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When honey bees are not able to collect enough food through natural sources, beekeepers need to help. The most common way to help a hungry colony is by feeding bees sugar water. While sugar water or sugar syrup is not exactly the same as plant nectar, it will keep a colony alive. However, supplemental feeding is not without its challenges. Failure to do it right may create more problems for your hives than the ones they are already facing.
If you see someone pushing a cart full of sugar through the market, that person might be a beekeeper. We beekeepers do get some funny looks when shopping. But, we know the importance of feeding bees in need.
How to Feed Honey Bees Sugar Water
Each year thousands of beekeepers invest the time and money making supplement food for their colonies. It can be expensive and it surely a sticky job.
So why do we beekeepers go to all this effort? There must be a good reason, right? Are beekeepers nuts? Well, yea – sometimes, but not in this case.
Should You Feed Your Bees Sugar Water – The Debate
Yes, most beekeepers do use supplemental feeding at times. However, the beekeeping industry varies on opinions about whether or not feeding bees sugar water is wise.
The topic is debated from one club meeting to the next and from one region to another. You have to decide what is best for your hives. Our supplemental feeding does not take the place of natural foraging.
The absolute best food for our colonies is plant nectar and pollen. Natural nectar has an abundance of nutrients that can not be replaced with plain sugar and water.
But, sometimes a colony is low on food stores through no fault of the bees. This could be due to a new colony just building their home, swarms starting from scratch or even weather conditions.
Faced with the fact of letting a colony starve or feeding them, most beekeepers choose to feed the hives.
However, the concept of feeding honey bees often creates a division among beekeepers. Be prepared to hear some of this discussion.
Some beekeepers feel that you should never feed your hives, period. Other beekeepers accept the need to feed their hives when conditions warrant.
No matter what you choose, be prepared to have some well-meaning beekeepers tell you that you are wrong!
What is Sugar Water & How You Make It?
What exactly is sugar water and why should we use that for bee food? The most common recipe for bee feeding involves mixing white granulated cane sugar and water.
Granulated sugar dissolved into water, mimics natural plant nectar. While it is not exactly the same nutritionally, it is very similar in sweetness. And, honey bees are accustomed to collecting liquid food.
When making sugar water for your bees, it is important to only use white sugar. Never use molasses or brown sugar as this will make your colonies sick – or dead.
Many beekeepers use a feeding supplement added to the feeder. This is usually in liquid form and encourages good feeding. It also prevents your syrup from becoming moldy.
Other than the products available commercially, there are homemade recipes for using essential oils to feed bees.
This is thought to promote better bee health too. Be cautious, these products are concentrated- add only a small amount.
There are 2 basic recipes for bee sugar water commonly used by beekeepers. We are mixing a percentage of water to a percentage of dry granulated sugar. You can measure by weight or volume it does not matter.
How to Make 1 Gallon of Sugar Water
Mix equal amounts of granulated sugar and water to create 1:1 sugar water. You can measure with cups or use weight as the unit of measure. It does not matter because either method of measuring will result in a 1:1 sugar : water syrup.
1 Gallon of 1:1 Sugar Water
- 10 2/3 cups of granulated sugar
- 10 2/3 cups of warm water
Do not stress over exact measurements. Even in the field, nectar sources vary a bit in sweetness.
2:1 Sugar Water Recipe
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.
Feeding Bees By the Season
Why are these 2 different ratios used in feeding bees? I’m glad you asked. While both bee syrup recipes provide carbohydrates, feeding them has different results on the colony.
Feeding Bee Colonies in Spring or for Buildup
Spring is a time of growth as over-wintered colonies are busy raising brood. New hives that are started from buying packages are struggling to get their colony established.
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.
Feeding Bees in the Fall
It is not uncommon to find colonies that are not quite ready for Winter. These colonies run the risk of starvation without supplemental feeding.
The ratio of 2:1 is fed to honey bees to promote food storage. This mix is not as likely to encourage brood rearing and more likely to end up stored in comb for Winter.
Of course, this will not be real honey but the colony will store it as such. It is much better to feed your colony rather than have them starve in the middle of Winter. Fall feeding should be completed before cold weather arrives.
When Should I Start Feeding Bees Sugar Water?
You should not have to feed every colony all season. If this is happening, something is wrong. There are two situations where a beekeeper may consider providing supplemental food.
- a new colony starting from scratch
- established hives with insufficient food stores
If you purchase bees in a package, they arrive on the scene with no resources. They have no drawn beeswax comb, food stores, or brood. Begin feeding a new colony 1:1 immediately and continue until all of their comb is drawn out.
Because they begin with nothing, understanding how to feed a new package is critical to their growth. This can not wait several days.
Even established colonies may benefit from supplemental feeding at times. Weeks without rain that create a lack of food can cause a temporary decline in any hive.
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.
Best Bee Feeders for Sugar Water
There are many different types of honey bee feeders available. Each type of feeding method has advantages and disadvantages. These are the most common feeders.
- boardman feeders
- mason jar feeders
- hive top feeders
- frame feeders
- pail feeders
- open feeding
Boardman Feeder (Entrance Feeder)
The boardman feeder is the most popular type that appears in most beekeeping kits. It is used with a regular glass jar and fits into the front hive entrance. A beekeeper can easily see when to refill. The jars are easy to replace and clean.
But, this type of feeder does have its problems. A hungry colony can drain this in a couple of hours -are you available to refill it several times a day?
An even bigger issue, food hanging on the front of the hive can encourage robbing behavior. If you want to use a boardman feeder, it is best to place it inside the hive – with an extra box to enclose the feeder.
