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Why Beekeepers Use Sugar Water for Bees
Honey bees get hungry and can even starve to death rather quickly. The most common way to help a hungry colony is by feeding bees sugar water. But, supplemental feeding is not without its challenges. Failure to do it right may create more problems for your bees. When you choose to become a beekeeper, there will be times when you need to step in and help.
If you see someone pushing a cart full of sugar through the market, that person might be a beekeeper. Each year thousands of beekeepers invest time in making supplement food for their colonies. That’s a lot of work and expense.
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. Sometimes, providing extra nutrition can be the difference between life and death for the colony.
Should You Feed Your Colonies?
Well, that is debatable and depends on the location and condition of each colony. All beekeepers would agree that the absolute best food for bees is plant nectar and pollen.
Healthy bee colonies should not survive on beekeeper made sugar syrup alone. 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 building a home or even weather conditions.
Faced with the fact of letting a colony starve or feeding them, I prefer to help the hives survive. However, the concept of feeding honey bees often creates a division among beekeepers.
Some beekeepers feel that you should never feed bees, period. Other beekeepers accept the need to feed their hives when conditions warrant.
What is Sugar Water & How to Make Your Own
What exactly is sugar water and why should we use that for bee food? In respect to beekeeping, it is made by mixing white granulated cane sugar and water.
When cane sugar is dissolved into water, it makes consumption by the bees easier. It mimics what they eat naturally – it is very similar in sweetness to plant nectar. And, honey bees are accustom to collecting liquid food.
It is sweet and does provide calories but does not take the place of nectar. Feeding should only be a boost or help through a difficult time it should not the the only thing they eat.
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 bee food. It promotes good feeding and prevents your syrup from becoming moldy.
There are many homemade recipes for using essential oils for bees that some beekeepers feel promote better bee health. These products are concentrated- add only a small amount to the sugar water.
Sugar Water Recipes for Feeding Bees By Season
There are 2 basic recipes for sugar water used by most beekeepers . You can measure by weight or volume it does not matter.
We are mixing a percentage of water to a percentage of dry sugar. You can measure with cups (i.e. 4 cups of sugar to 4 cups of water) or you can use weight as the unit of measure ( 4 pounds of sugar to 4 pounds of water).
This ratio produces a 1:1 sugar water recipe because it consists of equal parts of water and sugar.
Another sugar water ratio is 2:1. This mixture contains twice as much sugar as water. For example, 8 cups of sugar mixed with 4 cups of water.
Why are these 2 different ratios so popular? I’m glad you asked. It’s because they have different results in the hive.
Spring Feeding for Buildup
Spring is a time of colony growth and renewal. Colonies that have over-wintered are busy raising brood and may be running low on food stores.
New hives that are started from buying package bees are struggling to get their colony established. Both of these hives can benefit from supplemental feeding.
Feeding bees sugar water in a 1:1 ratio, promotes brood rearing. This thin mixture is closest to the sweetness of natural nectar.
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 bees 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
Hopefully, your colonies have produced enough honey during the growing season to be ready for Winter.
However, it is not uncommon to find colonies that are short on Winter stores. These colonies run the risk of starvation without supplemental feeding.
The sugar water ratio of 2:1 is fed to honey bees to promote food storage. Of course, this will not be really 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 complete before cold weather arrives.
When Should I Start Feeding Bees Sugar Water?
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 .
Because they begin with nothing, understanding how to feed a new package of bees is critical to their growth. This can not wait several days.
Begin feeding this colony 1:1 immediately and continue until all of their comb is drawn out. They have a lot to do before winter cold.
Problems with your queen honey bee, a late freeze that causes a nectar dearth and other issues can make hive buildup very difficult for new colonies. Even established colonies may benefit from supplemental feeding during times of drought.
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.
Popular Honey Bee Feeders
A multitude of bee feeders are available. Each type or method has pros and cons. Lets explore the most common ones.
- boardman feeders
- mason jar feeders
- hive top feeders
- frame feeders
- pail feeders
- open feeding
Boardman Feeder (Entrance Feeder)
Use this feeder with a regular glass canning jar. It 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. If you want to use a boardman feeder, it is best to place it inside the hive.
Pros of Boardman Feeders
- easy to refill
- clear container shows when its empty
Cons of Boardman Feeders
- smell will attract wasps and other insects
- may increase chances or robbing
- does not hold much syrup
How to Make a Mason Jar Bee Feeder
The entrance or boardman feeder is basically the same as the mason jar feeder without the fancy wooden holder.
It is really easy to make a mason jar bee feeder, because almost everyone has an extra glass jar around.
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.
Using Multiple Mason Jars
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.
Use an extra deep hive 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.
The Hive Top Feeder
Hive top feeders sit on top of the hive under the telescoping top. They may be made of wood or plastic. The feeder will hold around 1-2 gallons of bee syrup and will feed the colony for several days.
Pros of Using Top Feeders
- easy to fill without disturbing colony
- holds a lot of sugar water
Cons of Using Top Feeders
- 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.
Pros of Using Frame Feeders
- hold up to 1 gallon of syrup
- are inside the hive close to the cluster
- good option in cool weather because bees can access the food easily
Cons of Using Frame Feeders
- 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 bee feeders. A small plastic pail with a mesh feeder hole holds 1 gallon of sugar syrup.
Fill the bucket with sugar syrup. Put the lid on tightly. When you turn the bucket upside down, some syrup will escape until a vacuum forms.
Put the upside down bucket directly on top of the frames. Bees will feed from the mesh feeder hole in the bucket ( or small holes drilled by the manufacturer).
Pros of Pail Feeders
- lightweight and easy to handle
- holds at least 1 gallon of sugar water
- inside the hive – accessible to bees in all weather
- easy to refill without disturbing colony very much
Cons of Pail Feeders
- requires extra equipment
- mesh hole may be filled with propolis if you let it become empty
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.
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. If you do plan to try open feeding, ensure that the feeders are well away from your hives.
At least 50 feet, more is better or you increase the risk of creating a robbing frenzy.
Pros of Open Feeding
- easy to do – not filling individual feeders
- no feeders to clean
- no special equipment needed
Cons of Open Feeding
- not an economical way to feed
- bees will drown in the container
- bees cant 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.
Remember, open feeding is not an economical way to feed. This is because you are feeding every bee and wasp in the neighborhood.
You do not have to rely on purchased feeder. Learn how to make a bucket feeder for your bees with a simple plastic pail and lid.
Does Feeding Bees Make Them Lazy?
No. I do not believe that bees are lazy or that feeding bees will prevent them from foraging for nectar.
Some bee hives will need to be fed and some may never need it – depending on local conditions. In fact, if natural nectar is available – my colonies prefer to forage.
When to Stop Feeding Bees 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.
Bees can not make good use of sugar syrup in cold temperatures. It’s important to get those colonies ready before cold weather arrives.
Remember, never feed bees sugar water when honey collection supers are on the hive. I am referring to boxes of honey that are intended for human consumption.
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.
Final Tips on Feeding Sugar Water for Bees
Feeding bees is a lot of work and expense. How much you need to feed will depend on your climate and foraging conditions.
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.
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 beekeepers – they will know the key times when you may need to consider feeding your bees.