing a cart full of sugar through the market, that person might be a beekeeper – we do get some funny looks. When done at the right time and for the right reason, this is an important part of good hive management.

How to Make Sugar Water For Bees

Sugar water is made by dissolving regular granulated white cane sugar in water in various concentrations. Do not use brown sugar, raw sugar or other ingredients as they may contain substances that will make your colony sick.

Honey bees drinking sugar water from a bee feeder image.

Bee Sugar Water Ratios

There are 2 basic recipes using when making sugar water for honey bees. It involves measuring the amount of sugar and water that you add together.

You can measure by weight or volume it does not matter – don’t overthink this part. While it is not exactly the same nutritionally, it is very similar in sweetness and provides the bees with energy. Also, honey bees are accustomed to collecting liquid food.

1:1

Mix equal amounts of granulated sugar and water to create a 1:1 syrup. You can measure with cups or use weight as the unit of measure. It does not matter because either method will result in a 1:1 mixture. Equal parts sugar – water.

2:1

A 2:1 ratio contains twice as much sugar as water. For example, 8 cups of sugar to 4 cups of water. When using this mixture, use very warm water to dissolve the sugar easier. However, do not boil your bee syrup, this is not good and it is not necessary.

How to Make 1 Gallon of Sugar Water

I normally make larger amounts of sugar water for my bees – but for a couple of hives you make want to mix up only 1 gallon of liquid.

These measurements will get you close to a gallon of liquid in a 1:1 ratio. Do not stress over exact measurements. Even in the field, nectar sources vary a bit in sweetness.

  • 10 2/3 cups of granulated sugar
  • 10 2/3 cups of warm water
Bee food recipe chart with ratios for feeding honey bees sugar water image.

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Mixing it Up

When mixing up your bee syrup (sugar water) it is important to only use white granulated sugar. I do like to add a feeding supplement to encourage uptake and help prevent syrup from becoming moldy.

You can even use homemade supplement recipes – like using essential oils for bees. These are thought to promote better bee health too. Be cautious, these products are concentrated- add only a small amount.

Expert Tips

  • supplemental feeding does not take the place of natural nectar and pollen
  • do not give bees sugar water without a reason – you can overfeed
  • always try to evaluate why the colony needs sugar water (weather conditions, low population, etc.)
  • The biggest mistake made by beekeepers is failing to feed a new colony long enough. 

By the Season

Why are 2 different sugar water ratios used in feeding honey bees? I’m glad you asked. While both recipes provide carbohydrates, they have different effects on the honey bee colonies.

Bee larvae in honeycomb during Spring buildup.

Spring Feeding (for Buildup)

Spring is a time of growth as over-wintered colonies are busy raising new bee brood for the season. New hives that are started from installing bee packages (or captured swarms) are struggling to get their colony established.

Spring beekeeping is a busy time for bees and beekeeper. Could the colony benefit from some sugar water until abundant natural food is available? Feeding honey bees a 1:1 ratio, promotes brood rearing.

This thin mixture is closest to the sweetness of most natural nectars. With “new nectar” being placed in the comb, the bees are not afraid of starvation and are more likely to ramp up brood rearing.

This same method of feeding 1:1 applies to any time throughout the season when you have a colony in need of food. Perhaps a new split hive could benefit from some supplemental feeding.

Worker honey bee storing sugar water honey in comb.

Fall Sugar Water (Food Storage)

One of the best secrets to successful Fall bee feeding. is to get out there and get it done in late summer before the weather cools.

Poor foraging conditions in the Fall prevents storage of food for Winter survival. It is not uncommon to find hives that are not quite ready for Winter. The ratio of 2:1 sugar water promotes food storage. – perfect for Fall.

This mix is not as likely to encourage brood rearing and more likely to end up stored in comb. Of course, this will not be real honey but the colony will store it as such.

Remember, established colonies can usually survive on their own unless they have problems or experience nectar dearths. If you know that your hive has enough food stored for Winter-you don’t need to feed.

FAQs

When should I start feeding bees sugar water?

Two situations when a beekeeper may need to provide supplemental food is for a new colony starting from scratch or established hives with insufficient food stores for any reason.

Why would my established hive need sugar water?

Problems with your queen honey bee, a late freeze that causes a nectar dearth and other issues can be very difficult – even for established hives.

Offering these colonies a helping hand can be the difference between a strong colony going into Winter or a weak one that is dead before Christmas.

Does feeding bees sugar water make them lazy?

Feeding bees does not make them lazy. In fact, honey bees prefer natural nectar when good sources are available. They may ignore your sugar water if food in the field is plentiful.

Can I feed my bees sugar water all year?

There will be times when you should stop feeding bees sugar water. These include the cold months of Winter (unless you are in a very warm climate) and when your honey collection supers are on.

When you add a honey super to your hive to collect honey for yourself – feeders should come off.

If my bees make honey from sugar water is it real honey?

The bees will use any nectar (or nectar-like substance) to make honey. Honey produced from sugar water instead of nectar – that’s a no no. And, its not real honey.

Does sugar water go bad?

Yes, sugar water you make for your bees can get moldy. Only make the amount your bees can use before it gets stale.

As you learn the various methods of making sugar water for your bees, be prepared for some criticism. Some beekeepers feel that you should never feed your hives, period. Others recognize the importance of feeding bees when hives conditions warrant.

No matter what you choose, be prepared to have some well-meaning beekeepers at the local beekeeping association meeting to tell you that you are wrong!

Final Thoughts

Providing sugar water for bees is a lot of work and expense (if you have more than one hive). You should not have to feed every colony all season. If this is happening, something is wrong. How much extra sugar water your hives require will depend on your climate and other conditions.

Computer that shows online beekeeping class on display, beekeeping unveiled - your hive awaits.