- easy to refill
- clear container shows when its empty
- smell will attract wasps and other insects
- may increase chances or robbing
- does not hold much syrup
Mason Jar Feeder
It is really easy to make a mason jar bee feeder, because almost everyone has an extra glass jar around. This is basically the same as the boardman without the fancy wooden holder.
Some beekeepers use a temporary hive top with a 1″ – 2″ hole in the top. The upside-down jar is placed over the hole. Weigh down the jar with a brick or strap.
We do not want the wind or a raccoon to push the jar over. Of course, you can also use an empty deep box (with a top) to enclose jars inside the hive. You can even order special plastic tops that don’t rust and are dishwasher safe!
One easy way to use jar feeders is to purchase or make 4 jars feeders. Place all 4 inside the hive – sitting on the inner cover and elevated just a bit.
Use an extra deep hive box or brood box to enclose the jars and then put the top back on the hive. This allows the bees to have access to a gallon of food inside the hive.
Hive Top Feeders
Hive top feeders sit on top of the hive under the telescoping top. They may be made of wood or plastic. This feeder will hold around 1-2 gallons of bee syrup and will feed the colony for several days.
- easy to fill without disturbing colony
- holds a lot of food
- they have a tendency to leak over time
- they are heavy when filled
- care must be taken to avoid spilling syrup around the hive
- if the lid does not fit tight – a robbing frenzy may result
A frame feeder takes the place of one frame in the hive body. If the hive normally holds 10 regular frames, you will use 9 regular frames and 1 feeder frame.
Having the same dimensions as a frame of honey comb, this frame has 2 solid walls with an open cavity to hold sugar water.
- holds up to 1 gallon of syrup (or more)
- located inside the hive close to the cluster
- good option in cool weather because bees can access the food easily
- beekeeper has to open the hive to refill
- some bees will drown in the feeders
- they may leak over time
If you choose to use frame feeders, put some type of floating material inside the compartment to reduce drowning. I have used small sticks or wooden Popsicle sticks.
The pail feeder is one of the most popular ways to feed colonies. A small plastic pail with a mesh feeder hole holds 1 gallon of sugar syrup.
To use, fill the bucket with your sugar water and close the lid tightly. When you turn the bucket upside down, some syrup will escape until a vacuum forms. (It’s a good idea to have a bowl or something handy to catch this extra syrup).
Place the upside down bucket directly on top of the frames or over the hold in the inner cover. Bees will feed from the mesh feeder hole in the bucket ( or small holes drilled by the manufacturer).
Like the boardman feeders, pail feeders require extra equipment. An empty hive body around the pail allows the hive to be closed.
If you choose, you can use a temporary hive top with a small hole drilled in the center. Place your upturned pail over the hole. A brick or rock on top of the bucket will prevent wind damage.
- lightweight and easy to handle
- holds at least 1 gallon of food
- can be inside the hive – accessible to bees in all weather
- easy to refill without disturbing colony very much
- requires extra equipment
- mesh hole may be filled with propolis if you let it become empty
- a small amount of liquid is wasted when first inverted
Open Feeding in the Bee Yard
Some beekeepers enjoy providing food in an open container. Commercial beekeepers often use this method because is it easy to feed a lot of colonies at once.
This method for feeding bees has some merits but it is also risky. It is not economical because you end up feeding every bee, wasp and yellow jacket in the area. Some bee death also results from fighting at the feeder or drowning.
If you do plan to try open feeding, ensure that the feeders are well away from your hives. A distance of at least 60-100 feet is best.
- easy to do – not filling individual feeders
- no feeders to clean
- no special equipment needed
- provides a lot of bee syrup
- not an economical way to feed
- bees will drown in the container
- bees can’t access food in bad weather
- can cause robbing if used near the hives
Open feeding can be worthwhile in certain situations. I use it as an indicator of natural forage. If the bees are getting a lot of natural nectar, they will ignore the open feeder.
If they attack the feeder in mass, they are not finding a lot of food in the field. Then, I know it may be time to consider feeding internally.
One easy method to practice open feeding is to make a bucket feeder. At least in this case, there is no drowning to worry about.
Does Feeding Bees Make Them Lazy?
Feeding bees does not make them lazy. In fact, honey bees prefer natural nectar when good sources are available. Some bee hives will need to be fed and some may never need it – depending on local conditions.
When to Stop Feeding Bees with Sugar Water
Feed new colonies, or captured swarms, until they are established and have some food stores. Check your hives in mid to late Summer, are the bees filling the box with brood and food?
The biggest mistake made by new beekeepers is failing to feed a new colony long enough. This is why I devote so much energy in my Online Beekeeping Class, outlining the importance of proper feeding of new hives.
Established colonies can usually survive on their own unless you are in a drought. If you know that your hive has enough food stored for Winter-you don’t need to feed.
One of the best secrets to successful Fall feeding. is to get out there and get it done in late summer before the weather cools.
When You Should Not Feed Bees Sugar Water
Yes, there will be times when you should not be feeding bees syrup. These include times of cold weather, when your honey collection supers are on and a few other situations.
Remember, never feed bees when honey collection supers are on the hive. I am referring to boxes of honey that are intended for human consumption. When you add a honey super to your hive for yourself – feeders should come off.
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.
Too little food during Spring build up causes the bees to sacrifice brood or developing young bees. Poor foraging conditions in the Fall prevents storage of food for Winter survival.
Feeding bees sugar water is a lot of work and expense. How much you need to feed will depend on your climate and foraging conditions.
Especially when keeping many hives in one location, remember that we can not always rely on natural nectar.
This is another example of why it is important to connect with local beekeeper associations – they will know the key times when you may need to consider feeding your bees.